On September 8th, Orthodox Christians celebrate the first great feast on the ecclesial calendar, the Nativity of the Theotokos. The feast is, as St. Andrew of Crete describes it, “the beginning of feasts. It represents the first of the feasts against the Law and the shadows, yet also the entrance of those that lead to grace and truth.”
According to Tradition, the grandparents of Jesus were the devout couple Joachim and Anna. Joachim was from the Tribe of Judah and a descendant of King David, while Anna came from the priestly Tribe of Levi and was a descendant of the priest Aaron.
The couple dwelled in Nazareth for fifty years and were faithful to God, living in moderation and giving to the poor and to the Temple while keeping for themselves only what they needed. But they were without child in a society which saw such a thing to be a disgrace. For the devout couple, this was a source of great sorrow.
And so it was one day in their later years that Joachim went to the Temple in Jerusalem to present his offering. But one of the priests, seeing the aging and childless man, upbraided him: “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” Others in the Temple jostled and pushed Joachim, and he felt cut to the heart with pain. He fled to a cave in Wâdî Qilt located in the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho, believed to be the same cave where Elijah rested and was fed by ravens. There he fasted and prayed to God that He might relieve the couple of their sterility.
Upon hearing of what happened to Joachim in the Temple, Anna was filled with sorrow and retreated to her garden and, sitting beneath a laurel tree, she bore a double lament. For where she once was without child, she was now also without her husband.
But in their solitude, both turned to God in prayer. As Joachim prayed in the cave on a mountain, so too Anna prayed intensely in the garden that she be blessed just as God had blessed the womb of Sarah.
Soon, the archangel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.” The message filled Anna with joy and she replied that she would bring her offspring as a gift to the Lord, much like Hannah did with Samuel in the Old Testament.
Gabriel then appeared to Joachim in the cave. “Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down hence; for, behold, your wife Anna shall conceive.”
Each were told to meet the other at the Golden Gate of the Temple in Jerusalem. When they met they embraced, with Anna saying “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow is no longer a widow, and I the childless shall conceive.”
Nine months later, their daughter Mary is born. In the icon of the feast, we see Anna reclining on a bed covered in quilts within a home in the city. The infant Mary is resting nearby in a cradle and is sometimes shown also being washed in a basin, with midwives attending to them both.
This then is the miracle preceding the great miracle and mystery of the Incarnation. Here we see proof of the fruit of fervent prayer and faith in God. But more importantly, as we hear in the readings during the Vespers of the feast, it is the birth of she who is prefigured in the Old Testament — the ladder who reaches to heaven, the gate in the East, the house that Wisdom has built. Mary is born and begins her preparation to become the new Eve, the one who through her own free will and humility becomes the path to our salvation.
So let the icon and the feast remind us that just as Joachim and Anna’s sorrow was turned into joy, so too was joy soon imparted to all the world. For, as chanted in the apolytikion of the feast, out of the Theotokos “has risen the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God. He nullified the curse and instead gave His blessing; and causing death to be neutralized, He granted us eternal life.”
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas