The feasts we celebrate which focus on the life of Mary before Jesus was conceived, come to us from the Protoevangelium of James. This is a document that we do not regard as scripture, but it is edifying reading, and I recommend having a look at it here: https://www.gospels.net/infancyjames/ Do not take it all literally, but it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with it. The feast of the entrance of the Theotokos into the temple celebrates events that are also told in the Protoevangelium, and it is also the only source of information we have about her parents, Joachim and Anna. If you would like to know why Mary’s cradle in the icon looks the way it does, read the Protoevangelium.
Anna, the mother of Mary, was of the lineage of Aaron the priest, and Joachim was of the family of David. As the synaxarion tells us, Mary brought together both the priestly and the royal lines, so that Jesus is descended from both. He calls us into his royal priesthood.
When we read the story in the Protoevangelium, we see the two personalities of the king and the priest in the characters of Joachim and Anna. Anna, of the priestly line, is a person of prayer. She prays for a daughter. This prayer is not just a prayer to have children. She desires to fulfill the commandments, particularly the commandment to increase the family of Israel. Bringing children into the world was a service to the community. Anna swears to dedicate the child to God in the temple. In St. Anna’s mind, life is intercession, born out of a solidarity with others and a longing for God. Prayer was so central to her nature, that the only possible purpose of having a child was to raise another intercessor who would live in the temple and serve the people through prayer. In fact, that is what Mary is still doing: serving her people through her prayers.
Joachim’s character is also inspiring, but it is different. Joachim is descended from David the great warrior king. Joachim brings his sacrifices (double the required amount) to God, with the same eager heart as David. But Joachim is turned away by the priest because he has not had a child. My immediate reaction was to be offended by the unfairness of that event. Surely it was not St. Joachim’s fault that he and his wife could not have children!
God has a way of nudging us towards prayer, even if it is in the midst of unfairness or misfortune. That is what happened with Joachim. In response to being barred from sacrificing he withdraws to fast and pray. Joachim could see that in our interactions with God it is unwise simply to focus on our “rights,” or on how we are being treated as individuals. God uses all situations for our salvation, and for the salvation of everyone. Would Joachim have sought God in such fervent prayer without the priest rejecting him? Would he and Anna have conceived? From the “unfairness” of the priest Jesus is brought into the world!
Not only does Joachim fast and pray, he even goes so far as to ask for God’s forgiveness! Just in case it he had sinned. Joachim does not need to be backed into the corner and forced to admit he is wrong before he repents. He just repents in case. This is the same heart as the heart of King David, when he wrote, “blott out my transgression … I know my iniquity and my sin is ever before me, against thee only have I sinned … create in me a clean heart … then shall they offer sacrifices and whole-burnt offerings.” (Psalm 50)
Joachim was beset by the challenges of infertility and social stigma. He turns to God and waits for God’s intervention, even though he is also a man of action. His decisiveness leads him out into the desert where he waits for God’s command. Joachim is like his ancestor David who also withdrew to the desert. Although David was a warrior hero figure, he was a special kind of hero. David constantly sought God’s guidance as he waged war against Israel’s enemies. Even though David was anointed as the one who would take over as King after Saul, still David did not take the opportunity to kill Saul and take the kingdom by violence. Saul was unrighteous. Saul was the king that God had appointed, but he acted unfairly. And yet David waited.
When we are angry and want to take action, we often fail to be the kind of heroes that David and Joachim were. Perhaps we are angry on behalf of those we perceive to be victims of the unfairness of the church’s teachings regarding holiness and obedience. Perhaps we are angry because of how the sinful world opposes God. David expressed both types of anger, but he waited for God to act. We, however, often take upon ourselves the mantel of heroes, and we feel compelled to “speak out.” If we speak out on behalf of the “victims” of God’s calling to holiness, we risk making ourselves the saviour of the people, and we end up portraying God as the enemy from which people must be saved. If, on the other extreme, we feel compelled to speak out because society has become unbearable sinful, we risk making ourselves the heroes and saviours who protect God’s honour. In either case, we think that what we are doing is borne out of love. But it is not love.
The heroic type of love is called agape. Agape love is brotherly love. It is also parental love. Agape is love that says, “I will suffer so that you can thrive.” Agape is the love which King David showed when he was willing to fight to protect. But David was also a shepherd in his youth who guided his sheep and later his people. David fought off wolves when he was a young shepherd, but later he wrote, “the Lord is my shepherd … his rod and his staff (the instruments of guidance and correction) comfort me.” He also wrote, “blessed art Thou, o Lord, teach me thy statutes.” This is the full picture of a hero. A hero does not simply defend; he also leads.
The Davidic hero realizes that we are all pieces of a bigger story; the story of how God saves the whole world. We become heroes when we pray, like St. Anna, for the opportunity to fulfill our own small part, allowing God use us as he sees fit. In their love for their fellow people, the heroes offer sacrifices of righteousness to God.
We too may offer our sacrifices by abstaining from the compulsion to “speak out.” We sacrifice the delicious feast of anger and indignance which keeps us coming back for more and more. We fast by abstaining from the passions which lead us into the delusion that we can save others through anger. When we acquire the “broken and humbled heart” which God will not despise, we can say, as Mary did, “let it be with me according to Thy will.” When unfairness and wickedness surround us, we listen for the voice of the good Shepherd. His sheep know his voice and will not follow the hireling. We save the world through mirroring the example of Jesus in his patience with the world. The result can be that through us, God, the good shepherd, will call our children, and all the lost children of the sinful world, to enter into His temple, like Mary entered when she was three years old.