Sermon for the Feast of the Falling Asleep of St. Anna
Sunday 24th July 1999
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Let us take a moment to ask ourselves, ‘where does the future of our Church lie?’ Let us ask ourselves ‘when we are dead and buried, what will the future of Orthodoxy be?’; and ‘who will bury us when we depart this life for the next?’ The simple answer to these questions lies in the children of our community. They are the future of Orthodoxy. Ultimately, they will be the ones to continue the work of Christ on this earth, to continue the work of the Holy Apostles, to uphold the torch of Orthodoxy in this land, to uphold our heritage. For this to take place, what then, is required of us, and what role do we play in preserving our Church’s future?
Our role is to nurture and provide. God, the author of life, compels us to not only nurture and provide our Church’s future with the material necessities of this world, but we are also compelled to provide that which is eternal. It is our role as responsible Christians to ensure the spiritual wellbeing of our youth, to ensure their spiritual education. To do otherwise is to bring about the downfall of Orthodoxy, in this Church, in this community, and in the world.
One prime example of a person, who accomplished the ultimate spiritual nurturing of a child, is Saint Anna, the mother of the most holy Theotokos, the grandmother of the Saviour of the world. Today we celebrate the dormition, the falling asleep of the earthly grandmother of our Lord Jesus Christ. This woman was the vessel of the vessel that made possible our salvation, that made possible our entry into the kingdom of heaven. Today we honour a woman who knew her priorities were in raising her daughter to love God and keep his commandments, today we honour a provider who modelled herself on the ultimate provider of all, our Heavenly Father.
The life of Saint Anna and her husband Saint Joachim was recorded by St. James the adelphotheos ('brother of the Lord') in a book not included in the Holy Scriptures called the Protoevangelion of James (Iakovos). According to this account, Saints Anna and Joachim lived a life of constant prayer, humility and moderation, but they could not conceive children. For a couple to be childless in those days meant that people thought you were cursed by God, and therefore considered worthless. Greatly troubled by this, and fearing that they would die childless, they still persevered in their constant prayer and fasting. Finally God provided them with a miracle and Saint Anna gave birth to a girl at the advanced age of 58.
Seeing this as an act of God and the answer to their prayers, Saints Anna and Joachim made a promise to dedicate the young girl named Mary solely to God. As the young girl grew, Saint Anna took it upon herself the task of instructing her in the basic principles of faith. When the Panagia was 4 years old, both Saints Joachim and Anna entrusted her to the care of Anna’s brother in law Zacharias (who was the high priest and father of Saint John the Baptist). So the Panagia lived out her childhood within the confines of the Temple in Jerusalem until she was 11 years old when her parents departed this life for the next. Saint Anna was 69 when she reposed in the Lord.
While it may seem sad that Saint Anna should leave her daughter as an orphan, she in fact was participating in God’s great plan. Having educated Mary herself, and having let her grow up in the temple, Saint Anna was preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, without knowing it she prepared the way for our salvation.
Never underestimate the strange and mysterious ways that God works; the ways in which God makes things ‘fall into place’.
Saint Anna in the Orthodox Church is known not only as the patron Saint of women who can’t bear children, but she is also the patron Saint of children’s religious education. And what better patron of religious education than a woman who knew her priorities, who knew her duty was to the spiritual growth of her child, and who provided spiritual food for the girl who was to be the greatest woman that ever lived, who was to become the Mother of our God.
In today’s gospel reading, we hear of the miracle that Christ performed with the feeding of the multitudes. We hear of the insensitivity of the Apostles who wished to send the crowds away to buy their own food. But our Lord knew His priorities. As Christ is God, it is only natural for Him to provide physical provisions for His creation, as well as the provision of spiritual food. Therefore He performed this miracle and multiplied the food out of compassion for His creation.
To use a contemporary contrast for this reading, we can equate the attitude of the Apostles in this instance, who wished to send away the crowds to get their own food, to indifferent parents who take no responsibility when it comes to the spiritual well being of their children, who leave a child’s religious education solely in the hands of the Church. What an absolute tragedy it is when certain parents discourage their children from showing an interest in things ‘religious’. Certain parents even go out of their way to discourage a child when he has an inclination toward the priesthood, or when a girl shows an interest in monasticism, and see their child as some sort of religious fanatic. Five hundred years ago, it would have been seen as a great blessing on a family if their children were this way inclined, but unfortunately this modern secular world has clouded our vision. Today all things religious are assigned to Sunday morning only and the religious education of children are assigned only to the Sunday school.
Christ provides material and spiritual necessities in this life, but it is up to us to work with Him in synergy. Saint Anna is a perfect model of the parent who provided the necessities of life for her child -both material and spiritual- in total cooperation with God, in total synergy. Saint Anna is the perfect model of a parent who encouraged her child. Let us use her as a model for the parent who raises a child to become the perfect Christian. Don’t discourage your children. Encourage. Provide. Work with God, not against him; for the sake of our children, for the sake of our Church, and for the sake of its future and our children’s future.
by Nick Brown
Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, Brisbane QLD