“May you see your children’s children; peace be upon Israel” (Ps 128:6). In one of the many “good words” we find throughout the Book of Psalms, the Prophet David blessed the sons of Israel, offering a prayer that God’s people would increase and prosper. Elsewhere, David compared children to an archer’s arrows, saying: “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (Ps 127:5).
With these words, the Psalter, as the prayer book of Ancient Israel and now the Church, recalls one of the earliest commands God gave to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Righteous people throughout the Old Testament encountered great difficulty trying to fulfill this command; we count Abraham and Sarah as first among them. Yet God responded to Abraham’s faithfulness by giving him a son from a barren womb, prefiguring the Nativity of Christ from the womb of the Virgin.
The miraculous gift of Isaac is one way that the Old Testament shows children to be a blessing from God. Though childbearing was wedded to pain and labor after the Fall, death’s encroachment into human existence made childbearing all the more necessary. In his homily on the Nativity of the Theotokos, St Gregory Palamas is blunt in his assessment: “Since there was not yet any hope of immortality, the continuance of the race was seen as an absolute necessity.” The devil had ensnared mankind into an endless cycle of life and death.
Seeing “your children’s children” was the closest thing to immortality before Christ’s victory over death and corruption. Children and grandchildren were a sign of God’s favor and His desire that a patriarch live on in his progeny. Barrenness, then, was not only a failure to contribute to Israel’s continued prosperity but a sign of God’s displeasure. We see this especially in the Protoevangelium of James, which tells us about Joachim and Anna, both righteous before God, and how they were scorned because they had not “born seed in Israel.” Rubim, a fellow Israelite, even prevented Joachim from offering his gifts at the Temple, since all the other righteous in Israel had borne children. “Childlessness was such a great evil,” says St Gregory, “that just people were rebuked for their lack of children…and having many children was regarded as superior to virtue.”
Yet the miraculous and saving action of God had turned the curse of barrenness into the blessing of children before: with Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah (1 Sam 1); His care continued in the New Testament with Zechariah and Elizabeth. In each case, God revealed examples of people who were faithful to Him, even in times of great sorrow and pain, and He blessed them for their faith.
So it was with Joachim and Anna. After Joachim bore Rubim’s insult, he went to the registers of Israel only to find out that, indeed, he and Anna were the only righteous in the nation who were not blessed with children. While they could have responded to their situation with resentment and anger, both withdrew to a solitary place to pray: Joachim in the desert, where “prayer [was his] food,” and Anna to a garden, under a laurel tree, where she poured out her sorrow before God: “O God of our fathers, bless me and hear my prayer, as You blessed the womb of Sarah, and gave her a son Isaac.”
Because of their faithfulness, God preferred them to all the other righteous in Israel, even those who had many children to carry on their legacy, so that, as St Gregory says, “the Daughter with all virtues might be born of highly virtuous parents…” The legacy of Joachim and Anna’s child was to be different: she was to bring forth the Redeemer, Who would take on our human nature and break free of the endless cycle of life and death. The birth of the Theotokos from a barren womb revealed God’s ultimate power over life and death and pointed to His Nativity which was to come:
“Today is born of the seed of David the Mother of Life, who destroys the darkness. She is the restoration of Adam and the recalling of Eve, the fountain of incorruption and the release from corruption: through her we have been made godlike and delivered from death.” (Litya, Tone 8)
The Nativity of the Theotokos, the first Great Feast of the Church year, is the beginning of the end: the end of death and corruption, the end of the cycle of life and death. With the Resurrection of her Son, immortality is no longer just the continuation of the human race or life in general. The Resurrection of Christ, the flowering of the seed which the Theotokos nourished in her womb, grants eternal life to all who have ever lived or ever will live. And so the joy of Joachim and Anna is now our joy, as the birthday of the Panagia (“All–holy”) reveals God’s enduring love for each of us and His wonderful plan to win our salvation.