by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
This Saturday (9-8-18), we’ll celebrate the birth of the very first Christian…Mary, the Mother of God, whose life accentuates for us the nature of our salvation.
Her birth story isn’t found in the bible, but rather comes from an early Church document called the Protoevangelium of James, which dates back to the second century (and can be easily found online through a Google search). It contains an account about Mary’s early life that had, most likely, been passed down orally from the earliest Christians and finally written down in this document. While the Church Fathers never regarded this book to have the same authority as scripture (thus it was never included in the New Testament), they did still regard it as something “useful for teaching,” and so many of the Church’s hymns, icons, and origin stories about the Theotokos find their source in the Protoevangelium of James.
The Theotokos’ story begins with her elderly parent’s Joachim and Anna, who had been unable to have children. Joachim was one of the priests in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Because his wife, Anna, had never given him a child, they were constantly belittled by the Jewish people around them who assumed that Anna’s barrenness was due to some undisclosed sin on the couple’s part. Yet, throughout their marriage, the couple faithfully and fervently prayed to God to intervene to make their marriage fruitful. By God’s mercy, they finally conceived a child, Mary, who eventually became the Mother of our Lord. Their journey from barrenness to bearing forth the Theotokos is the first feast-day of the Church’s liturgical year
So, it’s important for us to recognize that there’s an Old Testament motif of various couple’s barrenness, since it holds enormous significance in teaching us about the character of our own salvation. This theme of barrenness stands in contrast to the fertility of the garden which God intended for humanity to enjoy and nurture. But, notice below that without God’s involvement, they’re all powerless to fulfill God’s command to humanity in the fertile Garden of Eden, telling them to “be fruitful and multiply.”
So, as we scan through the scriptures, first we see Abraham and Sarah struggle for decades to have a child, until God, in His grace, causes the elderly Sarah to give birth to Isaac. Then, Isaac and Rebecca spend almost 20 years trying to have a child before God answers Isaac’s prayer. Likewise, Jacob and Rachel, at first, endure much marital strife over her inability to give birth until God intervenes. Similarly, Samson’s mother fervently struggled in prayer for years to have a child before God granted her birth to the insurmountable judge. Also, Hannah, spends years, praying passionately to God before she’s finally able to bear a child—who eventually becomes God’s prophet Samuel. In each case, God hears their prayers and then fills their lives with fruitfulness. And in every case, from each of these women’s barrenness eventually comes the salvation of God’s people. Each of these barren wombs recall the goodness of God’s creation as well as His nature as the fertile giver of life. It’s a tutor in the school of hope and in getting us to realize that salvation only comes from a participation in God’s will. God, who originally alters chaos to bring forth life from what was once a barren earth, creates humanity in God’s image from the dust of the earth, and then enables them to share the God-like qualities of creativity when they live as ones totally dependent upon Him. Its echo throughout the Old Testament is meant to instill in us an expectation that God’s gonna’ do what He always does in these situations—bring forth life from death.
Therefore, all this barrenness is meant to ultimately lead us to the virgin womb of Mary. There’s a great mystery revealed to us in this virgin who gives birth to a child, and yet still remains a virgin. All the Old Testament stories of barrenness anticipate and herald forth this coming barren womb in the Theotokos. And God faithfully brings fruitfulness out of barrenness for the sake of our salvation. Mary, as someone who is, for our sakes, completely set apart unto God, is the fruit of creation—the measure that all of creation is to attain, unified with Christ and bearing Him forth as new life into the world.
The theme of this barrenness is merely an archetype of the desolate fruitlessness of a world that has broken relationship with and distanced itself from God. Our decay towards death is the ultimate barrenness. But Saint Paul refers to Christ as the “firstborn of the dead.” In other words, when Christ died, His was the first human body who’s dying and rising from the dead would forever alter the effects of death, because, as the God/Man, He wouldn’t ever die again. He’s the firstborn, born forth from the barrenness of Hades. God opens the emptiness of the universe and pours out Himself into it, bringing life from death.
This gives even more meaning to the passage of scripture from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi (2:6-8), talking about Christ’s emptying of Himself. “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” He empties Himself, being poured out into the most barren of all places, Hades, where He tramples down death by death and makes a path to resurrection for everyone. God, who once altered chaos to bring forth life from what was once a barren earth, now alters Hades to bear forth new life. That’s why we’re Baptized into (and meant to live within) Christ’s death and burial, so that we might also be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.
Therefore, like those many barren Old Testament saints, let’s also fervently pray to God for the salvation of our souls, so that the barrenness of our own lives won’t be the final dark outcome. And may the mother of God the Word, who shows us the way to salvation, pray for us all, that we, too, might become fruitful bearers of the Word of God—Life into all the world!
By your nativity, oh 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 birth-giver of God,
the nourisher of our life.”