This week we celebrate two great feast days; the Birth of the holy Theotokos and ever Virgin Mary was on Monday, and today is the Exaltation (Elevation) of the Cross!
We don’t have a great amount of detail in the scriptures regarding the story of Joachim and Anna and the birth of the Theotokos, but the earliest church tradition from such sources as the Proto Evangelium of James and other very early and respected sources tell us that they were past the age of child-bearing , probably in their 70’s. Being barren was considered to be a great curse of God in the time of Christ. Joachim was a fairly wealthy and God loving shepherd with substantial flocks of sheep, and we are told that Joachim would divide his income in thirds with 1/3 going to the poor and needy, 1/3 to the temple and the final 1/3 he would keep and live on. When he went to give his sacrifice at the temple, the High Priest scorned him as he was childless and would not accept his sacrifice. Joachim left in shame and when crying out to God in despair over their situation was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and told that he would be the Father of the precious Theotokos that all of mankind had been waiting for. Anna his wife was visited at the same time by the Archangel with the same incredible news.
We always hear the familiar Gospel from Luke 10 and 11 on the feasts of the Theotokos. Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus doing the one thing needful – keeping her eyes and attention on Christ, and Martha working away serving, and feeling sorry for herself. Serving is not the problem here, it is Martha’s attitude. Serving with joy and being grateful for the opportunity, for the privilege of serving Christ, is always a blessing. Serving with frustration and an overdeveloped sense of duty, complaining and judging those not measuring up or chipping in enough – in our misguided opinion – is always a problem. Mary the Mother of God always kept her eyes and heart fully attuned to her Son and her Lord Jesus Christ and completely fulfilled “the one thing needful”.
In the second part of this familiar scripture we hear: “Blessed is the womb which bore You, and the breasts which nursed You. And Christ replies: “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Why was the Blessed Virgin Mary chosen to have the incomprehensible privilege of containing within her womb; Him whom all of heaven could not contain; He who is the very source of life to her and to all of mankind. He who brought us from non-existence into being and pursued us, and made a way for us when we had fallen, and raised us up and brought us with Him to His Father in heaven. The Creator of all dwelt in Mary’s womb and nursed from her breasts. Yes, blessed indeed is Mary, beyond any who had ever been born before or since. More honourable and beyond compare than even the Cherubim and the Seraphim. She who gave birth to God Himself. There is none born of the human race that are on the same level of honour as the Theotokos. Yet…Christ answers the woman from the crowd with the reason WHY – with the reason that the precious ever-virgin Mary, is granted this most privileged of all roles in the plan of human salvation. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Never in all of human history has anyone more perfectly heard the word of God & kept it. Our pathetic efforts pale under the brilliant illumination and perfection of the sweet humble acceptance of Mary, the Mother of our God.
“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be done to me according to Your word”
“Whatever He says to you, do it.” She is the very fountain of wisdom, the new Eve who fulfils her blessed role and brings life to us all!
The blessed virgin Mary accepted with grace and humility to be the very gate, the portal, to allow her womb to be the throne of God, to allow what all of heaven could not contain to be contained within her womb. If she had said NO, I’m just not up to this, it is too much to require of me, the entire plan of salvation would have been lost. None have ever more perfectly heard the word of God and kept it, and that is the why -the reason she is more blessed and honoured than any other, and today we rejoice with Joachim and Anna and all of heaven and earth at her birth.
Like Mary, we too want to follow Christ, but we generally want to follow Him on our terms…for our own benefit. After all, this should be a feel-good experience, shouldn’t it? But Christ clearly says we will suffer, and our blessings will be related to these sufferings. Suffering is part of the promise; Christ says; “he who would come after me must pick up his cross and follow me”. The cross demands participation, all of the saints suffered. Mary was told “A sword shall pierce your heart” by St. Simeon when she brought Christ as an infant to the temple. Yet, through all of her sufferings and everything in her life, she was careful to “hear the word of God and keep it.” Every Sunday we sing the Beatitudes; “Blessed are those who mourn, who are meek, who are persecuted, reviled, and lied about.” Everything is counter-intuitive in the Kingdom. It really doesn’t square with what most of us learned at home and at school. It is not at all about getting ahead as the world defines it, or about personally being fulfilled and having our needs and desires met. It is completely counter-culture. If you find your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life you will find it. The first will be last and the last will be first. Orthodoxy is paradoxy.
How are we to live this Paradoxal life? What does this really mean – to follow Christ? We want to work for God, O God, use me, I am your servant, we cry out in our saner moments. But we don’t work for Christ and His church, He works through us. Otherwise we run off with our own ideas and feelings and just make a mess of things. We must die that He might live in and through us. We really have no being, no reality, and are completely nothing outside of Christ. We are not even real human beings apart from Christ. The stamp of divinity which God has placed within each one of us is completely dormant and of no value unless it is energized by God. We are like flashlights without batteries, we look the same from the outside, but a flashlight without batteries is quite useless and unable to illuminate anything. Only life in Christ is real!
Today we have another feast day, the elevation of the cross. “For God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” This is the gospel, this is the message of the cross. This is God’s love for us, all that is required is that we accept His gift. There is nothing we can do to add to it or to make ourselves somehow worthy of receiving it. We must simply always keep our gaze on Christ. We have healing and life when we keep our eyes on Christ lifted up on the Cross. The Israelites, when they were being bitten by poisonous serpents were instantly healed when they looked up to the copper serpent Moses was lifting up which prefigured the cross. Through the serpents came death; through the Cross came death, and yet through Christ choosing death on the cross for our sakes comes life! Everything is counter-intuitive. Keep your gaze on Christ and the cross and be saved; lower your gaze and be bitten and ravaged by the enemy of mankind. When we are attacked by evil thoughts and our minds are temped to accept false and destructive understandings, when persecutions and malicious slander comes our way, when our faith is shaken, we must run to Christ. Lord Jesus Christ, save me! We know our gaze is lowered when confusion and doubt assail us.
Elder Prophyrios; a very wise and precious elder from Mount Athos and Greece says: “There are two paths that lead to God; the hard and debilitating path with fierce assaults against evil; and the shorter, safer, and easier route with love. This is the most perfect way. That is, don’t wage war on evil directly, but love Christ and His light, and evil will then retreat. Always open your arms and run to Christ” Through the prayers of the Theotokos and the great saving work of the cross may we ever draw nearer to Christ, our King and our God. With the Feast!