Greetings on this glorious feast, so joyfully lauded by the Church Fathers as the beginning of the renewal of creation through the birth of the Virgin, from whom the Creator would be born and come in the flesh to restore fallen Adam and make creation new.
The hymns of the feast boldly declare that today is the great day of the beginning of our deliverance, liberation and salvation, triumphantly declaring in the first stikhiron of the vespers litia that –
“Today is the beginning of our salvation, O ye people! For, lo! the Virgin Mother, who was foretold from generations of old as the receptacle of God, cometh forth to be born of a barren woman…”
St John Damascene, calls all of humanity to celebrate this wonderful event, saying, “Come, all nations, every race of men, every language, every age and every rank! Let us joyfully celebrate the nativity of joy for the whole world!”
But, as we celebrate this long-past Nativity through which the economy of salvation was put into motion upon the face of the earth, he also calls renewed creation itself to join in the joy and wonder of the momentous birth of the Mother of God: “Let the whole of creation make festival and sing of the most holy birth-giving of the holy Anna. For she bore for the world an inviolable treasury of blessings. Through her the Creator transformed all nature into a better state by means of humanity.”
And, today is the joyful prelude to the Creator’s transformation of our humanity by means of the very humanity that He received from His Virgin-Mother. In her Nativity, the Mother of God rises like the day-star which announces the bright dawn of the Sun of Righteousness, after the long and deepening spiritual darkness of the centuries before the coming of Christ.
The rising of this day-star was foreordained by God from the very moment of the fall of the first-father and the first-mother, and the children of the old Israel advanced towards it through the long night of the Old Covenant, with the continuum of the successive generations of the forebears of the Mother of God as the ascent and rising of her as the morning star, growing closer – century by century – to her rising and shining in the darkness before the dawn of the Light of the World in His Nativity in the cave of Bethlehem.
In the Old Testament scriptures the Church Fathers and early Christians saw many prefigurings of the Mother of God: in Jacob’s Ladder, in the Burning Bush, in the Tabernacle, in the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies, in the stem from the root of Jesse, in the sealed gate of Ezekiel.
In such a manner, St Andrew of Crete wrote that the Theotokos is “the vision which was mystically foreshadowed of old in Moses’ burning bush – the fleece of Gideon – David’s divinely embroidered purple robe – the cherubic throne, supremely great, fiery and lofty, holding in its womb the Lord King Sabaoth… The gate of heaven, through which the Master of the Heavens alone passed, having granted the entrance to no one before Him.”
In this rich typology, the Church Fathers saw prophetic images leading Israel towards the momentous day on which types and figures would be fulfilled in the birth of the Virgin, when symbols and shadows would pass away in the arrival of the foreordained Mother of the God-Man, Messiah and Saviour of the world.
Thus, according to the Faith of the Church, there was nothing random or accidental, no element of chance or coincidence in the birth of the Mother of God, but the foreordained council of God and His redemptive love working through the generations of the ancestors of the Theotokos, right down to the Forebears of God, Joachim and Anna, and – through prophecies and foreshadowings – God spiritually prepared Israel for the coming of the Mother of God.
To show God’s sovereign will and the workings of grace, nature was stalled in the conception of the Mother of God, as observed by St John Damascene in his festal oration:
“Nature has been defeated by grace and stands trembling, no longer ready to take the lead… But why has the Virgin Mother been born from a sterile woman?… Nature has been defeated by grace and stands trembling, no longer ready to take the lead. Therefore when the God-bearing Virgin was about to be born from Anna, nature did not dare to anticipate the offshoot of grace; instead it remained without fruit until grace sprouted its fruit.”
Her Nativity, though a natural one of human seed, was nevertheless only made possible through grace, after the parents of the Theotokos had been prepared for this unique birth by years of waiting, though it seemed mad and fruitless to the eyes of the world.
