The Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God, one of the Twelve Great Feasts, at the end of September. On this very day in Nazareth was born the one destined to be both the Ladder and the Door to the Kingdom of Heaven, the realm of truth and life everlasting for all humanity.
According to tradition, the Virgin’s parents were elderly and barren. Although they lived righteously, God didn’t bestow children on them, and they endured unjust defamation for barrenness for 50 years of married life. They carried on resignedly in mutual love, fasting and prayer, putting trust in the Lord.
Joachim and Anna travelled to Jerusalem on great feasts. Joachim once visited the temple to make a sacrifice along with fellow Jews on such an occasion, but the high priest Issachar rejected the offering, reproaching him with barrenness. Other men mocked him. Feeling bitter for being humiliated publicly, Joachim withdrew to the desert to dwell there for forty days and forty nights in fasting and prayer, pleading with God to remove his disgrace by granting his wife’s childbearing.
Upon learning of her husband’s humiliation, Anna retired to the garden to weep unseen by her family, hiding her grief. All of a sudden, an angel of God appeared to her and said,
"The Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive and bring forth, and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world."
Joachim, praying in the desert, also saw an angel who brought good news to him and hurried Joachim to Jerusalem.
Their daughter was born in due time and given the name Mary on the fifteenth day from birth, as tradition dictates. The name “Mary” means “mistress”, “hope” in Hebrew, and Mary, giving birth to the Creator, became the Mistress and Hope of all creation.
Saint Anna is usually depicted half-lying on a couch in the icons devoted to the feast. There are women with gifts at the side. A midwife with a maid is bathing the infant Mary (Theotokos) in the basin. This symbolizes renewal and purification of humankind. The figures of the maids are always small as well as their role. Attention is focused on the Newborn and her saintly parents.
Few genre details are introduced in the early icons of the feast. Saint Anna is represented in front of a traditional architectural background in antiquating style. Later on, icons became more detailed showing the lively interior of Joachim and Anna’s residence. Tables with gifts and treats, birds and a basin are often painted.
What do gifts symbolize? There are a few opinions. Maybe they are a traditional offering for a new mother on occasion of a joyous occurrence. Plates, chalices and cutlery are on the table. If Joachim is pictured, the scene becomes a bit of a domestic genre.
Depicting the font, from which big and small birds drink, the artists hint at good upbringing, since the birds are famous for meticulously nurturing their progeny.
Observing various icons of the feast, you’ll notice that Joachim is absent from some of them. Why is that so? It is because a man could not enter the female part of the house in certain moments. That is the reason for the father of Theotokos not being pictured in the central part of the icon. He is often outside, in the doorway of one of the architectural chambers or peering through the window.
The Nativity of Theotokos is celebrated on September 21 in the Russian OrthodoxChurch. The festive celebration begins on the eve at Vigil on September 20. The defining feature of the Liturgy on the day is Irmos “Virginity is Alien to Motherhood” sung instead of “It is Truly Meet”. Same Irmos is performed at every Liturgy at the afterfeast until leave taking. And of course our eyes are resting on beautiful flower decorations of the church to praise Most Holy Theotokos. The feast of Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God has a day of forefeast (September 20)and four days of afterfeast. The leavetaking is on September 25. The memory of the righteous holy Forefathers Joachim and Anna is celebrated on September 22.
Troparion of the feast:
Your Nativity, O Virgin, /
has proclaimed joy to the whole universe! /
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, / has shone from You, O Theotokos! /
By annulling the curse, / He bestowed a blessing. /
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.
At the very end of July, only four days apart, the Belarussian Orthodox Church commemorates two of the very first Russian Saints who happen to be related to each other - Saints Olga and Vladimir.