Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Even as we look ahead to the Elevation of the Holy Cross this coming week, we continue to celebrate today the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. These commemorations remind us that the God-Man Who vanquished Hades through His Cross for our salvation had a human ancestry, which was necessary for Him to be both a human person and the particular human person in Whom all the promises to Abraham are fulfilled. His grandparents Saints Joachim and Anna were not like the people Saint Paul opposed in his letter to the Galatians, for their role in the coming of the Messiah was not based on what they had achieved by their own ability to obey a set of religious laws. Their situation was completely different from those who trusted in themselves, for they lacked the ability to conceive and bear children, which was understood as a requirement for a couple to fulfill their role in the ongoing life of the Hebrew people. As a childless couple, they despaired of their place among the righteous of Israel.
God heard the prayers of this barren couple, however, and miraculously blessed them in old age such that they conceived a daughter, whom they offered to the Lord by taking her to live in the Temple as a three-year old. That is where she grew up in purity and prayer as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord, the Theotokos who would contain the Son of God in her womb as His Virgin Mother. Joachim and Anna had learned through decades of bitter disappointment not to rely on what they could accomplish by their own power, for they were old and barren. Instead, they trusted in the Lord’s mercy to bless them as He had blessed Abraham and Sarah. He not only blessed them in that way, but with a daughter who would give birth to the Messiah in Whom the ancient promises to the Jews would be fulfilled and extended to all with faith in Him. By His grace, they fulfilled their role in the life of Israel in ways well beyond their, or anyone else’s, expectations.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul argues against fellow Christians of Jewish heritage who thought that Gentile converts had to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law before becoming Christians. He rejected that practice because those who put on Christ in baptism become “a new creation” through faith in the One Who fulfilled the law through His Cross. By conquering death, the wages of sin, through His resurrection, the Savior has made it possible for all people to participate in His salvation. As He said to Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
Our Lord was lifted up upon the Cross because even the strictest obedience to the Old Testament law could never conquer death and lead us back to Paradise. The cycle of birth and the grave had reigned ever since the corruption of our first parents. The “wages of sin is death,” and the law lacked the power to make us like God in holiness as “partakers of the divine nature.” The path out of slavery to corruption was not in the abiding human ability to obey rules and regulations to some extent; instead, it is found in the merciful love of God Who blessed an elderly, righteous Jewish couple to have a long-awaited daughter named Mary. She, in turn, would become the recipient of a unique and unbelievably gracious blessing as the Virgin Mother of the God-Man, the Second Adam, Who would set right and fulfill all that the first Adam had gotten wrong. The Theotokos is the New Eve through whom Life came into the world. Her birth foreshadows the fullness of our salvation in Jesus Christ.
In the Savior’s conversation with Nicodemus, who was at that time a legalistic Pharisee, He did not speak of obedience to a law that could make people more religious or moral. He spoke of life, saying that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” He refers here to an event described in Numbers 21:8-9, when the Hebrews were saved from deadly snake bites when they looked at the bronze snake held up by Moses in the desert. Christ does not describe Moses here as the one through whom the Ten Commandments were given. Instead of portraying him in terms of the law, He describes Moses as foretelling His victory over death through the Cross. The Savior’s Passion does not save us merely from poisonous snake bites on a certain day, but enables us to participate in the fulfillment of our calling to become like God in holiness as we share in the eternal life for which He created us.
St. Paul wrote, “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” To have faith in Jesus Christ is not merely to have ideas or feelings about Him or to follow any set of religious, moral, or cultural rules, no matter how noble or inspiring they may be. To have faith in the Savior is to be united to Him in holiness as we participate personally in the salvation that He has brought to the world. To entrust ourselves to Him requires that we take up our crosses as we die to all that holds us back from offering ourselves in humble obedience.
Joachim and Anna bore the heavy cross of the pain of childlessness. When God miraculously blessed this barren couple with the conception and birth of Mary, they offered her to grow up in the Temple. After decades of disappointment, they knew that God’s blessing was not their private possession, but a calling for them to be faithful in offering even the greatest desire of their hearts for something much larger than their own personal happiness. They surely bore a cross in leaving their young daughter in the Temple, where she prepared for years to obey the strange message of the archangel in freely agreeing to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God. As St. Symeon declared to the Theotokos at her Son’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35) Her unbelievably heavy cross was to see Him lifted up for the salvation of the world after being rejected by the leaders of His own people.
As members of Christ’s Body, the Church, we reap the blessings of the faithful obedience of Joachim and Anna and of their daughter the Theotokos. We have become “a new creation” in the Lord Who releases us from the spiritual barrenness of bondage to sin and death that had enslaved humanity since the corruption of Adam and Eve. Through His Cross and glorious resurrection, He has brought life to our world of death in a way that obedience to the law could never have accomplished. We share in His life by grace, not by anything we could possibly earn or achieve merely by our own ability.
We must now use our freedom as human persons to take up our crosses so that we may unite ourselves to Christ in His great Self-Offering for the salvation of the world. It is only by dying to the old ways of death that we may live as His “new creation.” “For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Let us continue to celebrate the birth of the Theotokos as a foreshadowing sign that His gracious mercy extends to all who respond to Him with humble faith. That is not a matter of legal observance, but of embracing personally the great victory over sin and death that the God-Man, the Second Adam, has worked for us through His Cross.