08 September 2017

The all-too-human, and the divine

It is not an accident, I think, that the Nativity of the Theotokos falls one week after the beginning of a new liturgical year. Both events mark the beginnings of life: one, the renewal of the spiritual life in the Church; the other, the beginning of an independent biological life. There is something of the commonplace in each, and in each also something of the extraordinary and the divine. No doubt Chesterton would be able to turn a witty phrase or paradox on the occasion; all I can do is point to each of the two and attempt to understand them.

Saints Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Mother of God, were by all accounts, to use the verbiage of Monty Python in the voiced-over introduction to their Science Fiction Sketch, ‘a perfectly ordinary couple leading perfectly ordinary lives’. They were fully human, truly human, all-too-human. They were not gifted with prophecy as Isaiah, Elijah and Jeremiah were. Neither were they gifted with extraordinary talents of political leadership as their ancestors David and Solomon were, nor with great sufferings as was Job. They were a regular couple living their lives in an obscure occupied corner of the Roman Empire, whose only claim to being extraordinary was that Anna was of a well-born Levite family. Their worries tended primarily to the fact that they were elderly and had no children – a fact which rendered them, by the ethics of the day, ‘ritually impure’, morally suspect and socially stigmatised, considered accursed by God and (by the œconomics of the time) a debt-burden on the nation. Indeed, the Temple priest, rigidly adhering to the laws of purity, would not allow Joachim to approach the altar or offer the sacrifice ‘with those childless hands’, and turned him away in a fit of self-righteous pique, on account of the Temple authorities’ suspicion of the elderly couple’s impiety.

Joachim and Anna had all of the ordinary and commonplace fears of us ordinary people. Joachim suffered anxiety, shame, confusion and anger at being thrown out of the Temple and barred from the sacrifice. As Metropolitan Nicholas said, ‘Which of our families is not affected by some condition that breaks our hearts and challenges our hope, whether because of unemployment or underemployment or financial stress or medical issues or legal troubles? What family has not been tested by the presence of moral failure and loss of hope? When we see the family of Joachim and Anna, we see people just like ourselves, just like everyone else.’ The commonplace is everywhere present in this story of the parents of Mary, and here of all places we are invited to see ourselves in their position, who we can see share the worries and agonies of us sinners.

And yet Joachim and Anna were to be given a daughter. The gift of a daughter was heralded to them by God, and yet she came to them by the ordinary human way, through an act of love of a husband for his wife – as we may be sure that, throughout their lives, Joachim and Anna loved each other and every day prayed for their love to bear fruit. And once Mary was born, Joachim and Anna raised her with love. And that love truly did turn into something miraculous: having understood the trust in God that her parents had, Mary was ready to say ‘yes’ to God when it was announced to her that she herself would be a parent – and yet emphatically not in the way that her own parents were!

The miraculous underlies the ordinary, all throughout this story: the ordinary love of husband for wife, and the ordinary love of parents for their daughter. And yet there is something extraordinary (after a Tolkienian fashion) even in this, which the Church takes pains to remember. Even though they were not great ascetics or kings or prophets, we remember the Righteous Ancestors of God Joachim and Anna at every single Liturgy in a place of honour alongside the great ascetics, the long-suffering martyrs, the princes and the priests, those who make up the company of saints. Their names are a commonplace in the Liturgy, and yet even by their everyday presence they are marked with extraordinary divine favour. Indeed, if not for them and for their human, all-too-human love for each other and for their daughter, none of those great feats of asceticism and martyrdom and holiness which followed would have been possible. Without the Righteous Ancestors of God, there would be no Theotokos; and without the Theotokos, there would be no Christ – no hope and no redemption for our sorry species.

But the Most Holy Theotokos came to be, after the manner of every one of us. And with her into the world, came our hope.
Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from you, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing,
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal life.


  1. Your excellent reflections above notwithstanding, one should be aware that the feast of the birth of the Theotokos occurs on the "eighth day" of the "new year". It's a resurrectional-eschatological symbol.

  2. Hello, John, and welcome to the blog! I had a feeling there was some significance to the date and its relation to the New Year but wasn't exactly sure what it was. Thank you for clarifying!

  3. Hey. Thanx for the welcome. While we're at it, i might point out another little-known, but fun, calendrical factoid:

    Who's the saint on Sept 1, new year's day? Most people think Symeon Stylites, but that's just accidental. But how do we mark the New Year as such?

    Well, the new year is to the Age to Come, what the Promised Land was to the Desert of Israel's wandering. So the entry into the Promise would provide a symbol. But still, a "year" is time, and time is an aspect of this present age, not the Age to Come. So the saint would have to be from the Old Testament, not the New. And sure enough, the saint on Sept 1 is the Prophet Joshua (Moses' successor). Unfortunately, though, no service has ever been written for him, not even a troparion, as far as i'm aware; but whoever put the calendar together was definitely thinking things through.

    Moses himself is 3 days later (Sept 4), i suppose because we're resuming our annual pilgrimage, but now under the sign of the resurrection.