My favorite icon is called the Virgin of the Sign. In Byzantine churches, it belongs on the eastern wall behind the holy table. It depicts Mary, the Theotokos, with her arms in a posture of prayer and with the Christ child - Emmanuel - within her womb, giving us his blessing.
I am a painter. My wife and I both have degrees in art and studied iconography for a couple of years under an experienced orthodox nun. Being a painter and being deeply in love with this icon - the Virgin of the Sign – I made a painting inspired by it. I suppose I am not allowed to call it an icon per se because it is an innovation and innovation is rarely permissible in iconography. So let’s call it a painting inspired by iconography.
It depicts the Virgin of the Sign - just as you see her with Christ within her - within the womb of her mother Anna. Christ within Mary within Anna. And Anna’s arms are also in a posture of prayer. Anna did indeed pray to have a child and thank God she did. Without Anna, we have no Mary and without Mary, we have no Jesus, no incarnate God, no salvation. I called this painting Theotokotokos - the bearer of the God-Bearer. She who bears within herself the one who bears God within herself.
One day, several years after I painted this image, a friend of mine saw it for the first time. He did not care for it at all. It was one thing to venerate Mary, the Theotokos, he thought, but this veneration of Anna could too easily spark a retroactive perception of holiness upon all the ancestors of Christ many of whom were not, in his view, so holy after all.
This friend of mine had been a Protestant. Though, by the time he was looking at my painting, he had been received into the Catholic Church. He had, I'm sure, as most Protestant converts to Catholicism do, struggled with the Catholic veneration of Mary and her role in our salvation. But he’d gotten to a point of accepting her. However, now witnessing my veneration of Anna put him a bit over the edge again I think.
Well, today's feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos is an opportunity for us to remember not only the role of Mary in our salvation but even the role of her mother Anna. There is among some Native Americans a custom of observing the birthday of a child by giving gifts – not to the child – but to the mother. Maybe this makes more sense than our custom. It is the mother who has done something worthy of thanks and praise when a child is born. Today, Mary is born and we give some thanks and praise also to her mother Anna.
I am not worried about introducing retroactive holiness. I think, rather, that may be a point of the Incarnation. Not the sanctification only of a select few, but the sanctification of all created things and beings in Christ. This Feast is a wonderful opportunity for us to behold the interconnection of all created things. It is easy to see the connection between Anna and Mary and between Mary and Jesus and our salvation. Each leads to the other.
But God works inside everything we do, even when it is not so easy to see. He is with us always. By entering into human history at one particular point in one particular woman, whose nativity we celebrate today, he becomes the result of all human history before him and the cause of all human history after him, except for our sin. He becomes like us in all things but sin. In his humanity, God is with us in every moment and in every place because every moment and every place in creation is interconnected. This reminds me of what the mathematician Edward Lorenz called the Butterfly Effect, in which he observed that a metaphorical tornado is influenced in all its details by minor perturbations – even the flapping wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Everything is interconnected.
God does not will our sin, ever. But, even when we sin, God brings good out of the evil we have done. Even his own conception he makes dependent on a whole genealogy of conceptions all the way back to Adam. And many of these conceptions were sinful or adulterous. That of Solomon, for example.
The Troparion of the Prefeast yesterday speaks of this and says that "Today is born to us, from the root of Jesse and the loins of David, Mary, the godly child. Therefore, all creation rejoices and is renewed." It is through Solomon that Jesus descends from David and Solomon is the fruit of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Thank God, David repents and is forgiven by the Lord. And God takes the evil that he had done and through it, ultimately, becomes man so that we together with David can become one with God.
I do not fear or oppose retroactive holiness. In fact, I hope and pray for it. Today, we sing in the Kontakion that, by the holy birth of the immaculate one, even Adam and Eve are freed from the corruption of death. And the people are delivered from the guilt of their sins. So holiness has indeed spread all the way to the beginning. May it also progress all the way until the end. In Christ, it has, it is, and it will. The whole universe rejoices today.
God makes us – just as much as he makes Adam and Eve. And he makes us – who are not holy because of our sins – to become holy by his grace if we will but cooperate with him and repent like David. He make us holy by becoming one of us – through Mary, through Anna and even through Bathsheba and through Eve.