On September 8, we commemorate the nativity—or birth—of the Theotokos. It’s the first of the twelve major feasts of the Orthodox calendar following the start of the ecclesiastical new year on September 1st. With this particular feast, the annual narrative of Christ’s life, death and resurrection begins anew. The previous Church year, which concluded with the falling asleep (Dormition) of the Theotokos, now recommences with her birth. In a way, then, the lifespan of the Theotokos—as commemorated liturgically—contains that of Christ, temporally, just as her womb bore the incarnate Son of God.
Summer can be its own kind of desert—there’s not a lot of clear purpose and the heat can be brutal. In gardening, it’s a time of faithful maintenance, of watering and weeding and growing. And hoping. In the end, if all goes well, there will be a harvest. But in the middle, it’s easy to grow weary in our toil, and it’s easy—in life—to fall away from nourishing the soil of our heart.
However faithful we’ve been (or haven’t been), in September, things slowly give way to something new.
It is—in nature, as well as in the Church—a time of provision, of bounty. The desert of summer is being tamed as nature “bring[s] forth food from the earth” (Psalm 104:14).
In the Church, too, we are surrounded by things—people, actually, and salvation—being brought forth from long seasons of waiting and growing. I’ve already mentioned the Nativity of the Theotokos. But there are others to remember as well:
- September 5: the commemoration of Holy Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of St. John the Baptist, who were unable to conceive until the angel Gabriel appeared to them, foretelling the birth of the Forerunner.
- September 9: The Synaxis of Righteous Joachim and Anna, parents of the Theotokos. The Protoevangelion tells us that they were barren for many years. Although they remained faithful in prayer, their childlessness was a source of real shame. Finally, God heard their prayers; an angel appeared separately to both Anna and Joachim foretelling the birth of their daughter, Mary, whose name would be known throughout the world.
- September 14: The elevation of the holy cross, when St. Helen miraculously found and recovered the Holy Cross from a pagan temple that had been erected on the original site of the Passion.
- September 23: The conception of St. John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who was the “Forerunner” to Christ.
The people we remember on these feast days were intimately acquainted with long droughts of waiting and faithfulness. They spent much of their lives hoping in the goodness of God to draw new life, new indications of salvation, from the deserts of their existence.
We come to God in this new ecclesiastical year with our own waitings and questions, our own harvest or lack thereof, our own fullness or emptiness. But one of the most beautiful aspects of the Church calendar is that it re-invites us back into the ongoing arc of life and salvation regardless of how barren our fields have become these last, long months since Pascha.
And so, we are welcomed back. Back into time transfigured, back into the bounty of salvation.
But we are also called back into the arena of waiting, and faithfulness. We are led back to a place of hope. The nativity of the Theotokos reminds us of where we are going, but also that it will take time and as a result, waiting—something we are not always very good at.
A year is a long time. It is long enough to lose your way, and find it again. It is long enough to despair and struggle for hope. Yet we are presented right off the bat with people and objects who in their humanity withstood the despair that time, circumstance and waiting can affect us with—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joachim and Anna, St. Helen and St. John the Forerunner and the Theotokos, and the Holy Cross itself, waiting to be found.
With these souls as our vanguards in both time and eternity, may we “go out in joy and be led forth in peace” (Isaiah 55:12).