The Icon of the Nativity of the Mother of God
A Meditation by Mary Grace Ritchey
|Scriptural Readings Vespers
Genesis 28: 10-17
Ezechiel 43: 27 to 44: 4
Proverbs 9: 1-11
Phillipians 2: 5-11
Luke 10: 38-42 and 11:27-28.
|“Your nativity, O Mother of God, heralded joy to the whole universe, for from you rose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God, taking away the curse, He imparted the blessings, and by abolishing death, He gave us everlasting life.”
Through your holy birth, O Immaculate One, Joachim and Anne were delivered from the shame of childlessness, and Adam and Eve from the corruption of death. Your people, redeemed from the debt of their sins, cry out to you to honor your birth: “The barren one gives birth to the Mother of God the Sustainer of our life!”
When I was a young mother and Archbishop Joseph Raya was our pastor I remember that he told me to teach my children to respect things. At the time I thought it was just practical advice. I never thought of it as spiritual advice. But during the years I have said the Trisagion prayers it finally hit me that in that prayer we say that the Holy Spirit is “present in all places and filling all things”. All creation, things as well as persons, have the potential of being the vehicle by which man touches God and God touches man. This is the theology of the icon as well as the sacrament. (See Ephesians 1: 10; Col 1: 16-20, 23; John 12: 32-some translations use the word “things”).
In the Eastern Church the Church Year begins on September 1. So the Church cycle of feasts begins at the beginning of the story of how God became man, through the faithful and most pure Virgin Mary. In order to understand the icon one will continually encounter certain words and symbols:
The doctrine of the incarnation of Christ, the fact that Christ has two natures, and the fact that mankind is made in the image and likeness of God are basic reasons used in the defense of the use of icons made by St. John of Damascus. God became man, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…we have beheld His glory…I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 1:14; 8: 12). Because God became man the world is no longer in darkness but is penetrated by the light of Christ. Therefore matter is changed, recreated, and becomes in the icon and in the sacraments the means of the presence of Christ on earth, giving all creation the potential to reveal Christ to us. Furthermore, Christ’s human nature is the model from which mankind is made and thus is our human potential by the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit.
The artist and the photographer know that light is everything. Light reveals a certain truth about the situation depicted and its awesomeness. Light strikes an object and spreads its revelation to the objects surrounding it. According to St. Bonaventure “light had a sacred character. Light participates somehow in the properties of God; it rises above matter and space, multiplies itself, and spreads out over all being…light played a predominant role in the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals…light makes colors shine and thus gives them life…unites itself to colors by penetrating them…becoming one with them…For this reason, certain theologians have seen light as a symbol of the Holy Spirit descending into the Virgin Mary.” (The Icon, Image of the Invisible by Egon Sendler; p.168.)
The birth of the Theotokos (God bearer) on September 8 is the beginning of the act of incarnation and our salvation through Jesus Christ. Note that the beginning of the Church Year is the Nativity of Mary and the end of the Church Year is her Falling Asleep (August 15). The Troparion of the feast sums up what has been said:
“Your nativity, O Mother of God, heralded joy to the whole universe, for from you rose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God, taking away the curse, He imparted the blessings, and by abolishing death, He gave us everlasting life.” (Prayers for Publicans, p.46)
The icon shows St. Anne reclining on a couch attended by women. In the foreground is the Midwife preparing to wash the child Mary. Joachim is often shown in the icon but not in all icons of the Nativity. By the sixteenth century some icons also show a scene in which Joachim and Anne are caressing their infant. According to the apocryphal book the Protevangelium of St. James, the name “Mary” or “Miriam” was given by the Angel when he announced to Joachim and Anne they would have the child they had prayed for. Only one other Old Testament person bore the name Mary or Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. Mary means “hope”. Miriam was the “hope” of the liberation of the Israelites because she saved Moses who would become liberator and savior of her people Israel as found in the book of Exodus 2:4-8. Like the Nativity of John the Baptist and the birth of Isaac from the sterile Sarah, the Nativity of the Mother of God was considered to be a prefiguring of the Resurrection. “But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure, for in the person of St. Anna-a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate-it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace.” (The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky, p. 146.) The largest figure in the icon is St. Anne and in some icons, St. Joachim who are the focus of the icon. If Adam and Eve are the parents of fallen humanity then Joachim and Ann are grandparents of God’s “re-creation”.
