An Old Story Still True Today

An Old Story Still True Today

“…of the holy and righteous ancestors of God Joachim and Anna…” At every liturgy, at the end of every prayer service, the priest remembers the grandparents of Jesus, the parents of the Theotokos! If something like this is repeated long enough, we humans start experiencing it as the familiar “noise” of prayer. The dangers of this “sound” becoming mere nostalgia increases and the greater danger of us “forgetting” WHY we pray this way increases.

The story of Sts. Joachim and Anna is the story of hope, promise, and joy. They were an elderly couple past their child-bearing years. But they were pious and faithful lovers of God, and they continued to pray for a child. They swore that any child God gave them would be dedicated totally to God. And God saw this precious couple and granted them a daughter, Mary, the Theotokos. True to their word this elderly couple raised the child to know God from her earliest days, and when she was just a girl, she was taken to be raised, educated, and trained in the place where the Presence of God was strongest, in the holy Temple.

But the couple was elderly, and they knew they would not live to see the child to adulthood, so they made provisions for their daughter to be betrothed to a good man they knew, Jospeh the widower. You see, Joachim and Anna knew that their daughter was dedicated and destined to be a unique vessel for God and His plan to bring the Messiah to Israel, so they asked Joseph to be her protector when she came of marrying age. She could no longer stay in the Temple after she had become of marrying age as it would not be proper, so the elderly widow, Joseph took Mary and provided protection for her before, during, and after she was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and told she would be the mother of the Messiah, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

And today’s passage helps us understand why we always remember the grandparents of Jesus at every service!

Look at our Lesson today in Galatians 4:22-27:

BRETHREN, Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married.”

St. Paul is still trying to correct the bad story someone came and told the Galatians about what these Gentile believers needed to do to be real Christians. Some “false brethren” had come and told these new believers that they had to be Jews before becoming Christians. In other words, these Gentiles would have to start obeying all the Jewish Law and live like Jews before they could be true Christians. And their bishop, St. Paul is writing them to say that this “false” story was not just wrong, but that it was actually a horrible heresy and not Christian teaching at all.

And Paul uses a very familiar story from Jewish history to make his point. He uses the story of Abraham and his first two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was born of the servant girl Hagar. You remember the story, don’t you? God had promised Abraham a son that would be the heir of Abraham and become a great nation. But Abraham and his wife Sarah were very old, so they had the idea that maybe we could have a child if Abraham took Hagar, Sarah’s slave, and had a child through her. Bad idea! But Hagar did have Abraham’s son, and she named him Ishmael.

But that wasn’t God’s plan and God told Abraham this. So, after Sarah had been barren all those years and after she was well past the age for childbearing, she did give birth to a son, and they called him Isaac (by the way, his name means “laughter” and there’s a cool story behind that). So, Ishmael was the son of a slave woman and Isaac was the son of a free woman. Paul uses this story to illustrate that the days of the Law of Jewish ritual and religious observance were done. After all, they were only meant to show us that, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t follow all the rules by ourselves. But the Christian Faith was all about the freedom of mercy and grace and a much more complete and even more difficult spiritual path of love and communion. Now it isn’t about following all the rules, but about the much more life-changing message of a genuine change of heart into loving God and being motivated by communion with God.

This distinction matters a great deal! And that’s because if I am merely to follow the rules as a slave to God, then where will the affection come from? No, I am meant to not just be an “obedient slave” but a free son of the Lord. The Christian Faith calls me to be family, not property. And the story of Isaac and Ishmael shows why! It really matters to get this story straight! You see, the barren woman having a child proves God always takes the initiative to love and save His creation. And God works this way to break the sickness of our false notions of self-sufficiency and turns us toward a life of gratitude to God for His love and grace.

The life of St. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos, reminds us of that same pattern of God’s love for us. God giving the barren couple a child. God using that same child for His glory to serve us in knowing God. God reaching out in our helplessness, when we could do nothing for ourselves, He rescues and saves us despite our weaknesses. All of this is enshrined in our regular remembering of the grandparents of Jesus at every liturgy. We NEED this regular reminder. We MUST always learn to depend on God for our salvation and we can NEVER FORGET our lives are meant to be lives of gratitude lived to embrace all God has done for us!

Today, are you the child of a slave, or the child of the free? Are you burdened with the notion that you are bound to “follow the rules” and merely “submit” to the thundering presence of God or are you ready to embrace and be embraced by the truth that God loves you and wants you as His child and not merely His slave? This is why it’s essential to get this story right and to live a Normal Orthodox life.

P.S. O Godly-minded Anna, you gave birth unto God’s pure Mother who conceived Him Who is our Life. Wherefore, you have now passed with joy to your heavenly rest, wherein is the abode of them that rejoice in glory; and you ask forgiveness of sins for them that honor you with love, O ever-blessed one.

Summer is slipping away, and school starting is on the horizon. Would you consider a gift to Faith Encouraged this month to help us finish Summer strong? Thank you.

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