Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
One does not have to know very much about the different religions of the world to know that they differ not only in how they answer spiritual questions, but in what questions they ask. Who is God? What is the nature of the human person? What is our fundamental problem? What is salvation? These are only a few key questions that quickly reveal what we believe.
Today we celebrate the birth of the Theotokos and anticipate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. That we commemorate them both reveals crucial dimensions of what the Orthodox Christian Church believes about God and about people. Most obviously, these feasts show that physical realities such as birth and death have deep spiritual meaning. Our bodies are not mere illusions; they are neither evil nor irrelevant for how we relate to God. The body is such an intrinsic dimension of human personhood that the sin of our first parents ushered in our captivity to death, which unnaturally separates the soul and the body. No amount of legal observance, spiritual experience, or religious ritual could overcome that most basic problem, which is why even the most righteous person of the Old Testament remained enslaved to the fear of the grave. Death is the wages of sin.
Our deliverance required the Savior’s great Self-Offering on the Cross in which He took the full consequences of sin and death upon Himself, and conquered them in His glorious resurrection on the third day. His death is our entryway into the new life of the Kingdom, into the “eighth day” of the new creation. Instead of leaving us captive to the cycle of birth and death in a world of corruption, God prepared across the centuries to bring us back to the Paradise for which He created us in the divine image and likeness. The misery of Adam and Eve was overcome through Joachim and Anna, a righteous, elderly Jewish couple who, like Abraham and Sarah, had longed for a child for many years. God heard their fervent prayers and gave them Mary, whom they dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem. That is where she grew up in preparation to become the Living Temple of the Lord when she miraculously contained Christ in her womb.
Mary is the Theotokos precisely because the One Whom she bore is truly divine, the eternal Son of God. She is the New Eve because she gave birth to the New Adam Who fulfills our calling to become like God in holiness. As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in Himself, enabling us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by sharing personally In His gracious divine energies. The first Eve chose her own will over God’s and gave birth to those enslaved to death, beginning with Cain and Abel. The New Eve said, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” and gave birth to the One Who set us free from fear of the grave.
St. Paul knew that Christ’s healing of our fallen humanity is so profound that those who share in His life become “a new creation.” Unlike the Judaizers who wanted Gentile converts to undergo circumcision, St. Paul saw that our problem is not so slight that we need only a few rituals or rules to improve us a bit. No, as the Savior told Nicodemus, we need to be reborn. We need to move from death to life. That is why Christ ascended the Cross: in order to raise us up from the tomb and restore us to the glory of being in the image and likeness of God. Through the Cross, He showed that He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.
Since the God-Man had to be a real human being in order to save real human beings, Jesus Christ had to have a mother. Because of how God respects our freedom, He also had to have a mother who freely welcomed Him into her life. He could not have become the New Adam were it not for the consent of the New Eve. In ways that fulfilled so much Old Testament imagery, the Theotokos was miraculously conceived by an elderly couple in the pain and despair of childlessness. Joachim and Anna could not overcome their sorrow by themselves, even as we cannot overcome the grave. God’s blessing of their marriage in conceiving a daughter in old age is a sign of the healing of the corruption of the relationship between man and woman. Like Abraham and Sarah, they had to wait for a very long time, but finally God gave them a child. As Hannah did with Samuel, they gave the child to God in the Temple, where she grew up in preparation to receive Christ into her life in a unique way as His Living Temple. The Theotokos’ birth is a crucial dimension of how God prepared for the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and their extension to all with faith in the Savior. We simply cannot tell the story of Christ without also telling hers.
We look to her as the first and model Christian, the best example of what it means to become “a new creation” in Him. Nothing about the Theotokos’ life was a conventional religious accomplishment that drew the praise or admiration of others at the time. She is the mother of One Who was crucified as a blasphemer and a traitor. She saw Him on the Cross with her own eyes. As St. Symeon told the Theotokos at Christ’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:35) It was precisely through the dark night of the Cross, however, that the Savior brought the world into the brilliant day of the Kingdom. He makes us “a new creation” not by giving us mere rules and rituals to help us become worthy or respectable, but by mercifully making us participants in the great victory of His resurrection over sin and death.
In order to celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Exaltation of the Cross with integrity, we must die to all that holds us back from shining radiantly as a “new creation” in Jesus Christ. Like Joachim and Anna, we must be prayerful and patient. Like the Theotokos, we must say “yes” even when we cannot have a full understanding of what it will mean to obey. In all things, we must unite ourselves to the Lord in His great Self-Offering on the Cross, and refuse to base our lives on anything or anyone else. We must remove from our lives anything that we cannot offer to Him for blessing. We must welcome into our lives every opportunity to become more like Him in holiness. We must remember that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and live accordingly, even though that will put us at odds with many of our own desires and with the dominant ethos of our culture on matters including sex, food, and the use of money.
Instead of focusing on impressing others or satisfying legal requirements, we must offer ourselves to embrace the salvation that our Lord has worked on the Cross. As one born of a woman, His restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness extends to you and me, as well as to the rest of the world, in every dimension of our lives. His death truly is our life, our birth into the new creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Even if you are as discouraged today as Joachim and Anna after their decades of barrenness, take heart. Even if you are as startled as the Theotokos was by the message of the Archangel Gabriel by what God is calling you to do, do not become paralyzed by fear. Even if you do not see how you could possibly take up the cross that is before you, do not refuse it. Through all these struggles, God is giving you the opportunity to embrace more fully your true identity as a “new creation.”
No longer enslaved to the fear of death or the obsessive need to establish our own perfection by outward observance of religious law, we simply need to receive Christ more fully into our souls and to live accordingly in our bodies. The Theotokos stands as the great example of such a life, which will always lead us to the Cross, “by which,” says St. Paul, “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” If we live that way, our lives will provide a sign that “God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” If we live that way, we will offer to our neighbors a sign that there is more to the Christian faith than the stereotypical distortions of self-righteous legalism that lead only to despair and cynicism. For in Christ Jesus there is truly the possibility for each of us to become “a new creation” who bears witness to the fulfillment of the outrageous hope that the ancient corruption of our humanity really has been healed and that the blinding light of life eternal really does shine even from the pitch-black darkness of the tomb. That possibility will become reality as we open the eyes of our souls to behold His glory and become living icons of His salvation.