Today marks the birth of the Mother of God on the calendar of the Orthodox Church (New Calendar). It is one of the twelve major feasts of the year. It is also a feast which shares a great deal in common with many other events in the course of Scripture – all of which emphasize the character of our salvation.
The story of Mary’s conception and birth, as received by Tradition in the Orthodox faith, is similar to many stories within Scripture: it is the story of fruitfulness within the context of barrenness. The account tells us that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, were elderly. St. Joachim served as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem – his wife had never given him a child. In the story, Joachim bears the reproach of his fellow priests. He and Anna offer prayers to God in their barrenness and God shows mercy: they conceive a child and become the parents of her who is to be the Mother of our Lord.
The story of barrenness is common in the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah cannot have a child. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, cannot have a child. God hears their prayers and gives a blessing. From their barrenness will come the salvation of Israel.
The ultimate barrenness in this understanding is the virginal womb of Mary. How can a virgin give birth to a child and yet remain a virgin? All the stories of barrenness in Scripture look forward to and prefigure this final barren womb. God will bring fruitfulness out of barrenness.
Mary’s fruitfulness itself is a prefigurement of the cosmic barrenness of a world that has cut itself off from God. Hades is the ultimate barrenness. There the dead cannot even offer praise. But Christ becomes the “firstborn of the dead” – a phrase that is so rich in contradiction and paradox that it is often overlooked. How can death yield life? How can the barrenness of Hades yield a firstborn anything? And yet it does.
God, Who so loves the world, has emptied Himself and entered the most barren of all places. There He has trampled down death by death and made a path to the resurrection for all. Hades becomes the place of new birth. Thus it is into Christ’s death we are Baptized that we might be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.
These things remind us that the barrenness of our own lives are not the final say. God brings life from death and undoes the emptiness of the universe by making it full.
May She who was born this day, the mother of God the Word, pray for us all that we, too, might be fruitful bearers of the word of God to the praise of the glory of His grace!