"Your nativity, O Theotokos, announced joy to all the world!"
Heavenly and earthly paradise share a single reality in this 16th century icon from St. Catherine’s. Euphoria at the birth of the Theotokos reaches from the spiritual realm into the earthly, for the ladder envisioned by Jacob now reaches from earth into heaven.
With the angels of God ascending and descending upon it in glory, the restoration of man to God, set in place by His love before the foundations of the earth, is a prophecy now fulfilled in a golden cradle gilt by the Holy Spirit. The living Portal of heaven has opened the gate to paradise once sealed by the flaming sword of the Cherubim.
Every element of the icon reflects the re-emergence of grace, from its warm, vibrant colors, to the wondrous awe of the newly delivered mother; from the feast being laid, to the ecstatic embrace of Joachim and Anna at the news their childless burden is to be lifted in advanced old age; from the angel descending in blessing, to Joachim’s hands upraised in gratitude…
"For from you dawned the Sun of righteousness, Christ our God!"
Of course, the birth of the Theotokos represents the birth of each soul in God, for as the new Eve, the Holy Virgin is the first human to reclaim the divine likeness lost by Adam.
“But in Christ a man receives more than he lost in Adam,” says Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, “for the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ gives us is higher than the earthly paradise of Adam.”
Breathed into Adam by God, the divine likeness was much more than a natural predilection to good, according to the patristic fathers. Implanted in human nature was the ability "to receive and make its own the deifying energy of God." With the breath of Christ upon His apostles, saying “Receive ye the Holy Spirit,” sharing in the divine likeness no longer means resemblance to God, but union with Him.
"In undoing the curse, He gave the blessing."
Until receiving God’s own life, man was spiritually inanimate – and ever since the fall of Adam remains so – until the birth of the Theotokos offers humanity the opportunity to reacquire the Holy Spirit lost from the first humans.
Of course it is the Kingdom of Heaven that is depicted in Orthodox iconography. The infant Panagia is shown wearing a halo not because she is born somehow outside the human condition, but because salvation is a timeless, ever-present reality. Unlike western religious art, Byzantine iconography is not limited by the shadows of this fallen world; rather than recording time, it reveals eternity in the Uncreated light of the Kingdom, the Light whose grace courses from the icon directly into the soul.
It was for this reason, said His Eminence, that he allowed the priceless Sinai icons to travel to museum exhibitions for the first time in history, affording those who would never be able to visit Sinai the joy of their mystery in a spiritually barren world.
"And in abolishing death, He granted us the life that is eternal."
Through the Virgin, humanity is saved from the devastating infertility of existence without God, which is no existence at all – for while God ‘is’, evil is ‘not’, say the Fathers. Life on the purely material plane is not ‘the life that is eternal', nor indeed would anyone wish it to be…
The ‘living Heaven’ through whom all reclaim life in the Spirit was born to Joachim and Anna in answer to the prayers of a lifetime of grievous disappointment. Their salvation from infertility thus provides powerful imagery to all generations of the fruits of the Spirit for all who find in trials the opportunity to truly love God.
Not surprisingly then, the hymns of the Feast compare the barrenness of Anna with the barrenness of Mount Sinai under whose shadow God restores mankind to Himself:
“Truly the barrenness of Anna has been revealed as the overshadowed Mountain, whence salvation is granted to all the faithful!”
Below the Holy Mountain one can still find the enormous rock struck by Moses whence water flowed to give life to the children of Israel - a gift whose grace never runs dry, for, as another joyous hymn from the Great Vespers of the Feast glorifies the miraculous Nativity of the Theotokos:
“She is the Fountain of life that flows from the solid rock; and from the barren womb, the Bush of immaterial fire that cleanses and enlightens our souls!”
“Beyond-holy Mother of God, save us!”
Talking with Geronta Pavlos of Sinai:
Q Geronta, the message of grace is so powerful at the Nativity of the Theotokos. Yet the saints caution us not to seek miracles in prayer. Does this mean we should not seek grace?
A Of course we should, alas (αλλοίμονο!) if we don’t seek the grace!
But when we pray to God we don’t expect to see miracles. The greatest miracle is to see our heart liberated from the passions.
But as for other miracles, whether they are to our benefit, this is not something within our grasp. The desire to see some miracle from God is not pure. Am I worthy of seeing miracles? I am not, so humility is lacking, which is dangerous. A person might hear a voice saying 'I am Panagia,' or a certain saint, when actually it is the evil one. A certain level of discernment is requisite.
Q In the passage we were discussing about the divine energies and the Jesus prayer, Gregory of Sinai also stresses this, the importance of humility in prayer.
Since, as you say, one may seek the grace and should, how is this different from miracle-seeking?
A When we say 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,' we are saying, 'Have mercy on me as You know and wish.'
This is the meaning of prayer. We don’t say, 'Let me see You' or 'Show me some miracle,' but, 'As You know, have mercy on me according to Your will - for You know my best interest better than I do.'
"Our Panagia is the fruit of creation," writes Abbot Ephraim of Vatopedi Monastery. The hymns of our Lady's birth emphasize this by drawing a parallel between the barren rock of Sinai - rising here above the Chapel of her Nativity - and the barrenness of her mother Anna's womb, whence the blessing of salvation comes to all creation.
In his most recent interview here, Sinai's Elder Pavlos explains how the grace of God is won.
Abbot Ephraim explains that this grace is brought to all humanity by "she who alone could draw heaven to earth," describing the blessing of the Nativity of the Theotokos, whose Festal celebration concludes on September 12th.
But the grace may prove more elusive than hoped for.
"In fact, before God gives us some blessing, a gift, He often tests us with a temptation, the result of which determines whether or not we’re found worthy to receive this divine gift," writes Archimandrite Ephraim.
In his counsels to monks, the Athonite abbot offers wisdom to all those who struggle with hope, as did Joachim and Anna, whose prayers for a child were answered only after a lifetime of discouragement. Little had they known during such long decades that the fruit of Anna's womb, 'full of grace', would bring God to earth.
As saints have often noted, monastic life consists of nothing more obscure or complex than keeping the commandments of Christ (if in a somewhat more detailed way than commonly practiced, as Elder Ephraim intimates with great discretion).
Therefore, advice directed to monks sheds its light equally on those pursuing the grace from within society, for the commandments certainly know no difference, as evidenced by Orthodox history, replete with married Saints.
Abbot Ephraim's practical counsels on the light brought by the Birth of the Theotokos to all those struggling with hope is found here: http://pemptousia.com/search/?s_str=she+who+alone+could+draw+heaven+to+earth
Pictures from Fr. Justin's Blog