Today, September 8th, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. A beautiful feast, celebrating the birth of the future birth-giver of God. There’s nothing in the Bible about the birth of Mary, so the church has relied on sources outside the Bible. Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, were a pious Jewish couple, among the faithful remnant who were waiting for the Messiah. They were barren and earnestly prayed for a child. Their faith was rewarded and miraculously conceived and gave birth to Mary. Uniquely in the Orthodox tradition, the conception of Mary is represented by showing Joachim and Anna embracing! It is very rare in Orthodox iconography to show such intimacy between a man and a woman.
The birth itself is shown in great detail, with the midwife and other attending women shown. What is even more remarkable is the presence of Joachim in many icons of the Nativity. Here are two examples:
In the icon above, Joachim is present in the room, sitting on the side. Of course he is not actively involved in the delivery. They didn’t have Lamaze classes in 1st-century Judea! In the icon on the right, there is a separate panel showing Joachim and Anna holding the newborn Mary in swaddling cloths – the ancient equivalent of parents getting to hold their baby for the first time in a modern hospital. I can’t help but notice the sharp contrast between these scenes of family closeness at the time of a birth with what we see in icons of Christ’s nativity:
In the icon above, we see Joseph off to the side not looking very happy. In the icon on the right we see Joseph not only uninvolved in the delivery, but he is shown talking to a man dressed in sheep skins (a wolf in sheep clothing?). The man is clearly meant to be the devil, putting doubts in Joseph’s mind about Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus. The icons show the different circumstances of the two births. Jesus was born in the midst of empire, by a unique act of God that was incomprehensible to Joseph and the powers of the world. Mary was born into a quiet, loving home where God’s miracle was clearly welcome.
In the Catholic Church, Joseph is a major saint. In the Orthodox Church he is much less. Also in the Catholic Church, there is the feast of the Holy Family, and the representation of Mary, Joseph and Jesus is common in western art and Catholic iconography and statuary. There is no feast of the Holy Family in the Orthodox Church. The closest that we have in the Orthodox Church would be precisely Joachim, Anna and Mary! Icons of the family are common. We have one in our church! I’ll add a picture of our own icon in a future update of this post, but here are some examples of family closeness:
The proliferation of such icons in the Orthodox Church is quite remarkable, especially when we also take into consideration the icons of Joachim and Anna embracing and the icons of Mary’s nativity. What is missing in the life of Jesus, it seems, the Church has managed to find and express in the life of Mary! Thank God for that. For a church that firmly believes in cultivating strong family ties and values, we have remarkably few examples of family life in our tradition – a tradition dominated by monks, nuns, martyrs and bishops, all of whom are far from anything most of us can relate to. All the saints are important and worthy of veneration, but it is a question worth asking why there are so few married saints and so few images of family life in the Orthodox Church.
So here is the challenge to today’s families: Be holy families! Be examples of the family values that we claim to value. Teach your children the ways of Christ. Stay close to the church. Teach and practice prayer and fasting at home. Give priority to the Lord’s Day, if not every Sunday then as often as is possible. Sports are important for all children, but not when they become all-consuming and take priority over everything else, including home life and church participation. Engage in quality and joyous activities that unite the family. Limit mindless TV watching, video games and other activities that separate members of the family. Parents, practice what you teach! Joachim and Anna loved their daughter and brought her up to be nothing less than the one through whom Christ was born into the world. None of today’s children will be called to such extraordinary significance, but every one of us can manifest the presence and love of Christ. Jesus loved children. Don’t keep your children away from his warm embrace.