By Robert Wiesner
Birth of the Theotokos (“God-bearing one”)
For obvious reasons, childbirth has been long regarded as a primarily feminine undertaking; it is something of a cliché to see St. Joachim standing somewhat apart from the proceedings in the icon. The role of the father in bringing new life to light has generally been to stand by anxiously, ready to assist in any way necessary, but also a bit bewildered in the process and perhaps even a bit left out of the drama. There is truth in the cliché, of course; the father’s role in a child’s development becomes larger as the infant is transformed into a young man or woman. Still, in the upper portion of the icon, the couple is shown in loving union; the arrival of a new addition to the family does not sever the marital bond, but it will inevitably alter the dynamics of the relationship. The old form of marriage consisting of man and woman must give way to a new reality of man, woman and child. Each subsequent child forces another change to the shape of the family, a sort of death to the old, and a renewal or resurrection of the family in a new, expanded and improved form.
The icon certainly does depict the later role of Joachim. Next to Anna is seen a table set for great festivity. Joachim provides for his new family all the means to celebrate the birth of his daughter. Some commentaries even suggest that the table is set for the first birthday of the Theotokos, giving rise to a fruitful meditation on family celebrations.
Judaic customs included a great many holy days, marking their appreciation for God’s many interventions in their national life. Passover was a remembrance of their release from slavery in Egypt. Hanukkah marks their appreciation for the return from exile in Babylon and the renewed dedication of the Temple. Purim commemorates the thwarting by the noble Esther of Haman’s murderous plot against the Jews. One remarkable feature of these feasts is the theological foundation underlying all of them; besides being an excuse for a good celebratory feast, each of them was an occasion for Jews to remember in prayer and thanksgiving God’s good care for them.
This aspect of celebration has largely been lost to the modern world. Little or no recognition of the divine element remains in Christmas or Easter, for instance. They are regarded as excuses for a good (perhaps even gluttonous!) feast and the giving of gifts, maybe family gatherings, but generally modern society pays no attention to the significance of the birth or resurrection of the Messiah.
The role of the father in a Christian family takes on immense importance in this regard. Just as the father in a Jewish family carefully directed the course of the Passover feast, a conscientious Christian father must see to it that his family never loses sight of the divine presence in family celebrations. By virtue of our adoption as children of God and heirs to heaven, we belong to an expanded family; our relatives are far more numerous than might be seen within the walls of a family home. To exclude these many aunts, uncles, and cousins from a family party is rude at best, and possibly even insulting or blasphemous! There is a specific role for the parents, led by the father, to direct the family in constant recognition of God’s presence and guidance in the home.
Birthdays, name days, feast days, and graduations are all great occasions to celebrate not only the immediate family members, but the far larger extended family to which we have been so wonderfully joined.