In those years of waiting in patient hope, they were transformed by God’s grace, and their long-awaited child was the fruit not only of their humanity, but also of their humility and patience, born after years spent in contrition, fasting and prayer, in which Joachim and Anna never abandoned hope in the All-Merciful God – as observed by St Gregory Palamas:
“See, all of you, how chastity, fasting and prayer, linked with contrition, made Joachim and Anna the parents of a divine vessel, a vessel chosen not just to bear the name of God, like Paul who was to be born later, but to bear Him “Whose name is Wonderful..”
The Church is clear in seeing the birth of the Mother of God, this divine vessel, as a moment of return, yet to be brought to fruition in the Saviour’s works of salvation through the cross, passion and resurrection, but still a cosmic turning point in which humanity turns back to its ancient dignity, inasmuch as the Mother of God represents all of humanity.
The great hymnographer, St Andrew of Crete, observed that,
“Today the pure nobility of humankind takes back the gift of the dignity of the first divine creation and restores it to itself… And in a word, today the reshaping of our nature begins, and the world, which had grown old, takes up a most God-like composition, receiving the beginnings of a second divine modelling.”
Each of us is called to participate in this very reshaping and remodelling, not simply by joyfully celebrating this event as passive onlookers, happy but untouched by its message, but by constantly labouring for the realisation of its inner-meaning in our lives, conforming our will to God’s will for each of us, exemplified by the parents of the Theotokos, and that of the Virgin, herself.
Living blameless lives like Joachim and Anna, we are called to constant vigil in watchfulness, prayer and spiritual labour, so that our spiritual barrenness and sterility may be overcome by God’s grace, which we must actively struggle to attain, day by day.
As their God-pleasing humility, contrition and patience was rewarded with the blessed answer to their prayers, so our perseverance and persistence will be rewarded by God. The cultivation of these virtues in our lives will transform us, and make us receptive to the grace of God. Through the struggle to acquire them, our hearts will be softened, our souls cleansed, and through this purification we will become vessels ready to receive spiritual treasures through the work and operation of the Holy Spirit.
However, we are not simply called to emulate Joachim and Anna, but above all to emulate the Mother of God, who is the apex and crown of creation, seeing in her the perfect example of of holiness, selflessness, obedience, total dedication to Christ and creation transfigured, exalted and glorified: the greatest living temple of the Holy Spirit, whose life shows what is possible when our will is perfectly conformed to the will of God, leading us from earth to the heights of heaven.
In using Old Testament typology and symbolism, St John Damascene wrote,
“Today the “Son of the carpenter” has prepared for himself a living ladder whose base has been set on earth and whose top reaches to heaven itself. God has come to rest in her; the type that Jacob saw was of her; God descended without change through her, or in other words, having accommodated himself, he was seen on earth and lived along with humankind… The spiritual ladder, the Virgin, has been established on earth, for she had her origin from earth.”
As the Hodegetria – the one who shows the way – the Mother of God is indeed a spiritual ladder, and by emulating her wonderful example, we may climb towards the Kingdom of Heaven, but no-one will make us climb: the choice is ours, and this calling may be heeded or rejected, accepted or refused.
May this feast inspire us, to embrace its meaning with our hearts and souls, translating its joys and promises into action – spiritually, physically and mentally – loving God with our whole heart and with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength, as did the Mother of God, whose Nativity calls us to embrace the Gospel and respond actively and positively to the wonder of God’s love, manifested in the birth of the child who would become the Virgin-Mother through whom the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Let us who love God love the Mother of God, who is a sign of His love for mankind, and the chosen instrument of the Incarnation and salvation, and in loving let us struggle for holiness, even as she shows us the way to holiness.
Let us mirror our festal joy with action, offering our lives as a spiritual offering to the Virgin who offered herself for us, bearing the Saviour for each and every one of us, who in our humanity “makes it bloom again, grants it to flourish for ever, brings it up to heaven, and leads it into paradise.” (St Gregory Palamas: Oration on the Natvity of the Mother of God)
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!