The Great Feasts of the Church


September 8/21

On Septemner 8/21, the Church celebrates the most holy human birth, the birth of the Theotokos, who was elect and sanctified from the moment of conception.  According to the sacred tradition of the Church, the Theotokos was born of barren and aged parents, Saints Joachim and Anna.  Saint Joachim was descended from the holy line of Prophet-King David, of the tribe of Judah.  Saint Anna was of the priestly tribe of Levi.

Saints Joachim and Anna were childless for many years but they continued steadfastly to beseech the Lord that He would show mercy on them and remove this burden.  At that time, being childless was considered a reproach and a humiliation.  One day, when Saint Joachim came to the temple to make an offering, he was turned away by the High Priest who chastised him for his lack of children. To hide his shame, the Saint retreated to the hill country to pray.  There he remained for a long time in constant prayer and rememberance of how God had given Patriarch Abraham offspring in his old age.  He remained away for so long that Saint Anna was afraid she would never see him again.

As Saint Joachim was praying in the hill country, his wife, Saint Anna was praying at the same time at their house in Jerusalem.  Archangel Gabriel appeared to both of them and announced that Saint Anna would have a child whose name would be known throughout the world.   He commanded Saint Joachim to return to his home in Jerusalem and the Archangel told him that Saint Anna would be waiting for him at the Golden Gate.  When Saint Anna saw her husband approaching she ran to him giving thanks to the Lord.  The barrenness of Saints Joachim and Anna was overcome and they brought forth the Mother of God.

This Feast is a source of hope and great joy for all Orthodox Christians.  Saints Joachim and Anna were freed from their sterility and brought into this world the Mother of God, showing us that our sterile nature can bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.   Not only through the prayers of Saints Joachim and Anna is our spiritual barrenness dispelled, but many childless couples that have turned in prayer to Saints Joachim and Anna have been blessed with children.

Teachings from the Service of the Feast

The Birth of the Theotokos is unlike that of any other miraculous birth.  The barrenness of Saint Anna is emphasised to remind us of the overcoming of infertility by Divine Grace.  Many miracles of the Old Testament are seen as prophetic Types of the Birth of the Theotokos from a barren mother.  In the Lity of Great Vespers, this holy birth is seen in the pouring forth of the well-spring of life from a rock in the desert, which saved the People of God.   The barren rock is Saint Anna, the well-spring is the Theotokos and our Lord is the life-giving water. ( In the following Sticheron, the barrenness of Mount Sinai, from where we received the Law of God, is seen as a prophetic type of the barrenness of Saint Anna, from whom we received our salvation.  Truly the barrenness of Anna is revealed as that overshadowed mountain from whence divine salvation is given to all faithful men  (Aposticha of the Forefeast).  This miracle  is far greater than any other miracle in which barrenness was overcome because through this miracle God prepared for Himself a holy throne upon the earth.  In the Doxastikon chanted at Vespers of the Feast we are told:
Today God, Who resteth upon the noetic thrones, hath made ready for Himself a holy throne upon the earth.  He that established the heavens in wisdom, hath prepared a living Heaven in His love for man. 

Throughout Vespers and Matins, we are reminded of the Economy of our Salvation  as foretold  in the Old Testament.   The Birth of the Theotokos is the blossoming of the Rod of Jesse as was promised by God.  The Genesis 28:10-17 reading for the feast focuses on the vision of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.  At Bethel, he sees in a dream a ladder set up on earth and the top reaching into heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. The title Jacob's Ladder is often applied to the Theotokos because she became the Gate of Heaven by which God incarnate is with us.

The reading from Ezekiel 43:27-44:4  presents us with one of the Old Testament Prophecies of the ever-virginity of the Theotokos:  This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, shall enter in by it, and it shall be shut (44:2). 

Proverbs 9:1-11 also presents us with Prophecy of the Lord's choosing the Theotokos as the house in which He will dwell,  making her holier than the Temple of Solomon.  The instruction given to us in this selection of Proverbs is the preparation for the teachings of our Saviour as reflected in the Epistle and Gospel readings of the Feast.

The Epistle for the feast, Philippians 2:5-11, tells us to have the mind of Christ, extreme humility.  The humility of Saints Joachim and Anna is seen in their patient bearing of the pain which their barrenness brought them.  We are instructed  Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind.  The Gospel, Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28,  teaches us that the Mother of God is blessed not because she was the Theotokos but because above all she kept the word of God.   The Theotokos is also Panagia - The Most Holy, because she, above all, subjected herself to the Will of God.

Icon of the Feast

The icon of the Nativity of the Thetokos presents to us the central figures of Saint Joachim, standing and pointing to the Mother of God (1) and Saint Anna, reclining on her bed (2), surrounded by attendants who have assisted with the birth and are preparing to wash the newly-born infant.   In many icons the meeting of Saints Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate (4) is shown off to one side.

Birth of the TheotokosNativity of the Theotokos

The Theotokos
Saint Anna
1. The Theotokos. 2. The awe felt by Saint Anna, the Mother of the Theotokos, is reflected in her face.
Saint Joachim
Saints Joachim and Anna
3. The awe felt by Saint Joachim, the Father of the Theotokos, is reflected in his face. 4. Saint Anna met Saint Joachim at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem after each one had been told separately that God would answer their prayers

The icon directs attention to the Theotokos as the central figure in this feast (1).  Saints Joachim and Anna have their eyes set on the Mother of God, calling us to gaze upon this wonder .  The icon also conveys the mystery of the event that was felt by Saints Joachim and Anna as they realised that this miracle was set apart from all previous miracles (2+3). The liturgical texts of the feast acknowledge this mystery and joy. They proclaim the special role of the Theotokos as the Mother of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ.

With this event, another step is made in sacred history in preparation for the entrance of Christ into the world.  This step, however, differs from all other previous steps in that it is the final step before the Incarnation of the Lord. The feast and the icon announce the transition from barrenness to life that is offered through Christ, the transformation from death to eternal life.

The Menaion - Volume One, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005