Sermon delivered December 22, 2019 by Archimandrite Maximos
Joachim and Anna were old. They were married for fifty years. Joachim was a shepherd, a successful shepherd by all accounts; Anna was his loving, dutiful wife. She was dedicated to prayer, and work. Joachim, as a shepherd, we are told by John of Damascus, that as he tended his sheep and looked over them carefully; he looked over his thoughts carefully. He kept his mind under control. He contemplated; as he counted his sheep, he contemplated the Scriptures. They were by all accounts, by every reckoning, a good, holy, virtuous couple. Yet they were childless, and we hear in Scripture how they were reproached for their lack of children; they were considered cursed because they did not produce children.
Joachim was more concerned about how this affected his beloved wife, and Anna simply wanted a child that she could give to God. She wanted to be a mother in that sense. But they didn’t complain, they didn’t whine, they didn’t raise their fist angrily to God for not giving them what they wanted. They continued in their spiritual labor; they continued doing their job. They continued in their love, Anna doing her wifely duties, Joachim taking care of his sheep. But they prayed fervently for a child. Anna prayed; she said, “Male, female, I don’t care; I just want a child that I can raise up to the Lord.” Of course in those days people usually wanted a male child.
Even then they did not know, they could not know, that this little girl, this pure virgin, would conceive in her womb our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, which would transform the universe in an incalculable way.
And the Lord took compassion on them and He sent the angel to each of them individually, Joachim while he was in the pasture taking care of his sheep, and Anna while she was in the house. The angel appeared and said to them individually, “When you come together, you will produce a child.” And they did. And we celebrate the child that they conceived on this day. They didn’t conceive an okay child, a mediocre child, one who did fairly well, a doctor or a lawyer; they came together and conceived Mary the Theotokos. Mary, the mother of joy. Mary, the mother of the cause of our redemption. They conceived the Theotokos, the mother of our Lord, the queen of heaven.
The reproach was taken away in ways they could not imagine. They literally could not imagine or think of the great blessing that would be visited upon not only them, but the entire universe. The entire cosmos was going to be changed. Not now, not immediately; it would be decades before this particular prayer became revealed. A little girl would be born, a very holy little girl—even then they did not know, they could not know, that this little girl, this pure virgin, would conceive in her womb our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, which would transform the universe in an incalculable way. The mystery of the incarnation remains a mystery even though we see how it’s revealed in many ways.
We all have this capacity, our particular role . . . The holiness that made them worthy of these important tasks, that is available to us. We can do that. We can light the candle and put it on the candle stick.
When the holy Fathers of the Church decided which Gospel to appoint for this feast day, they chose an interesting one. Because it doesn’t directly refer to this event; it first refers to a light. We have a light or a lamp or a candle; we don’t put it under a bed, we don’t hide it under a bushel; we put it on a candle stick. And then we’re told, all that is hidden will be revealed; all the secrets will be made manifest (Lk.8:16-17). We understand that not only will our sins be revealed, but also all the good things will be revealed.
And then there’s a little skip in the Gospel and we’re told that Mary and the Lord’s brethren came to Him and they could not get to Him for the press, and they said to Him, “Your mother and your brethren are out there; they want to come talk to you.” And the Lord says, “My mother and brethren are those that hear my word and do it” (Lk. 8:19-21). He is not disrespecting His mother. He is not disrespecting His brethren; far from it. He is telling us the very important thing, that it’s not just a random allocation of grace, a roll of the die, a draw of the deck—we all have this capacity, our particular role. We will not be the queen of heaven; we will not be the grandparents of God; those jobs are already allocated. But the holiness that made them worthy of these important tasks, that is available to us. We can do that. We can light the candle and put it on the candle stick.
We are called to get on this road to the heavenly Jerusalem. It is now well-marked and well-lit, and made very clear by the holy Fathers of the Church, the writings of the apostles, the teachings of the saints, the glorious example of even recent saints.
Saint John of Damascus, when he’s talking about this great event of the Conception of the Theotokos by Saint Anna, he reminds us that Anna means grace. But at that time the world in the person of Anna was sterile. Her sterility, her barrenness, was symbolic of the fact that the world was incapable of moving further. And we heard that when her barrenness was loosed, the spiritual barrenness of the world was ended, the long journey, the long wandering in the wilderness, from Eden, from paradise.
Now we’re placed on the road not to Eden; we’re not going back. We’re placed on the road to the heavenly Jerusalem. The Theotokos is conceived, she will be born, she will bear a son—and that son is the Savior of the world, the Savior of the cosmos. We are called to participate in this journey. We are called to get on this road, the road to the heavenly Jerusalem. It is now well-marked and well-lit, and made very clear. The holy Fathers of the Church, the writings of the apostles, the teachings of the saints, the glorious example of even recent saints in the past decade or two, show us this road to Jerusalem as we are preparing.
The Lord is making possible our journey towards salvation, towards deification, towards the heavenly Jerusalem. He has done the work; all that we have to do is stay on the road. If we are like Joachim, great shepherds watching over our thoughts, then we will receive the greatest of rewards . . . Christ Himself.
In this increasingly cold winter, as we are preparing for the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, during the darkness this Feast shines out as a dramatic foreshadowing of what has happened. It is also a reminder that while we’re focusing on one thing in this life, this does not mean that God is not doing many other things. As we suffer, as we’re concerned about whatever earthly travail that we have to undergo, this is a reminder—there are things going on; the Lord is working. The Lord is preparing the road. The Lord is clearing the way. The Lord is making possible our journey towards salvation, towards deification, towards the heavenly Jerusalem. He has done the work; all that we have to do is stay on the road. We have to crush our foolish desire to look over here and look over there, and to think “Oh, maybe this is better over there” or “Maybe this is better over here” or to stop walking and think “Oh, should I go back? What happened before? Maybe I should…” No.
The Church is clear. The Holy Spirit is our infallible guide towards our spiritual transformation, towards our goal, towards our end. Christ is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation. Now we’re in the middle; we don’t know when the end comes. But we do know that if we keep our eyes single and if we focus on Christ and we follow His light and we make His light present in ourselves through the methods that the Church provides for us, through the Holy Sacraments, through the sacred writing; if we are like Joachim, great shepherds watching over our thoughts—then we, like him, will receive the greatest of rewards, greater than the reward that they received. We will receive, and do receive, Christ Himself. Christ transforms us. Christ gives us this glorious capacity to live with Him for eternity in the heavenly Jerusalem. Dear brothers and sisters, let us not neglect our duties.