September 8, 2013

An Explanation of the Icon of the Birth of the Theotokos

By Hierodeacon Silouan Peponakis

Just as September in Byzantium was the first month of the ecclesiastical year and the first of this month was new years day and the beginning of the Indiction, so also is this feast and celebration, the Birth of the Mother of God, the first according to our recall and recreation, since, as Saint Gregory Palamas says: "This sacred feast and celebration that we are keeping is the first to commemorate our recall and recreation according to grace, for on it all things began to be made new, enduring precepts began to be brought in instead of temporary ones, the spirit instead of the letter, the truth instead of shadows." In this 16th century icon from the Monastery of Saint Katherine at Mount Sinai, the iconographer follows the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James to depict this great event of the Nativity. The figure of Saint Anna dominates as she sits half-seated on the bed, while on her left hand she supports her tilted head. From her expression we can speculate that she is immersed in thoughts regarding this paradoxical event, in other words, how she was able to be loosed of her barrenness.

In the upper left part of the composition the parents are depicted happy and hugging, embracing at the gate of their house, or according to Pseudo-Matthew, before the Golden Gate of the city.

Because in the Old Testament there was no hope for immortality, the succession of a persons family seemed as if it was something needed. It appears that the birth of many children seemed superior to virtue for the Israelites, and childlessness was such a great evil that even the righteous were not praised for their virtues. Sorrowful from these attacks, the Righteous Joachim and Anna decided to take refuge in God. Joachim left for the desert where he fasted and prayed to God to become a father, while Anna closed herself in a neighboring garden and with grief of heart she cried out to God, saying: "Hear me O God of my fathers, and bless me as You blessed the womb of Sarah."

Therefore the embrace made at the gate of the city takes place after the revelation from the angel of the Lord to them, that they would bear a child. We read in the Apocrypha of James:

And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: "Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shall bring forth; and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world." And Anna said: "As the Lord my God liveth, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life." And, behold, two angels came, saying to her: "Behold, Joachim thy husband is coming with his flocks. For an angel of the Lord went down to him, saying: 'Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God hath heard thy prayer. Go down hence; for, behold, thy wife Anna shall conceive.'" And Joachim went down and called his shepherds, saying: "Bring me hither ten she-lambs without spot or blemish, and they shall be for the Lord my God; and bring me twelve tender calves, and they shall be for the priests and the elders; and a hundred goats for all the people." And, behold, Joachim came with his flocks; and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying: "Now I know that the Lord God hath blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow is no longer a widow, and I the childless shall conceive."

Saint Gregory Palamas asks: "But what was the reason why she [the Theotokos] came forth from the barren womb?" And he answers: "In order to dispel sorrow and remove the shame of the parents; to prefigure the dissolution of sorrow and the curse of the Forefathers of our race, all of which were to take place through her." This is why in almost all the hymns of the Nativity the hymnographers emphasize the parallels of her birth and her role as the Mother of God.

Saint Gregory Palamas continues: "How could nature be so bold as to contaminate the womb, in which was and from which came forth the only one who had the Holy of Holies as her home and who became the Dwelling Place of the Creator of nature? Because, (in that case) why would there not appear before her, or after her the Virgin Mother and the Mother of God? – Yet, just as before her and after her no one dwelt in the Holy of Holies, so also in that mother’s womb there was no other fruit before, nor after her. Since it was necessary that the Mother of God would also be Virgin, and from the line of David and in accordance with the time appointed for our salvation, and that time was drawing near and it was fit to prepare the Virgin, and at that time there was no one, who would be greater in virtue other than this childless couple. There was no one more noble in genealogy and in manner among those descending from David. These childless ones were preferred to ones with many children; it were necessary for the all-virtuous child to be born from the parents of many virtues, and for the All-Immaculate One to proceed from the very chaste ones, and chastity, which was accompanied by prayer and asceticism, received a fruit – to become the birth-giver of Virginity, and that Virginity, which without corruption in the flesh gave birth the the One, Who before all ages as God was born of the virgin Father."

The middle of the icon depicts servants that pamper the new mother, with one giving food while another fans air for Anna. As we noted before, though the Theotokos is situated in a cradle wrapped in swaddling clothes, the iconographer does not write above her head the acronym ΜΡ ΘΥ (Mother of God). Joy is pervasive throughout the composition, with its vivid and warm colors, and bright and expressive faces, all of which announce the happy event, as the apolytikion for the feast begins: "Your birth, O Theotokos, brought a message of joy...."

This of course motivates us to offer, as Saint Gregory Palamas suggests, to the Pure Virgin the most loving and appropriate gift, which is our sanctification and purity of heart, through abstinence and prayer, in order to find treasured within us the purity which Isaiah calls "the spirit of salvation obtained within the womb", saying to Him: "For the sake of Thy fear, O Lord, we have received in the womb, and we have labored with pain, and we have brought forth the spirit of Thy salvation, which we wrought upon the earth" (Isaiah 26:18). Saint Gregory continues: "Do you see how the barren and childless souls come to have good children? But to the words spoken the Prophet adds, saying: 'We shall not fall, but they shall fall that live upon the earth', i.e. those whirling around with earthly thoughts and passions."

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, “Πύλην αδιόδευτον ο Προφήτης, μόνω τω Θεώ ημών τηρουμένην την αγίαν Παρθένον εκάλεσε...”, September 2000. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.