September 9, 2010

The Reversal of the Barrenness of Saint Anna

A Homily Preached by the V. Rev. Fr. Cherubim Apostolou, 
Elder of the Skete of Saint Anna, Mount Athos 
(Feast of St. Anna, 2005)

"She who was barren bore the Theotokos, nurturer of our life." (Kontakion on the Birth of the Theotokos)

Saint Anna, the ancestor of God, is the precious vessel chosen by the Holy Spirit. The good and blessed tree that is the standard of natural development, which our Lord Himself confirmed, saying: “Are grapes harvested from thorns, or figs from thistles?" (Matt. 7.16) Every good tree brings forth good fruit, but the bad tree brings forth bad fruit. “A sound tree cannot bear unsound fruit, nor can an unsound tree bear sound fruit” (Matt. 7.18). Saint Anna is the good tree and her lovely and most sweet fruit is our Panagia. The most beautiful fruit of human production. What the Evangelist Luke says of the parents of St. John the Forerunner pertains also to Saint Anna and her husband Joachim: “They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless” (Luke 1.6). Saint Anna was virtuous in the eyes of God, and, of course, her life was pure. She walked always in accordance with the will of the Almighty, in accordance with His soul-nurturing commandments. Saint Anna, who bore the all-holy Theotokos, she who was barren and without creative power, whose womb was opened in advanced age by the Lord, to transform the disgrace of barrenness to the joy of a unique fertility, was a descendant of the tribe of David. Her parents, the priest Mathan and Anna, were pious and god-fearing and lived in Bethlehem. Mathan was a priest at the time of Cleopatra and the Persian King Soporus, before Herod Antipater, and had three daughters, Maria, Sovi, and Anna. Of these, Maria married in Bethlehem and bore the midwife Salome, Sovi also married in Bethlehem and bore Elisabeth. Anna was married in Galilee and bore the Lady Theotokos. This honor was bestowed upon her by the gift-granting Lord as a reward for her piety and her charitable works toward orphans and the poor.

But what does the name Anna mean? It means “grace.” When the Archangel Gabriel greeted the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation, he gave her the epithet “full of grace:” “Hail, you who are full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1.28). As a daughter of grace, the Virgin Mary had bestowed upon her that element which is lacking in the Old Testament: grace. The Old Testament represents the age of law. The New Testament represents the era of grace, since it is the “Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20.24) and all of the faithful “are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6.15). That is why when our Panagia reacted to the words of the archangel with modesty and simplicity, the great Archangel Gabriel hastened to explain to her: “Do not fear, Mary, for you have found grace with God” (Luke 1.30).

And so this maiden, full of grace, was born of a mother whose name means “grace.” That name was not granted to Anna by accident, nor was it by chance that Anna bore the Theotokos. We know that Saint Anna was elderly and barren. She could not conceive. The field of her female nature was barren, dry and infertile. No seed could take root and grow within it. The field of the barren Anna resembles the field of the pre-Christian world. The world had grown old in sinfulness and the law of God was not observed. A solution had to come from heaven. And the solution was the rightful reward of evil works and eternal death or forbearance and grace—salvation and liberation. But there was no salvation in the ancient world. Men lived in the shadow of original sin, in the darkness of curse, the dark threat of disintegration and death. They could not enjoy grace and the joy which that grace brings generously to all of us. Saint Anna, by the grace of God, dispelled the disgrace of her barrenness, and also the disgrace of the curse upon those living before Christ. That is why the Kontakion on the feast of the birth of our Theotokos says: “Joachim and Anna were freed of the disgrace of childlessness, while Adam and Eve were freed of the corruption of death through your holy birth.”

My dear brethren, the blessing of God caused the barren Anna to bear fruit, in order to open the path for the grace of God to bear fruit and for the fragrant flower of salvation to blossom in the field of His creature made of dust, which was poisoned by sin. That connection between the fertility of the barren Saint Anna, and the pre-Christian world which was barren of grace is also made by the sacred hymnographer in a troparion of the Vesper Service: “Today barren gates are opened and a sacred virgin gate comes forth. Today grace begins to bear fruit.”

Anna and her husband Joachim lived a godly life and strictly observed the divine commandments. Yet, unfortunately, for many years the couple remained childless and accepted the shame of childlessness with patience and faith, having placed their hope in God, to whom, despite their advanced age, they continued to pray for offspring. And God heard their prayers and sent to Saint Anna an angel who announced to her the will of God, which was precisely to answer her desire for a child. She was then 58 years of age and Joachim was 69. Excited and joyful, Saint Anna shouted: “The Lord my God lives! Whether the child I bear be a girl or a boy, I will bring it as an offering to my God, to serve Him all its life.

And indeed she conceived, and when our Lady Theotokos reached the age of three, her mother brought her—like a three-year-old heifer—to the temple of God, “to be nourished by the angels,” as the sacred hymnographer tells us.

The reversal of the barrenness of Saint Anna was the fruit of prayer. It was impossible for her to conceive and give birth at such an advanced age. But “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18.27). In our own lives, as well, many things seem impossible to us. We find ourselves in a state of powerlessness from which only prayer can remove us. Our unique armament in all difficult moments is prayer and humility before the Lord. And I say with certainty that the miracle will occur. The barren earth will bear fruit, and God will send down the rain of His grace, to soften our hearts so that the seeds of soul-saving success in Christ may take root.

Let us therefore invoke Saint Anna, who experienced the disgrace and sadness of childlessness and be certain that she will transform our worries into joy, our indolence into cheerfulness, our sadness into unending joyfulness and exultation.