A HOMILY FOR THE NATIVITY OF THE MOST HOLY THEOTOKOS
About the Meaning for Us of the Prayer of Saints Joachim and Anna
Brothers and sisters!
Many people think that God does not hear prayer; that, having wound the timepiece of creation, He has left it to run on its own. Therefore, they do not pray to Him for their needs and desires. Convinced that there is no way to influence the things that impact us but lie outside the realm of what we can sway or control by earthly means, they become unsettled, frustrated, worried, agitated, despondent, or depressed when it seems difficult or impossible to get what they want. Sometimes they vent their frustration by complaining about others or lashing out at them; sometimes they lose their temper at irrational animals or inanimate objects, making a piteous spectacle of themself. Almost as piteous are those who theoretically accept the notion of God’s providential care, but fail to heed the Saviour’s words: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him? Such people are not diligent at prayer, but tire of it easily, seeing little to be gained. This attitude of theirs eventually becomes, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. They hardly pray and thus do not enjoy the benefits of prayer. This confirms their doubt in prayer’s benefit and their disinclination to pray.
Our Lord Jesus Christ made it clear that we should pray primarily for spiritual blessings: the forgiveness of sins; divine assistance; the grace of cleansing, enlightenment, and sanctification; the healing of passions; and the salvation of our soul. Nevertheless, He does not entirely forbid us to pray for earthly benefits, when these may directly or indirectly serve to foster the spiritual purposes for which He created us. He answers prayers of this sort, as well as prayers for spiritual blessings, when it suits His purpose and advances His Kingdom. Sometimes He even works an obvious miracle in so doing, thereby demonstrating His care for us and spurring us to additional prayer. Sacred history knows of many examples of God responding in a wondrous manner to entreaties for temporal as well as spiritual blessings, because He knows well that in our damaged, fallen state, we are more easily roused to thankfulness to Him by the former than the latter. Thus, condescending to what is lower, He evokes our gratitude and elevates us to what is higher. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the story of today’s feast, the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos.
Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary, were by the will of God childless until they reached an advanced age. This was no accident, but corresponded to the Lord’s plan both for the two saints and for the entire human race. The ancient Jews considered nothing more desirable than children, whom they regarded as evidence of God’s blessing upon parents, as well as a source of assistance in chores and a succor in old age. Because of Anna’s failure to conceive, both saints were regarded as secret sinners, despite the evident holiness of their life. In the face of gossip and criticism, and sometimes open revilement, Joachim and Anna did not fall prey to doubts concerning God’s care for them or cease to pray, fast, and give alms. They cast all their sorrow upon the Lord, redoubled their supplications, and promised to dedicate to the Creator the fruit of Anna’s womb, if they were granted a child. As a result, God sent the Archangel Gabriel to announce to them that, despite being well beyond the age of childbearing, Anna would conceive a daughter whose birth would bring joy to the whole world. Because of the saints’ exceptional virtue and absolute trust in Him, the Lord condescended to grant their request for temporal consolation and overlooked the fact that they had dared ask for something impossible, humanly speaking. What in others might have been a sign of presumption, in Saints Joachim and Anna demonstrated unquestioning faith in prayer and in the One Who answers prayer.
Heaven and earth rejoiced in the nativity of Mary, the child of God. Joachim and Anna showed their gratitude to the Lord and their devotion to Him by the unprecedented sacrifices they offered in the temple, by the generous alms they gave the poor, by their ever more ardent prayers to the divine Benefactor and, most amazingly, by their willingness to return so quickly to the Giver the priceless gift bestowed upon them. Only three years after Mary’s birth, they escorted their daughter to the temple and gave her back to the Lord.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, let us consider the question: Why not follow the example of Saints Joachim and Anna, and cast all our sorrows and cares upon the Lord? The present feast shows that everything is possible for Him. Why allow ourself to become unsettled, frustrated, worried, agitated, despondent, or depressed when we are faced with tribulations or are not getting our way? True, as human beings we cannot avoid the initial impact of sorrows and temptations, but God can accomplish what is impossible for man, and He can certainly lighten your burden, in the response to your prayer. For this, only two things are necessary: for you to ask with boldness and persistence, addressing the Lord directly, face to face, almost as if He were another human being; and for you to forget that you are perhaps asking the humanly impossible, in the knowledge that God’s power is beyond measure.
Even if God does not directly grant your request, you will still profit from such prayer. If God does not perform the miracle you are asking, He will perform another, illumining your darkened mind and heart so that you understand that you can do without something that previously seemed absolutely necessary. For example, the sick person prays that the Lord heal his infirmity. He continues to suffer, but also continues to pray. As he does so, he realizes that the illness is not so difficult to bear, and that he is deriving spiritual profit both from it and from the prayer. The poor man asks God for material prosperity, but the Lord does not grant it. Nevertheless, he discovers the consolation of prayer and understands that if he has God dwelling in his heart, he is more satisfied with life and enjoys more peace than the richest person alive, who can buy almost anything he fancies. If you want a good example of this, call to mind the devout wandering peasant in the wonderful little book The Way of a Pilgrim. He hadn’t even a roof over his head, and his only possessions were a sack with two books and some dried bread in it, but the Prayer of Jesus was alive and ever active in his heart. As a result, he was happier than any king or great noble who enjoys all of this world’s blessings.
And so, ask yourself more frequently, brothers and sisters: What do I gain by allowing myself to be unsettled, frustrated, worried, agitated, despondent, or depressed? What do I accomplish by criticizing, complaining about, or acting unpleasantly towards those who disappoint or upset me? Absolutely nothing. But if I immerse myself in heartfelt, pure, and persistent prayer, the Lord may make possible what seems impossible. He will most certainly calm my heart and help me understand my situation in the light of His providential care for us. Therefore, understand what is to your advantage and avail yourself of prayer, no matter if what you ask is something lofty or something lowly. One way or the other, you will find that God, Who takes forth the precious from the vile, as the Scripture says, will always lift the lover of prayer to a higher plane and bless him in ways beyond expectation. Amen.
 Matt. 7:7-11
 Jer. 15:19