Today a new world and a mysterious paradise have been revealed, in which and from which a New Adam came into being, re-making the Old Adam and renewing the universe. He is not led astray by the deceiver, but deceives him, and bestows freedom on those enslaved to sin through his treachery. Today a paradoxical book has been made ready on earth, which in an indescribable way can hold, not the imprint of words, but the living Word Himself; not a word consisting of air, but the heavenly Word; not a word made by the movement of a man’s tongue, but the Word begotten of God the Father before all ages. Today the living Tabernacle of God not made with hands appears, the inspired human Ark of the true Bread of Life sent down from heaven for us (cf. John 6.32). Today, as prophesied, out of the “stem of Jesse” a rod has come forth (cf. Isaiah 11.1), from which a flower has grown which knows no wilting. This rod recalls our human nature, which had withered and fallen away from the unfading garden of delight, makes it bloom again, grants it to flourish forever, brings it up to heaven, and leads it into paradise.
But who is the new world, the mysterious paradise, the paradoxical book, the inspired Tabernacle and Ark of God, the truth sprung from the earth, the much extolled rod of Jesse? It is the Maiden who before and after childbearing is eternally virgin, whose birth from a barren mother we celebrate today. Joachim and Anna lived together blamelessly before God, but seemed to the Israelites to be at fault according to the Law because they remained childless. Now that this Virgin born today has bestowed eternity upon us by bearing a child in virginity, having children to succeed us is no longer necessary, but in those days having many children was regarded as superior to virtue, and childlessness was such a great evil that these just people were rebuked for their lack of children, rather than praised for their virtue.
Deeply saddened by these reproaches, the righteous couple called to mind Abraham and Sarah, and the others who had suffered grief because of their childlessness. They then considered the healing remedy for that sorrow; which some had found, and decided that they too would resort to beseeching God. The chaste Joachim departed to the wilderness and dwelt there, fasting and offering up prayer to God that he might become a father. And before he ceased praying or returned thence, he received full assurance that his request would be granted. Meanwhile the like-minded Anna shut herself in a nearby garden and cried to the Lord with pain in her heart, “Hear me, O God of my fathers, and bless me, as you blessed Sarah’s womb.” And the Lord heard them and blessed them, and promised to give them a child. Now He has fulfilled this promise and has granted them a daughter more wonderful than all the wonders down through the ages, the Mother of the Creator of the universe, who made the human race divine, turned earth into heaven, made God into the Son of man, and men into the sons of God. For she conceived within herself without seed, and brought forth in a way past telling, the One Who brought everything that exists out of non-being, and transformed it into something good, Who will never let it cease to exist.
As the Mother of God had to be a Virgin of David’s stock, born at the right moment for our salvation, the time drew near and the Virgin had to be made ready, but even among David’s descendants no others were found at that time superior in virtue or in nobility of character and birth to that childless couple. So those without children were preferred to those with many, that the daughter with all virtues might be born with highly virtuous parents, the All-pure of those who were exceptionally chaste, and that chastity, conceiving through prayer and asceticism, might as a consequence become the mother of virginity, virginity which would bring forth without corruption the divinity begotten of the virgin Father before all ages. What wings that prayer had! How boldly it approached God! How spotlessly pure their hearts must have been to offer a prayer which so speedily achieved so much!
But you, O sacred audience, who listen to my words, my human flock and field in Christ, offer your exercise of the virtues and your progress in them as a birthday gift to the Mother of God: both men and women, elderly people along with younger ones, rich and poor, leaders and subjects, those of absolutely every race, age, rank, profession and branch of learning. Let none of you have a soul which is barren and without fruit. Let nobody be unloving or unreceptive to the spiritual seed. May each of you eagerly accept this celestial seed, the word of salvation (cf. Luke 8.11), and by your own efforts bring it to perfection as a heavenly work and fruit pleasing to God. Let no one make a beginning of a good work which brings no fruit to perfection (cf. Luke 8.14), nor declare his faith in Christ only with his tongue. “Not everyone,” it says, “that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 7.21), and, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62).
Offer now with one accord to the Virgin, whose feast we keep today, the most desirable and appropriate gift, your sanctification and bodily purity through self-control and prayer. See, all of you, how chastity, fasting, and prayer, linked with contrition, made Joachim and Anna the parents of a divine vessel. A vessel chosen not just to bear the name of God, like Paul (Acts 9.15) who was to be born later, but to bear Him “Whose name is Wonderful” (Psalms 8.1).
If we too, brethren, wish to dwell not on earth but in heaven, and not to fall to the ground or into sin that pulls us down, but to reach out continuously towards the divine heights, let us fear God, abstain from everything evil, return to Him through good works, and strive by self-control and prayer to wipe out the evil accretions within us, to change our inner hearts for the better, and according to the Prophet, to be in labor with the spirit of salvation and bring it to birth, having as our helper, through invoking her name, the Virgin who was today bestowed upon her parents through prayer and a manner of life pleasing to God. She transformed their sorrow; annulled the ancestral curse, and brought our first Mother’s pangs to an end, painlessly bearing Christ as a virgin.
To Whom belong all glory, honor, and worship together with His Father without beginning and the all-holy, good, and Life-giving Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Saint Gregory Palamas
(From Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing.)