The newly canonized St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain said,
From a young age I had great reverence towards the Holy Ancestors of God. Indeed, I had told someone that, when they make me a monk, I would want them to give me the name Joachim. How much I have benefited from them! Sts. Joachim and Anna are the most dispassionate couple which ever existed. They did not have any carnal mindset.
This is how God made man and this is how he wanted men to be born - dispassionately. But after the fall passion entered the relationship between man and woman. As soon as a dispassionate couple was found, which is how God created man and as he wished men to be born, the Panagia was born, this pure creation, and then Christ became incarnate. My thoughts tell me that Christ would have descended earlier to earth, if there was a pure couple, such as were Sts. Joachim and Anna.
Perhaps we know very little about St. Anna, the grandmother of our Lord and she somehow slips out of our mind when we think of the various saints that have made an impression on us, whether by their life, their intercessions or both. Looking around our Orthodox world, we should note that the oldest and most revered Skete on Mount Athos is dedicated to her: the Skete of St. Anne.
Also, St. Dimitry of Rostov concludes his Life of Sts. Joachim and Anna, drawing our attention to their place in the divine services, saying, “Every day at the conclusion of [the] divine services, at the dismissal, the Church asks for mercy and salvation from the Lord for those going out of the temple, through the prayers of the Mother of God and of the holy and righteous Ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna…”
Lastly, let us recall that not many years ago, in the parish of Our Lady, The Joy of All Who Sorrow in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there appeared, to my knowledge, the first icon of St. Anna which streamed myrrh.
These illustrations are meant to show how important these holy ancestors are in our Orthodox world and perhaps more significant than we realize.
Looking at the lives of Sts. Joachim and Anna, let us not repeat what we heard last evening but let us focus on a few areas of their life.
They were of the lineage of Judah and David and the succession of kings. They were full of spiritual knowledge and were not deprived of material wealth either. On every feast day, they would divide their funds into thirds, giving one-third to the poor, one-third to the Temple and one-third they kept for themselves. They lived childless in marriage for fifty years. This was very shameful for them as they and all Israel were familiar with the promises that God had made in regards to having many offspring as being the highest form of blessing from God, even greater than virtue itself, notes St. Maximus the Confessor. Also, the Israelites hoped to find among their descendants “the seed of the woman” who would be the Messiah. Therefore, they were sorrowful and often wept because of this.
In this fiftieth year, Joachim was bringing gifts to the Lord in the temple of Jerusalem as was the custom for all the Israelites at the time. Issachar, the high priest, did not want to recognize Joachim’s gifts saying, “Your gifts must not be accepted because you do not have children, and hence, do not have the blessing of God: most likely you have some secret sins.”
Disgraced and humiliated, Joachim left the temple and departed into the desert to pray and petition God for a child. Upon hearing what had happened to her husband and his retreat into the desert, Anna lamenting her childlessness and now also sorrowing over the loss of her husband, repented of her own sinfulness saying, “I am the most sinful of all women.”
The shame and humiliation that fell upon them due to their childlessness were not because they lived sinful lives or that they were found culpable of a particular sin. Instead, what we find is just the opposite, that they are praised for their upright and righteous lives. St. Gregory Palamas notes, “no others were found at that time superior in virtue or nobility of character and birth to that childless couple.” Yet we find that Joachim flees into the desert turning to God in prayer and fasting. They, and more specifically Anna, admits being the most sinful and deserving of this shame and humiliation, saying, “I am the most sinful of all the daughters of Israel.”
After fifty years of marriage and barrenness, this holy couple remained faithful and pious, always offering their gifts and wealth to the Lord and others yet they bore continued shame and reproach. Now we come to this point in their lives, confronted in the temple, in front of others, being humiliated. In such an instance, they turned to God once more. They did not flee from the Lord to find consolation in anything in the world but instead brought themselves before the Lord, our God. Truly, they were a bruised reed and smoking flax.
Archimandrite Sophrony, writing about similar situations in the life of the Christian, says, “and the worst ordeal of all is that, despite our utmost straining to be faithful to God, these are the periods we feel forsaken by Him. Our spiritual poverty, together with the pain of God’s absence, plunges us into despair. It seems as if some terrible curse hangs over us.”
He further notes that this is experienced by all of God’s children:
No one genuinely seeking salvation can escape the experience of being bereft of God. At some moments this feeling of having been abandoned becomes so acute that even a fleeting instant of it seems timeless. The purpose behind this withdrawal of grace is to give him the opportunity to manifest his freedom and fidelity to God.
Let us look at two examples of similar experiences from the beginnings of Christian history and in our present time. The first example is St. Anthony the Great and the second is Elder Joseph the Hesychast.
After St. Anthony had received a malicious beating by the demons while in his cave, he was found by a friend and brought to a church to recuperate. Upon his regaining consciousness, he asked to be brought back to his cave where he wrestled with the demons again. Soon afterwards they vanished and he felt the pain leaving his body. A ray of light shone upon him, and Anthony asked the Lord, “Where wert thou? Why didst thou not appear at the beginning to make my pain cease?” Moreover, a voice came to him, “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight; wherefore since thou hast endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succor to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere.” After this, St. Anthony received even more power and strength in his body than he had had before.
In A Contemporary Athonite Paterikon, we read of the same struggle in the life of Elder Joseph the Hesychast. He writes:
The most fearsome form of the passion of sleep is when Grace retires from us, and when negligence and obscurity take hold of us, not letting the least consolation shine through… One day, I was roughly tested by this passion. I was struggling not to give way and was nearly at the end of my strength. Then I interrupted my struggle to cry to the Lord with tears: “Lord, are they going to overcome me?” Immediately, I heard a voice deep within me: “Will you not endure even this for love of me?” My sorrow disappeared suddenly like a cloud vanishes before the sun, and, tears in my eyes, I jumped with joy like a child: “Yes, Lord, for you! Come and help my weakness!”
Archimandrite Soprony observes that this tormenting withdrawal of grace is a “sure sign of our election from our good Father,” he says, without which we can never come to know God’s design for us or His love for us. “Being forsaken by God,” he writes, “indicates that all our efforts hitherto are far from adequate for salvation – blessed eternity is not yet ours. Bitter dissatisfaction with – revulsion from – oneself is the first sign that we are approaching the fullness of love commanded of us by God.” This is what we especially see in this moment of the holy ancestors of Christ; amidst the humiliation and shame, they remain faithful to God, calling on Him and condemning themselves, pleading with Him to intercede for them. And, what was the outcome? Anna’s barren womb became fruitful and in nine months this righteous one gave birth to she who is more honourable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, the Mother of God.
May we, and I first, follow the example of Sts. Joachim and Anna and prove faithful to God amidst our own pain, toil and feelings of distance from God. And may we, for the love of Christ Who Himself endure shame and ridicule, turn to Him in times of trouble and say: “Yes Lord for you! Come and help my weakness!”