The Nativity of the Theotokos

Today is the fast of the Nativity of the Theotokos on the Old Calendar.  Therefore I am posting a sermon on today’s feat from the book,”O Full of Grace Glory to Thee”.

The Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos

Today is a day of great rejoicing for the Righteous Joachim and Anna, also for the whole Church, and, as the troparion of the feast says, “for all the inhabited earth” (1).  Saints Joachim and Anna, rejoice because Anna who was formerly barren, now gives birth to a child, a daughter, Mary.  The Church and all the earth rejoices, for this child that is born is she who is to become the Mother of our God.  She shall give birth to a Son, Who is God, God Who becomes man.  He Who was the pre-eternal God has prepared for Himself a mother, a mother who will give birth to Him according to the flesh.

So today is a day for us to rejoice in the birth of her who is a bridge between heaven and earth.  Because it was through her that God descended from His heavenly throne, and appeared on earth as a man.  Today is a day for us to rejoice, for she is born who is to become our offering to God, through whom He will put into motion His plan for the propitiation of the sins of the whole inhabited earth.  She is born who is the one human being, the one person in the history of the human race, upon whom God the all-sufficient, depended upon in order to effect our salvation.  Therefore the whole inhabited earth rejoices today.

And today we also learn from the Righteous Joachim and Anna a very good lesson about our life in Christ.  We can take them as a model of the Christian struggle, and as an example of hope, and perseverance in trials.  Saints Joachim and Anna were distinguished for their pious and righteous manner of life.  Just as with the parents of John the Baptist, Saints Zacharias and Elisabeth, we could also say, “they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.  But they had no child” (Luke 1.6-7) (2).  For the Jews, childlessness was a matter of reproach, it was thought that such a couple were for some reason rejected by God.  So their barrenness was a very painful trial for them.  Although they lived in a righteous manner, yet God had withheld children from them.  They must have thought: Why is this so?  Why are we being cursed by God?

And this trial or Cross of theirs reached its peak when Saint Joachim, on bringing an offering to God in the temple, was rebuked by one of his fellow Israelites for his childlessness.  Yet at this affront, the Righteous couple did not rebel against God, nor did they become bitter and complain as many people do in the midst of trials.  But they humbly accepted everything that had come upon them, and they did not lose hope.  They turned to God in fervent prayer.  The Righteous Joachim went off into the hill country, and with prayer and fasting besought God to take away their reproach, while Saint Anna lamented at home in her garden.  And an angel of God appeared to each informing them that they would bear a child.  To Joachim the angel said, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God hath heard thy prayer.  Go down hence; for, behold, thy wife Anna shall conceive” (3). And to Anna the angel said, “Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shalt bring forth; and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world” (4).

This is a pattern of what often happens in our lives: we seem to be crushed in one way or another, we seem to be deprived of God’s grace, and we feel are unable to endure any more.  Yet this is often a prelude to something good that God wants to give us, but He is first putting us through a test.  He proves us to see if we are prepared to receive what He has in store for us.  So then, when we face various sorrows, sufferings and pains, whether of body or soul, we must be patient and not lose hope.  Rather we should turn to God, and sit as His feet, as Mary of Bethany did in today’s Gospel lesson, entreating Him with fervent prayer.  For fruit will come.  And all the more if we are able add fasting to our waiting on the Lord with prayer.  But we do not look for fruit as something external, something material, but we must look for fruit within ourselves, fruit in our souls, in our hearts.  What we really should desire, as a fruit of our trials in this life, is to give birth to the grace of God in our hearts.  And this grace will, so-to-speak, bring forth children, that is, the fruits of the Spirit of which the Holy Apostle Paul writes: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22-23).  And it may be that God will not take away our trials, but rather it may happen that in the midst of our tribulations we experience the fruits of the Spirit within ourselves.  Then the trials we experience will be as nothing.  And even both of these must be considered gifts from God, that is, both the experience of suffering in trials, and the experience of interior consolation in the midst of these trials.

So let us take the example of the hope and perseverance of the Righteous Joachim and Anna as a model for us, and as we rejoice today in this Feast, let us also be ready for whatever trials may come upon us to seal our faith in God.  As we rejoice today, let us turn to the Mother of God on this day of her birth, and ask her for a gift.  And what gift should we be looking for?  Perseverance, hope, and patience in the trials that come upon us, and then we shall also bring forth the other fruits of the Spirit spoken of by the Apostle.  Through the prayers of His most pure Mother may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us, and adorn us with the fruits of His Holy Spirit.  And if we are thus adorned we shall have an entrance into His heavenly kingdom, to ever rejoice in the vision of the Holy Trinity, together with the Most-Holy Theotokos, and all the saints throughout the endless ages, world without end.  Amen.

 

(1) The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969, p.107.

(2) King James Version.  All Scripture passages are quoted from this version except for the Psalms, which are taken from The Psalter, According to the Seventy.  Holy Transfiguration Monastery, translators.  (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1974.)

(3) The Protevangelium of James, Chapter 4, in the translation of Alexander Walker, as found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8 (Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), page. 362.

(4) Ibid.

 

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The Theotokos and St. Dionysius the Aeropagite

As today is the Leaving-taking of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on the Old Calendar I would like to present here the account of St. Dionysius the Aeropagite’s encounter with her. This is in a letter of his preserved in the Great Collection of the Lives of Saints of the Orthodox Church on the feast of the Dormition. So then, after meeting with her, thus did St. Dionysius write to his “great leader”, the holy Apostle Paul:

I tell you as if I were standing in front of God, for me, our great leader, it was beyond any doubt, that aside from the Most High God, there could be nothing, which is so filled with heavenly power and marvelous grace [as Mary], and still it is impossible for a human mind to perceive what I saw with my own eyes. It was not with the eyes of my soul only but with my bodily eyes – I, with my own eyes, saw the most beautiful, the most holy Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ who exceeds all the heavenly hosts in her holiness. This gift was granted to me by the grace of God, as an honor by the company of the apostles, and also as an unspeakable kindness and compassion of the merciful Virgin herself. And again I testify in front of the omnipotence of God, in front of the grace of the Savior, and in front of the great glory of the Virgin, His Mother. When I, with John—the first among the evangelists and the prophets, who, while living in the flesh, shines like the sun in the sky—was led inside to the beautiful and the most pure Virgin, then a great heavenly radiance that enlightened my soul, poured over me, at the same time I sensed such wonderful fragrance that my spirit and body were hardly able to bear this manifestation of glory and foretaste of eternal bliss. My heart and my spirit were enervated from Her heavenly grace. Let God, who abode in the most pure womb, be my witness, that I would have recognized her for the true God and venerated Her with worship appropriate only to God if the newly illumined soul of mine would not have preserved inside you heavenly instructions and laws. No honor and glory of men who were glorified by God can be compared with the bliss that I, the unworthy one experienced and was honored with at the time. This time was a time of the greatest bliss for me. I thank my most high and most blessed God, the heavenly Virgin, John, who is great among the Apostles, and you as well who is the adornment of the church and the invincible leader, who all so mercifully showed me such a great favor.

Through the prayers of His most pure Mother, St. Dionysius the Aeropagite, and all the saints, may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us. Amen! ( O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee pp. 84, 86)