In his book, Theotokos, Archbishop Raya tell us that the Western Church sets aside Sept. 12 to honor the name of Mary. He also says that the early writers and Fathers of the Church translated “Miriam” to mean ” the enlightened one”, “the light giver” but St. Bernard of Clairvaux gives the name to mean “Star of the Sea.” He says we should call upon Mary when we are “battered to and fro by the gales and storms of this life’s ocean” and if “waves of pride or ambition or slander or envy toss you…if billows of anger or avarice … or the enormity of your sins troubles you… if the dread of judgment appalls you, if you begin to slip into the deep of despondency, in the pit of despair, think of Mary”. (p. 86) One of the verses of the Acathist to Mary is “Hail O Star who manifest the Sun.” (Byzantine Daily Worship p.969)
The feast of the Nativity of Mary is connected to the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne on Sept. 9 and the feast of the Maternity of Anne on Dec. 9. The icon of Joachim and Anne embracing at the city gates is based on the story told in the Protevangelium of James and The Gospel of the Birth of Mary, apocryphal books used by the Eastern Church. These books have influenced the subject matter of icons and also liturgical prayers of the feasts. In the first chapter of Matthew a genealogy of Jesus Christ is given ending with Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus. The first verse says that Jesus is “son of David and son of Abraham.” This is important because the prophecies concerning the Messiah reveal that the Christ would be a descendant of King David (see Psalm 132:11; Isaiah 11: 1-2, 10; Jeremiah 23.5-6 and 33: 15-16). The Gospel of the Birth of Mary begins: “The blessed and ever glorious Virgin Mary, sprang from the royal race and family of David, was born in the city of Nazareth, and educated in the Temple of the Lord.” It is in this book that we learn that her father’s name is Joachim who is from Nazareth in Gallilee, and her mother’s name is Anna who was from the town of Bethlehem. Her parents were fairly wealthy and generous. They divided their substance into three parts, one part for the Temple and its staff; one part for strangers and the poor; and the third part was for the use of their household. For about twenty years Anna prayed for a child and vowed to dedicate that child to the service of the Lord if God favors her prayer. When Joachim goes to Jerusalem to bring his yearly offering, the high priest rejects his offering saying it would not be acceptable to God. He cites Scripture: “Cursed is every one who shall not beget a male in Israel”(p. The LOST BOOKS OF THE BIBLE and the forgotten books of EDEN, World Bible Publishers, Inc. p.18). He says Joachim should not give offerings to God until he has a child.
The Protevangelion says that Joachim then goes into the wilderness and fasts forty days and nights saying” I will not go down either to eat or drink, till the Lord my God shall look down upon me, but prayer shall be my meat and drink.” Anna, too, is distressed about her barrenness when she sees a sparrow’s nest. She accuses herself because all of creation is fruitful but she is not. Without children there was no hope of giving birth to the Messiah. Then the Angel appears to Joachim and Anna separately telling them that the Lord has heard their prayers. The Gospel of the Birth of Mary says the Angel tells Joachim that he shall have a daughter and call her “Mary”. The angel then tells him that Mary shall be devoted to the Lord from infancy “and be filled with the Holy Ghost from her mother’s womb” and “while yet a virgin, in a way unparalleled, bring forth the Son of the most High God, who shall be called Jesus, and, according to the significance of his name, be the Savior of all nations.” The angel foretells that when Joachim comes to the golden gate of Jerusalem that Anna shall be there watching for him. The icon of Joachim and Anna embracing at the golden gate of Jerusalem speaks to us this story.
The Genesis reading for the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos 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 “Jacobs Ladder” is often applied to the Theotokos because she was the means by which God incarnate was made present to His people, living with and redeeming mankind and all things. From the Acathist to Mary we read “Hail O Celestial Ladder by whom God came down; hail O Bridge leading earthly ones to heaven!” (BDW p.969).
The reading from Ezechiel focuses on Mary as ever virgin: “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it: therefore it shall remain shut.” (44:2). The Acathist reads: “Hail, O Lady, unique gateway through whom the Lord alone has passed!” (BDW p.961)
Proverbs focuses on gaining wisdom by listening to instruction and pondering on it and then acting in righteousness, justice and equity. Gaining Christ is the focus, and not doing evil, for Christ is the Wisdom and Word of the Father. Proverbs coincides with the Epistle and Gospel readings.
The Epistle read for the feast tells us to have the mind of Christ, extreme humility. The Gospel tells us to focus on Christ and not to let daily duties deter us. The Gospel ends with “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” This returns us to the Divine Plan: salvation for all. We honor Mary not only for who she is, Mother of the Lord, but for her total dedication to the will of God.