Saturday 22 September 2018

Explanation of the Nativity of the Theotokos Icon

On 8th September we celebrate the Great Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Saint Andrew of Crete refers to this feast as the ‘beginning of feasts’ and the ‘door to grace and truth’. Saint John of Damascus says that this festival is a ‘feast of universal rejoicing because in the Theotokos all the race of man is renewed and the sorrow of the foremother Eve is changed to joy’.

The Nativity of the Theotokos is the first Great Feast of the Church New Year which begins on 1st September. In celebrating the feast on this day, the Church recalls the first six days of Creation which were followed by a Sabbath rest on the seventh day. The eighth day starts a new cycle, a new week, and for this reason is used in Scripture and by the Fathers as an image of the life of the age to come. Through the incarnation of Christ we have been inaugurated into the life of that age, becoming part of a New Creation. The Church therefore begins the cycle of the Great Feasts on the eighth day of the New Year.

The names of the Theotokos’s parents are not recorded in the Gospels, but an account or her birth is preserved the early second century Protoevangelium of James. This collection of writings has never been completely accepted by the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, parts of it have been accepted as true and without error. Many Orthodox saints, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have theologised about the events concerning the birth of the Virgin Mary and their significance. Saint Andrew of Crete says the following about Saints Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos:

Joachim and his spouse lamented that they had no successor to continue their line, yet the spark of hope was not extinguished in them completely. Both intensified their prayer for a child to continue their line. In imitation of the prayer of Hannah (see 1 Kings 1: 10), both remained in the Temple fervently beseeching God that He would undo Anna’s sterility and make her fruitful. They did not cease their efforts until their wish was fulfilled, and the Bestower of gifts did not deny them the reward of their hope. The unceasing power came quickly to help those praying and beseeching God, and it made capable both the one and the other to produce and bear a child. In such manner, from sterile and barren parents, as it were from irrigated trees, was borne for us a most glorious fruit — the all-pure Virgin. The constraints of infertility were destroyed — prayer and an upright manner of life made the couple fertile; the childless man begat a child, and the childless woman became a joyous mother.
In the sixteenth century Greek icon (below) St. Anna is shown reclining on a bed, supporting her head with her left hand as she contemplates the miracle that has come to pass. She gazes at the Mother of God who is depicted wrapped in swaddling bands in a cradle as one of the attendant women sits by her holding a fan. 

St. Joachim is shown twice in this particular icon. Both parents are shown hugging joyfully in top-left hand corner at the gate of the house. He is also shown underneath the canopy on the right-hand side raising his hands in a prayer of thanksgiving as an angel delivers the good tidings that Anna would conceive and give birth.

The icon depicts the inside of Joachim’s house, but the house is shown cut-away rather than enclosed with walls and a ceiling so the figures on the icon appear to be outside the house. The unique way the building is depicted expresses the uniqueness of the spiritual event in which grace overcomes the boundaries of space and time. The red cloth draped between the canopy and the rooftop acts as a reminder that this event took place indoors.

In the Russian icon (below) the Mother of God is depicted twice. As well as being shown in the cradle she is also shown being washed by two midwives. In this icon, the parents are not shown embracing, but St. Joachim is shown alone, looking down on the scene in wonder.

In both these icons, women are shown attending to St. Anna and offering her food to help her recover from the rigours of childbirth. The depiction of the women illustrates that the birth of the Theotokos from St. Anna was a natural childbirth. Even though the conception of the Theotokos was miraculous and beyond nature, her birth was not.

Although this Feast is of the birth and not Anna's conceiving of the Theotokos we will briefly mention the confusion some people experience with the modern Roman Catholic dogma of the ‘Immaculate Conception’. Some Orthodox Christians think that this term refers to the universally accepted and ancient dogma of the Virgin Birth – it does not! The Immaculate Conception is the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that declares that the Virgin Mary ‘at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin’.

The Orthodox Church rejects this new idea that the Theotokos was born without ancestral (original) sin for a number of reasons. This teaching is contrary to Scripture which speaks of Christ as the only One free from sin (see 1 Peter. 2:22). In contrast, the Mother of God was purified from ancestral sin at the Annunciation when, as St. Gregory the Theologian says Christ ‘sanctified womankind, shook off bitter Eve and overthrew the laws of the flesh’. St. John of Shanghai states clearly that the Mother of God' was not placed in the state of being unable to sin, but continued to take care for her salvation and overcame all temptations’. [1]

If the Virgin Mary had been unable to sin then her human nature would have been somehow more exalted and different to ours. As a consequence, the human nature Christ assumed from her would not have been like ours thus defeating the whole purpose of the incarnation. St. Paul rejects any idea of Christ's human nature being superior to ours when he says: 'We have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our weaknesses; but was in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin' (Heb. 4: 15).

Both the icon and the hymns of the Feast illustrate the miraculous birth of the Virgin Mary from parents who were previously thought to be unable to have children. This was an act of the Providence of God and prepared the way for the incarnation of the Son of God. It is fitting that one of the final hymns in the service of the Feast of Nativity references the good tidings still to come at the Annunciation:

O glorious wonder! A fruit has shone forth from a barren womb, at the command of the Almighty Maker of all, that has wholly ended the world’s barrenness in good. Ye mothers, dance with the Mother of the Theotokos and cry: Rejoice, thou who art full of grace; the Lord is with thee, granting great mercy to the world through thee.

[1] [1] St. John Maximovitch The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994) p. 58

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