A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE CONCEPTION BY SAINT ANNA OF THE ALL-HOLY THEOTOKOS
On Making Our Vows and Paying Them to the Lord
Brothers and sisters!
Today our Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Conception of the all-pure Theotokos. As most of you know, Saints Joachim and Anna lived together in honorable wedlock until old age; however, they had no children. Both were devout and Godfearing, but the Lord deigned to strengthen their faith and patience by means of the sorrow of childlessness, so that when their daughter was conceived, their joy would be the greater. The pious couple never ceased to trust that the Lord would give them a child, and they constantly fasted and prayed in hope that He would look favorably on them. What is more, they vowed that if God granted them the fruit of the womb, they would offer it back to Him in thanksgiving.
After the great Archangel Gabriel announced to both saints that Anna would conceive a daughter who would be the joy of the whole world and that she was to be called Mariam, the elderly couple came together, and Saint Anna soon realized that she was pregnant. From the day Mary was born, her parents strove to rear her in an atmosphere of the utmost purity and piety. According to an ancient tradition, Saints Joachim and Anna permitted no one except undefiled Hebrew maidens to come near their little child. They did not tarry in fulfilling their promise to God, but when Mary reached the age of just three, they took her to live in the Temple of Jerusalem. Here, the Virgin was to be prepared for her great mission -- to give flesh to the Son and Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Saint Anna’s conception is a reminder to us, dear Christians, of how we should fulfill our promises to God. To make a vow or promise to God is a weighty matter, a commitment we should be happy and eager to carry out, and not something to postpone or neglect, much less to disregard. Remember that to make a promise to God is to promise to the Almighty, the Supreme, the Utterly Transcendent One, before Whom tremble heaven and earth; before Whom all the hosts of angels stand in fear. To fail to fulfill a vow to God, the All- compassionate Creator and Sustainer, is to show disdain for His compassion, disdain for everything He graciously provides for the sustenance of our lives. If it is a sin to break one’s word to another person, to a mere mortal, then how much more is it a sin to break one’s word to the immortal King and all-holy Lord of heaven and earth?
We should all understand that there is a difference between fulfilling the ordinary obligations incumbent upon all Orthodox Christians, and fulfilling a special promise or vow to God. Every Christian is obliged to obey the law of God and to do good deeds pleasing to God, without making any sort of vow beyond that which we all made, or was made for us by our godparents, when we became catechumens before our Baptism. When we speak here of making a special vow to God, we do not mean carrying out this general promise, which entails a commitment to prayer, fasting, chastity, generosity, and the other basic Christian virtues. Rather, it means making an exceptional, personal, individual promise to the Lord to do something additional, something special, something exceeding our basic religious obligations. For example, in order to enhance my prayerful struggle, to make a special offering to God, I may vow to read the entire Psalter once, twice, or for a certain period of time, or to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or to some other sacred destination. Either of these would be a vow to God. Or perhaps I might promise to abstain from eating meat for a period of time or for the rest of my life, or promise God that I will enter a monastery, or that I will make such-and- such a donation to the church above the tithe required from every Christian. All these are examples of voluntary promises, exceeding what is binding upon everyone. They are freewill offerings rather than the carrying out of general obligations.
Such vows are pleasing to God, but only if we actually fulfill them, and only if they are consistent with the duties our circumstances impose upon us in relation to the church and our families. So, let us suppose that we have a father who is frustrated by his unruly, disobedient children. If he vows to enter a monastery and abandons them, this would not be a God- pleasing vow. A vow must help us eradicate our passions and correct our lives; otherwise, what good is it? What good would it do us to vow to stop eating meat, and yet to leave unchecked our propensity for judging and criticizing others, for cursing and blaspheming, for envying and holding grudges, and so forth? God does not demand that we stop eating meat, but He does require that we love Him and our neighbor, and that we have a broken and contrite heart before Him. A vow to make a special, voluntary sacrifice to God is only to our benefit if we are already struggling earnestly to do what is incumbent upon us as Christians.
Most vows are made to God when people are faced with some difficulty, danger, or challenge. Such promises are acceptable to the Lord, but not if they are purely the result of fear or the wish for temporal gain or prosperity. In making a vow at a time of stress, a person must also have a desire to thank God in the case of his deliverance or success, and a willingness to embrace God’s will if things do not turn out as he hopes. In other words, the vow must entail a direct acknowledgment of divine omnipotence and providence, as well as recognition of the weakness of human power, and the need to thank the Lord for His help.
Whatever our reason for making a vow, it is essential, as I have already mentioned, that we fulfill it. As is so often the case, if we look to the Lives of the saints, we find clear guidance as to how we should and should not act here. When Saint Theodosius was abbot of the Kiev Caves Monastery, the boyar Clement set out for battle in the army of Great Prince Izyaslav. He made a vow to God that if he returned safe and unharmed, then he would donate a certain quantity of gold to the Monastery of the Caves, making from it a crown for the temple’s highly revered icon of the most holy Theotokos. The campaign ended successfully, and the boyar returned home safe and unharmed, but he forgot to carry out the vow. It was not long before he was corrected. The Queen of heaven herself appeared to him in her glory, with a fearsome voice threatening the boyar for failing to do what he had promised. Terrified by the vision, the boyar hastened to fulfill the vow.
Nothing we have said today, dear Christians, is intended to discourage you from making God-pleasing vows to the Lord. No, such vows are a beautiful thing, a sign that the cup of the soul is overflowing with love for God, desire to please Him, and willingness to sacrifice for Him. Only, when vowing to make some special offering to God, whether the sacrifice involves money, time, or effort, make sure that you do not neglect the more basic, the more fundamental, the more general, and the more essential duties of Christians; that your motives for vowing are pure; and that you carry out what you have promised. A God-pleasing vow is something solemn, noble, holy, and magnificent. Let us gladly make such vows and pay them to the Lord, 1 as the Psalmist says, that we may enjoy the Lord’s favor, and may delight in the spiritual blessings which the only Good One bestows on those who strive to love and please Him.