Liberated from Bondage and Barrenness: Homily for the Conception of the Theotokos by Righteous Anna and the 10th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 4:22-27; Luke 13:10-17

         

A few months ago I pulled a muscle in my back that hurt for six weeks.  It happened when I bent over just a bit to pour water in our cat’s dish.  That was just a nuisance in the larger scheme of things, but it complicated everything from standing up to sitting down or even walking around.  Even small ailments can be very frustrating when they keep us from doing what we want to do.  More severe injuries can separate us profoundly from our usual activities and relationships, and even from our selves.  When people’s lives are defined by their own pain and disability, their very sense of self is challenged.  That can quickly become a miserable way to live.

When Jesus Christ was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, he saw a woman who was bent over and could not stand up straight.  She had been that way for eighteen years.  Just think of how she felt, how limiting and frustrating that illness had to be.  The Lord said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  Then He laid hands on her and she was healed.  When she  was able to stand up straight again, she glorified God.

But there were those standing around just waiting to criticize the Lord, for He healed her on the Sabbath day, when no work was to be done.  Christ answered these critics by pointing out that everyone takes care of his donkey and ox on the Sabbath.  “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”  The truth of His teaching was so clear that those adversaries were put to shame and the people rejoiced.

In these weeks of the Nativity Fast, of Advent, we prepare to celebrate the wonderful news of the Incarnation of the Son of God, of our Lord’s birth at Christmas.  And we see in this gospel text a beautiful image of what Jesus Christ has done for us by becoming a human being.  For every one of us is like that poor woman bound with an infirmity for eighteen years, unable to straighten herself up.

For we live in a world of corruption, of illness, pain, and death.  We do not like to think about it, but there are harsh, impersonal realities from which we simply cannot isolate ourselves. The horrors of war, crime, and hatred between groups of people; the ecological effects of pollution; cycles of violence, abuse, and brokenness in families and in society; and the inevitability of the grave: We do not have to look far to find ways in which we are all held captive.

As well, we have diseases of soul, of personality, of behavior, and of relationships that cripple us, that keep us from acting, thinking, and speaking as the children of God.  For we have all fallen short of God’s purposes for us, as has every generation since Adam and Eve.  We are all bent over and crippled in profound ways in relation to the Lord, our neighbors, and even ourselves.

Joachim and Anna knew all about long-term struggles and disabilities, for like Abraham and Sarah they were childless into their old age.  But God heard their prayer and gave them Mary, who would in turn give birth to the Savior Who came to liberate us all from sin and death.  Today is the feast of St. Anna’s conception of the Theotokos, which we celebrate as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Lord to loose us from the infirmities that hold us captive and hinder our participation even now in the life of the Kingdom.

The story of the Old Testament unfolded through the family of Abraham, who was told by God that he would be the father of a large, blessed family.   Many Jews continue to think of life after death as being accomplished through ongoing generations of children and grandchildren, not by victory over death itself.  But if God’s blessings extend no further than the grave, then we will never be loosed from bondage to the wages of sin, which is death.

The history of the Hebrews was preparatory for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah in Whom God’s promises are fulfilled and extended to all who have faith in the Savior, regardless of their family heritage.  Christ did not come to privilege one nation over another or to set up an earthly kingdom, but to fulfill our original calling as those created in the image and likeness of God.  That means ultimately to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as distinct, unique persons who become radiant with the divine glory. God breaks the laws of nature in order to save us, enabling elderly women like Sarah and Anna to conceive and bear children and a young virgin named Mary to become the mother of His Son, Who Himself rises from the dead after three days in the tomb.  This is a story of liberation, of breaking bonds, and of transcending the brokenness and limitations of life in this world of death.

Fortunately, the Lord did not treat the woman in today’s reading according to her physical condition as simply a bundle of disease, even as St. Anna’s fate was not defined by barrenness.  Instead, He gave her back her true identity as a beloved person, a daughter of Abraham, by enabling her to stand up straight for the first time in years.   On that particular Sabbath day, Jesus Christ treated her as a unique, cherished child of God who was not created for a corrupt, impersonal existence of pain, disease, and despair, but for blessing, health, and joy.  She glorified God for this deliverance, as did those who saw the miracle.

The good news of Christmas is that the Lord is born to do the same for us and for the whole world, to set us free from the slavery to decay, corruption, and weakness that distort us all.  He comes to deliver us from being defined by our infirmities so that we can leave behind our bondage and enter into the joyous freedom of the children of God.  He comes to restore us as living icons who manifest His glory and salvation in unique, personal ways.  Have you noticed that icons portray people as distinctive persons?  For example, the unique character of the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist, and St. Luke shines through the beautiful icons on the iconostasis.

The same should be true of us.  We become not less ourselves, but more truly ourselves, when we open our lives to Christ’s holiness and healing.  In contrast, sin and corruption are pretty boring.  No matter how creative we try to be, there are only so many ways to hate, lie, cheat, and steal.  You can only say so much about murder and adultery.  Holiness, on the other hand, is infinitely beautiful and fascinating.  For the more we share in the life of the Holy Trinity, the more we see that the process of our fulfillment in God is eternal, that there is no end to it or to Him.  And since our fundamental calling as human persons is to grow in the likeness of God, we become more truly ourselves—as distinct, unique people– whenever we turn away from slavery to sin and passion in order to embrace more fully the new life that Christ has brought to the world.

Unfortunately, people in our culture usually do not view Advent and Christmas as opportunities to be loosed from our bondage to sin and death.  Too often, we turn them into occasions for strengthening our addiction to money and possessions, to excessive food and drink, and unhealthy relationships with others.  Of course, that is really a way of saying that self-centered indulgence is nothing but bondage to ourselves, which ends up leaving us hollow, miserable, and stooped over.  That is not surprising because we were not created to find eternal fulfillment and peace in the things of the world, even in one another.  That is why we must resist the cultural temptation to become so busy with shopping and planning and partying this time of year that we ignore the glory and gravity of our Lord’s Incarnation.  For He comes to fulfill us all as His sons and daughters, to extend to us all the blessing and joy of the heavenly kingdom, and to loose us from our slavery to sin and death.

We must not remain stooped over, bound, and barren this Advent.     Instead, let us use the remaining weeks of this holy season to prepare to receive the Christ Who heals us, Who sets us free, and Who restores us as the unique children of God He created us to be in the first place.  For we, too, have become the daughters and sons of Abraham in Christ Jesus.  Let us embrace the great blessedness of those who have been set free by the Savior born at Christmas.

 

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