In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.
Today we celebrate the Birth of The Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary. This birth of Holy Mary was an important step in preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, were quite old when Holy Mary was conceived. However, as The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church explains, Holy Mary “was conceived by the union of [a] man and [a] woman in accordance with the laws of our human nature” in a fallen world…. She has not been set apart from our common inheritance nor from the consequences of the sin of our first parents [Adam and Eve] …. The Mother of God [was] conceived and born [just] like all of us” concludes The Synaxarion [9 December].
The birth of The Theotokos poses a challenge to us. As The Synaxarion states: “The Mother of God has been chosen [by God] and preferred among all women, not [by random chance], but because God foresaw that she would preserve her purity and keep it perfect” [The Synaxarion, 9 December]. Holy Mary, like all of us, was born into a fallen world, but she kept listening to the Lord and seeking to find out how His grace, that is, His love, applied to her life. Archangel Gabriel greeted Holy Mary with the words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” That showed that the Lord had indeed filled Holy Mary with grace. Is it possible that our lives too can be filled with grace? How can that happen? What is the secret that Holy Mary knew that empowered her to be filled with grace?
The 19th century Russian saint St Theophan the Recluse has reflected that: “A God-pleasing life is nurtured [that is, encouraged and developed] by both [divine grace and human commitment] inseparably…. It is the union of freedom and grace that accomplishes the task,” he wrote. “Do not ask which is larger, which smaller; which one begins, which follows because we cannot comprehend this. But simply bear [this] in mind: Both [human freedom and divine grace] are equally important, for one can do nothing in us without the other. Hasten to accomplish what is in your power … but then [call for grace]. What is from God is always ready, if only we [are] ready,” concluded St Theophan [Psalm 118 A Commentary by St Theophan the Recluse, Translated and Edited by Seraphim Englehardy, pp. 23, 38-39].
Holy Mary’s approach to life is beautifully stated with her words to Archangel Gabriel when he told her that Jesus Christ would be conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit. She responded: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” [Luke 1.38].
A handmaid is a person who serves or gives support to someone else. She is a servant not necessarily bound into slavery, but devoted to some higher person, some higher purpose. Throughout her life, Holy Mary was devoted to God, devoted to her Son, whom she brought into the world. Now, let me suggest to you a big challenge—a challenge for me and a challenge for each of us, however old or young we are. Let us accept Holy Mary, in her birth and in her life, as a model for each of our lives.
From her birth, the parents of Holy Mother and then Holy Mary herself knew that God really loved her. That is the secret that can help each of us to be filled with grace: God really loves each one of us. This awareness that God loves us does not remove our problems or our faults, but it opens us up to God’s grace, to God’s love. It is precisely because we have problems and faults that we need to pray to God for help. There is a natural human tendency to think and feel that whatever problems or troubles we now have are much worse that what others are experiencing. However, that attitude is not sound. We all have problems. We do not need to rank the seriousness of our problems in relation to those of others. On the contrary, whatever our problems or suffering we need to trust God to turn our problems or suffering into His purposes.
At times, we forget that Holy Mary had many experiences of trouble and suffering. She knew what is was to be rejected by the people of her home village in Nazareth, to watch many Jews and Romans reject her Son, and ultimately to be present at His Crucifixion. Her trust in God did not save her from suffering. But throughout her life, in the midst of much joy and much suffering, Holy Mary lived according to the response she gave to Archangel Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
The Vespers for the Annunciation includes the reading from the Book of Exodus, chapter 3, when Moses saw the bush that kept “burning, yet it was not consumed;” and he turned aside to “see this great sight…. When the Lord saw that [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses;’ and [Moses] said, ‘Here am I.’ Then [the Lord] said, ‘Do not come near. Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’” That reading for the Vespers celebrating when Archangel Gabriel came before Holy Mary implies that The Theotokos herself is “holy ground.” Like Moses seeing the bush that would not stop burning, when we see the life of Holy Mary we too should “turn aside” from our daily concerns and show the deepest respect for her birth and for her life and for her presence in our lives. In the midst of that deep respect, on this day when we remember her birth, we can rejoice that The Theotokos has brought her Son into the world; and she protects us and guides us to her Son.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
Father Emmanuel Kahn