by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
This Sunday, we’ll celebrate the birth of the very first Christian…Mary, the Mother of God (the Theotokos), whose birth and life accentuates the nature of our salvation.
Her birth story is found outside the bible, in a second century Church document called the Protoevangelium of James, (which can be easily found online through a Google search). It contains a fascinating account about Mary’s early life, with archetypal themes that had been passed down orally from the earliest Christians and then finally written down in this document. While the Church Fathers never regarded this book to have the same authority as scripture (and thus, never included it with the other books of the New Testament), they nevertheless still regarded 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 this Protoevangelium of James.
The Theotokos’ story begins with her elderly parent’s Joachim and Anna, who’ve sadly been unable to have children. Joachim was one of the priests in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. But because Anna never gave birth to a child, she and her husband were constantly ridiculed by the Jewish people around them, who wrongly 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. However, by God’s mercy, they finally conceived a child, Mary, who eventually became the Mother of our Lord. Their journey from being barren to bearing-forth the Theotokos is the first feast-day of the Church’s liturgical year.
In the Garden, God commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply.” But without Him at the center of those efforts and without His help, we can never obey that command. And, since Adam and Eve attempted to be fruitful apart from God, they had to leave the rich fertility of the garden which God intended for humanity to enjoy and nurture. Thus, God gives us the recurring Old Testament theme of various couples’ barrenness, since it holds enormous significance in teaching us about the character of our own salvation.
When we browse through the scriptures, we first 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 struggles in prayer for years to have a child before God allows her to give birth to the mighty, Old Testament judge, who kills a thousand Philistines with a single jawbone of an ass. 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 sees their attempts to obey His will and hears their fervent prayers and then fills their lives with fruitfulness. And in every case, from each of these women’s barrenness eventually comes the rescue of God’s people. All of these barren wombs longingly remember the goodness of God’s creation and yearn for the restoration of God’s grace, as the fertile Giver of Life. This theme is a tutor in the school of hope and in bringing us to realize that life, in its fullness, only comes from a faithful participation in God’s will. God, who originally alters chaos to bring forth life from what was once a barren earth, creates humanity in His own selfless, self-offering image, and then enables us to share the God-like qualities of creativity when we live as people who are totally dependent upon Him. This is echoed throughout the Old Testament to instill in us an expectation that God intends to do what He always does in these situations—bring forth life from death.
Therefore, all this barrenness in the Old Testament is meant to eventually lead us to the fruit which is born forth from the maiden 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, which end up giving life, anticipate and herald forth the ultimate fruit borne-forth from the Theotokos. God faithfully brings fruitfulness out of barrenness for the sake of our salvation. Mary, as someone who is completely set apart unto God, is the fruitfulness of creation—the measure that all of creation is meant to become—unified with Christ and bearing Him forth as New Life into the world.
The Old Testament theme of barrenness is merely an avatar 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 on everyone else, because, as the God/Man, He would never die again. He’s the firstborn, born forth from the barrenness of Hades. God opens the emptiness of the universe and pours Himself out into it, bringing forth life from death.
This gives even more depth of understanding to the passage of scripture from St Paul’s letter to the Christians 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!” Christ empties Himself, pouring Himself out, even 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 with Him in His resurrection.
Therefore, like those many barren Old Testament saints, let’s also pray to God for His deliverance, so that the barrenness of our own lives won’t be the final dark outcome. And by the prayers of the Theotokos, the mother of God the Word, may we be shown by her example, the way to salvation, whereby we may also bear-forth the One who fills the world with His Life!
By your nativity, oh most pure Virgin…Joachim and Anna are freed from the shame of fruitlessness; Adam and Eve from the corruption of death. And we, your people, freed from the guilt of our sin, celebrate and sing to you: “The barren woman gives birth to the birth-giver of God, who nourishes our life.”
~ Hymn for the Birth of the Theotokos