On the Icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos
Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff on Sunday, March 4, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Good morning! Once again March is Antiochian Women’s month, and throughout the Archdiocese, women are serving their parishes in some of the more visible ways: taking the collection, taking part in the Great Procession, ushering, assisting with communion, and giving a homily. Last year, our homilies explored the icons of some of the great feasts of the Church—the Nativity of Jesus, The Transfiguration, Pascha, and Pentecost. This year each of the homilies will be about one of the icons of the Theotokos – her Nativity, her Presentation in the Temple, the Annunciation, and her Dormition. Each of these events in her life is one of the major Feasts of the Church, and tells us not only about her life, but about her relationship to her Son.
The icon we will be talking about today is from the first Feast in the church year - the Nativity of the Virgin Mary the Theotokos, which we celebrate every year on September 8th. I’d like to start by telling you a little about the background of the birth of the Theotokos. Most of what we know about her parents and her early life comes not from the Bible, but from an apocryphal book called the Protoevangelium of James. While her parents’ story is not from Holy Scripture, it is part of the Holy Tradition of the Church.
Mary’s parents were descendents of King David. Her father, Joachim, grew up in the town of Nazareth in Galilee. He was a wealthy shepherd who owned many flocks of sheep and had many shepherds working for him. He was a devout man and was very generous – he regularly divided his lambs, sheep, and wool into three parts, and gave one part to orphans and widows and strangers and the poor; the second part he gave to the temple and those who ministered there, as well as to those who worshipped there, and the third part he kept for himself and his family. (Imagine how much our church could do if we practiced stewardship like that!)
When Joachim was 20 years old he married a young woman named Anna, whose father was a priest in the town of Bethlehem in Judea. She too was very devout. They were in love and were very happy together throughout their marriage – with one exception: they were not able to have any children. In those days being barren was considered a curse; everyone assumed it meant God was displeased with you. If you had no children you would have no one to carry on your name and your memory, you would have no one to keep your inheritance in the family, and it meant that none of your descendants would live to see the promised Messiah.
One year, when they had become elderly and remained childless for many, many years, they went up to Jerusalem to present their offering in the Temple as usual. But when Joachim brought their gifts to the altar, the High Priest rejected his offering and said he was unworthy, because the Lord had not blessed him with a child.
Humiliated, Joachim left the temple and his wife and went up to the high mountain where his flocks and shepherds were; he wanted to avoid being seen and reproached by his neighbors, but he didn’t lose his faith in God. He was determined to fast there on the mountain and pray until God would hear him. He remembered their ancestor Abraham, whose wife Sarah finally, when they were very old, gave birth to a son Isaac, and he prayed that God would bless him and Anna in the same way. He promised that if God gave them a child, they would devote that child to the Lord.
Meanwhile, Anna had returned home, grieving that she had no child and now didn’t have her husband. She too spent her days in prayer, sitting under a tree in the garden. And she too prayed that God would bless her as he had blessed Abraham and Sarah.
One day while Joachim was praying on the mountain, the Archangel Gabriel appeared before him. The angel told him that his wife would have a daughter, and they would name her Mary. And as they had vowed, she would be devoted to the Lord from infancy. He gave Joachim a sign to watch for too: that when he came to the Golden Gate in Jerusalem on his way home, he would find Anna there, relieved and delighted to see him.
The same Archangel also appeared to Anna as she prayed in the garden, and he gave her the same message. And sure enough, it happened just that way. Anna was waiting when Joachim came down from the mountain and approached the golden gate. And they joyfully returned together to their home, where they conceived the Theotokos. Nine months later Anna gave birth to a baby girl, and they named her Mary. And you’ll recall that Mary herself, when she grew up, was told by the same Archangel Gabriel that she would conceive and bear a son, and call his name Jesus.
In the icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos we see Anna reclining on her couch after giving birth, with Joachim lovingly looking on from an upper room. Anna’s handmaidens bring her refreshment – two carry plates of food, and one holds what I think is a fan. At the bottom we see the infant Mary in two other scenes from the day of her birth – on the left a maidservant preparing to bathe her, and on the right the infant Mary in her little bed, watched over by a couple of more servants. This icon is very similar to the icon of the Nativity of Jesus, which shows Mary, like Anna, reclining after giving birth, the midwife preparing to bathe the infant, and Joseph, like Joachim, somewhat apart from the others. The main difference is that Joachim is delighted at the birth of Mary, while Joseph is being tempted by Satan to doubt that Jesus is the child of God.
It’s important to understand that we Orthodox believe Mary was conceived by the normal, ordinary union of a man and a woman, and that she was born, like any other human being, with the capacity to sin. Hers was not an “immaculate conception.”
This understanding is connected with our belief that no human being is guilty of what Western denominations call “original sin.” The concept of “original sin” has to do with Adam and Eve and their disobedience in the Garden of Eden. The Western notion is that we are all guilty of the sin of Adam and Eve, and that God sent his son Jesus to take the punishment on our behalf. The Orthodox understanding, on the other hand, is that the ancestral sin of Adam and Eve was their own, and that we are not personally to be blamed for it, though we do inherit the consequence of their sin: being cast out of the garden of Eden, being separated from God and, ultimately, being subject to death. The birth of the Theotokos began the process of changing this destiny. And Her Son, Jesus Christ, would complete it. In His love for us, God would send His Son, born of Mary, to reverse the permanence of death and give us eternal life.
Therefore we sing this Troparion in our celebration of the Feast:
“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.”