Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I want to thank the teachers, the children and their families who participated in last week’s Blessing upon our new Sunday School Year. We honored our teachers for their past years of service and called upon all children in attendance, to participate in the Sanctification of our efforts to learn and teach the Gospel, the Traditions of our Faith, and the history of our Church. Days into the same week, we celebrated the New Ecclesiastical Year on September 1st. And then days into next week, we will again turn our spiritual attention to the celebration of youth – as we celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos on the 8th of September, then the Synaxis (Gathering) of her parents, Ss. Joachim and Anna, the following day, on September 9th.
The record of the birth of Mary is not found in the Bible. The traditional account of the event is taken from the apocryphal writings which are not part of the New Testament scriptures. The traditional teaching which is celebrated in the hymns and verses of the festal liturgy is that Joachim and Anna were a pious Jewish couple who were among the small and faithful remnant—“the poor and the needy”—who were awaiting the promised messiah.
The couple was old and childless. They prayed earnestly to the Lord for a child, since among the Jews barrenness was a sign of God’s disfavor. In answer to their prayers, and as the reward of their unwavering fidelity to God, the elderly couple was blessed with the child who was destined, because of her own personal goodness and holiness, to become the Mother of the Messiah-Christ.
Your nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe. The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from you, O Theotokos. By annulling the curse, he bestowed a blessing. By destroying death he has granted us eternal life.Troparion
By your nativity, O most pure virgin, Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness; Adam and Eve from the corruption of death. And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you: The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the Nourisher of our Life.Kontakion
The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it “for us men and for our salvation” is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the Mother of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.
The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore, is a glorification of Mary’s birth, of Mary herself and of her righteous parents. It is a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. For the “Vessel of Light,” the “Book of the Word of Life,” the “Door to the Orient,” the “Throne of Wisdom” is being prepared on earth by God Himself in the birth of the holy girl-child Mary.
The verses of the feast are filled with titles for Mary such as those in the quotations above. They are inspired by the message of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. The specific Biblical readings of the feast give indications of this.
At Vespers the three Old Testament readings are “Mariological” in their New Testament interpretation. Thus, Jacob’s Ladder which unites heaven and earth and the place which is named “the house of God” and the “gate of heaven” (Gen 28.10–17) are taken, to indicate the union of God with men which is realized most fully and perfectly—both spiritually and physically—in Mary the Theotokos, Bearer of God. So also, the vision of the temple with the “door ‘to the East’” perpetually closed and filled with the “glory of the Lord” symbolizes Mary, called in the hymns of the feast “the living temple of God filled with the divine Glory” (Ezek 43.27–44.4). Mary is also identified with the “house” which the Divine Wisdom has built for himself according to the reading from Proverbs 9.1–11.
The Gospel reading of Matins is the one read at all feasts of the Theotokos, the famous Magnificat from Saint Luke in which Mary says: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden, for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1.47).
The epistle reading of the Divine Liturgy is the famous passage about the coming of the Son of God in “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man” (Phil 2.5–11) and the gospel reading is that which is always read for feasts of the Theotokos—the woman in the crowd glorifies the Mother of Jesus, and the Lord himself responds that the same blessedness which his mother receives is for all “who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11.27–28).
Thus, on the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, as on all liturgical celebrations of Christ’s Mother, we proclaim and celebrate that through God’s graciousness to mankind every Christian receives what the Theotokos receives, the “great mercy” which is given to human persons because of Christ’s birth from the Virgin.
On September 9, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the Synaxis of the Ancestors of God Saints Joachim and Anna, which refers to the gathering of the faithful after the Feast of the Nativity of Theotokos, honoring the commemoration of the parents of Panagia, the Most Holy Theotokos.
The righteous Joachim and Anna were childless for fifty years of their married life. In their old age, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to each one of them separately, telling them that God had heard their prayers and that they would give birth to a daughter, Mary. Then St. Anna conceived by her husband and after nine months bore a daughter blessed by God and by all generations of men: the Most-holy Virgin Mary, the Theotokos.
St. Joachim was of the lineage of Judah and a descendant of King David. Anna was the daughter of Matthan the priest, from the lineage of Levi, as was Aaron the high priest. Matthan had three daughters: Mary, Sophia and Anna. Mary married, lived in Bethlehem, and gave birth to Salome; Sophia married, also lived in Bethlehem, and gave birth to Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Forerunner; Anna married Joachim in Nazareth, and in old age gave birth to Mary, the Most-Holy Theotokos.
Joachim and Anna had lived together in marriage for fifty years and yet had remained barren. They lived devoutly and quietly, and of all their income they spent one third on themselves, distributed one third to the poor and gave the other third to the Temple, and they were well provided for. Once when in their old age they came to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice to God, the high priest Issachar reprimanded Joachim, saying: “You are not worthy that a gift be accepted from your hands, for you are childless.”
Others, who had children, pushed Joachim behind them as “unworthy.” This greatly grieved these two aged souls, and they returned home in great sorrow. Then the two of them fell down before God in prayer, that He works a miracle with them as He once had with Abraham and Sarah and give them a child as a comfort in their old age. Then God sent His angel, who announced to them the birth of “a daughter most-blessed, by whom all nations on earth will be blessed and through whom the salvation of the world will come.” Anna straightway conceived, and in nine months gave birth to the Holy Virgin Mary.
Saint Joachim died a few years later at the age of 80 after his daughter went to live in the Temple. Saint Anna died at the age of 70, two years after her husband. Saints Joachim and Anna are often invoked by couples trying to have children.
With Love in Christ,
Fr. Anthony Savas