Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Our worst arguments are often with the people closest to us, especially members of our own family. Perhaps the more we have in common with others, the easier it is to disagree about how things should be done and about what is really most important. That is true not only in our families and marriages, but also when it comes to religion.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul argues against fellow Christians of Jewish heritage who thought that Gentile converts had to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law before becoming Christians. He rejected that practice because those who put on Christ in baptism become “a new creation” through faith in the One Who fulfilled the law through His Cross. By conquering death, the wages of sin, through His resurrection, the Savior has made it possible for all people to participate in His salvation. As He said to Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
Even as we look ahead to the Elevation of the Holy Cross this coming week, we continue to celebrate today the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, remembering especially her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anna. These commemorations remind us that the God-Man Who vanquished Hades for our salvation had a human ancestry, which was necessary for Him to be both a human person and the particular human person in Whom all the promises to Abraham were fulfilled. His grandparents Joachim and Anna were not like the people Paul opposed in his letter to the Galatians, for their role in the coming of the Messiah was not based on what they had achieved by their own ability to obey a law. Instead, it was the complete opposite, for they lacked the ability to conceive and bear children, which was understood as a requirement for fulfilling their role in the ongoing life of the Hebrew people. As a childless couple, they despaired of their place among the righteous of Israel.
In their weakness and pain, however, God heard their prayer and miraculously blessed them in old age with a daughter, whom they offered to the Lord by taking her to live in the Temple as a three-year old. That is where she grew up in purity and prayer as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord, the Theotokos who would contain the Son of God in her womb as His Virgin Mother. Joachim and Anna had not relied on their natural ability to conceive children, for they were old and barren. Instead, they trusted in the Lord’s mercy to bless them as He had blessed Abraham and Sarah. And He not only blessed them in that way, but with a daughter who would give birth to the Messiah in Whom the ancient promises to the Jews would be fulfilled and extended to all with faith in Him.
Of course, even the strictest obedience to the Old Testament law could not conquer death. The cycle of birth and the grave had reigned ever since the corruption of our first parents. The “wages of sin is death,” and the law was powerless to fulfill our calling to become like God in holiness as “partakers of the divine nature.” The path out of slavery to corruption was not in the human ability to obey rules and regulations to some extent; instead, it is found in the merciful love of God Who blessed an elderly, righteous Jewish couple to have a daughter named Mary. She, in turn, would become the recipient of a unique and unbelievably gracious blessing as the Virgin Mother of the God-Man, the Second Adam, Who would set right and fulfill all that the first Adam had gotten wrong. The Theotokos is the New Eve through whom Life came into the world. Her birth is already a foreshadowing sign of our salvation.
In the Savior’s conversation with Nicodemus, who was at that time a legalistic Pharisee, He did not speak merely of obedience to a law that could make people more religious or moral. No, He spoke of life, saying “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The reference here is to an event described in Numbers 21:8-9, when the Hebrews were saved from deadly snake bites when they looked at the bronze snake held up by Moses in the desert. Christ does not focus in this passage on Moses as the one through whom the Ten Commandments were given. Instead of portraying him in terms of the law, He describes him as foreshadowing His victory over death through being lifted up on the Cross. Of course, the Savior’s Passion does not save people merely from poisonous snake bites on a certain day, but enables us to share in the eternal life of the Kingdom of God for which He created us in His image and likeness.
To unite ourselves to Christ by faith also has a connection to the Cross. St. Paul wrote, “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” Truly to believe in Jesus Christ is not merely to have ideas or feelings about Him, but to be united to Him in holiness, to participate personally in the salvation that He has brought to the world. In order to do so, we must take up our crosses as we die to whatever holds us back from offering ourselves to Him in humble obedience.
Joachim and Anna certainly bore their cross of the pain and embarrassment of childlessness. When they were miraculously blessed in the conception and birth of Mary, they offered her to grow up in the Temple. After decades of disappointment, they knew that God’s blessing was not their private possession, but for them to offer back to Him for the accomplishment of something much larger than their own personal happiness. They surely bore a cross in leaving their young daughter in the Temple, and years later she obeyed the strange message of the archangel in agreeing to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God. As St. Symeon declared to the Theotokos at her Son’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35) Her cross was to see Him die on His after being rejected by the leaders of His own people.
As members of Christ’s Body, the Church, we are quite fortunate to be in a position to reap the blessings of the faithful obedience of Joachim and Anna and of their daughter the Theotokos. We have become “a new creation” in the Lord Who releases us from the spiritual barrenness of bondage to sin and death that had enslaved humanity since the corruption of Adam and Eve. Through His Cross and glorious resurrection, He has brought life to our world of death in a way that obedience to the law could never have accomplished.
It is only by taking up our crosses that we may unite ourselves to His. It is only by dying to the old ways of death that we may live faithfully as His “new creation.” “For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Let us celebrate the birth of the Theotokos as a foreshadowing sign that His gracious mercy extends to all who, like her and her parents, offer their lives to Him in humble faith. That is how we may participate personally in His great victory over sin and death for our salvation.