Today is the patronal feast of my parish, St. Anne. St. Anne (Anna) was the wife of St. Joachim. Joachim and Anna were the parents of the Virgin Mary, according to the early tradition of the Church. In Orthodox commemorations they are referred to as the “ancestors of God.” It is a shocking title, perhaps even more shocking than Mary’s “Mother of God.” Christmas devotion has accustomed many Christians to think about Christ as a child and thus as a child with parents. But the popular imagination generally stops there. We forget the fullness of what it means to be human (perhaps because we ourselves live in a world in which our own humanity is severely truncated).
St. Joachim was a priest who served in the temple. His wife, St. Anne, was unable to have children and elderly (a very familiar story in the pages of Scripture). The child Mary is a gift to them in their old age, a joyful intervention in their lives. The tradition goes on to tell how the couple present their young daughter for service in the temple (the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple). This feast, far more than a sentimental remembrance of a special day in the life of a young girl, is a feast of dynamic irony. The child who will become the true temple and ark of God when she conceives Christ, enters the temple which had been described as “Ichabod,” (“devoid of glory”). The temple that had once been filled with the glory of God stood empty. The ark had been carried away, the glory faded to memory. The child who enters appears insignificant, but is herself the fulfillment of the temple itself. She is the true Temple, the true Ark. The glory of God that will reside in her womb is none other than God Himself.
Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God and to the Ancestors of God, is a devotion born of Divine irony. The very phrase “God/Man” is the height of oxymoronic irony. How can a man be God? How can God be a man? It is the very heart of the Christian faith and a scandal to many.
The same irony is the true revelation of God’s great love of man, and the foundation of human dignity. Only the incarnation of Christ protects humanity from destruction in the face of the Absolute. God, when considered as a cypher for the Absolute, will brook no rival, no diminution of His complete sovereignty. In the name of such an abstraction, human beings are all too easily swept away. We are less than dust and without value. No concept ever entertained by man is more dangerous than the concept of God.
The Christian faith has no conception of God. God is not an idea. The Christian faith begins with a man, Jesus of Nazareth. It confesses this man to be both fully God and fully man and that through Him and through Him alone is knowledge of God possible.
No man has seen God at any time. The Only-Begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known (John 1:18).
Thus Christianity does not know a God who is revealed apart from man. It is the condescension of God, His meekness and humility that we see in Christ. We also see His great mercy towards mankind that He should raise us up and exalt us and bless us uniquely as sons and daughters. The dignity (worth) of human beings is guaranteed by this reality alone. Human rights, as the world now knows them, did not exist except through the foundational understanding of human persons made known in the revelation of Christ. The revelation of God in Christ not only makes it possible for us to know God but also makes it possible for us to approach in safety the throne of His glory. Ideas and abstractions offer no such thing.
And so the Orthodox Church embraces the wonderful paradox and irony of God: that God should become a man; that a woman should be the Mother of God; that an older couple can be called the ‘ancestors of God’; that we should be fellow-heirs with Christ. Anything less is not Christianity. Anything less is simply a dangerous idea.
Greetings on the feast!