“The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” ~St. Augustine
This is a fairly well known quote from Augustine, and also, a fairly well known truth. This mysterious “intertwining” is one of my favorite things about Scripture. It catches my attention, locks me in, and leads me to wonder like nothing else. For me, the intricacies that interlace and unfold within Scripture are proof enough of a God for me. The Word of God is a perfect combination of simplicity and complication, clarity and mystery… I don’t think any human author could have constructed a story this intricate and incredible all by himself. Even some of the best-selling authors of our time have been heavily influenced by the stories within Scripture (see the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling for just a few examples).
Today, I want to elaborate on something similar, though technically, this story is not found within Scripture. It is a part of our oral tradition, and seems to fit like a missing puzzle piece in the story of Our Lady’s childhood. Besides that, the parallels with events we know to be true from the Old Testament seem to have the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit smeared all over it.
Today, the Catholic Church recognizes the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We aren’t legitimately claiming that September 8 is the exact date of her birth. In fact, there’s reason to believe that her actual birthday may be the fifth of August. However, the date itself is not what’s most important to recognize. Neither, so much is Mary herself… for in all reality… everything that we celebrate on this day has to do with the actions of God… not Mary.
This story starts with Anne and Joachim, a wealthy Jewish couple who had been barren throughout the entirety of their marriage. Most of the details we have about them come from the Gospel of James — which is not Scripture and not written by the Apostle James. It is a manuscript written during the corresponding time period that may or may not be historically accurate. That being said, nothing about the story contradicts the things which Scripture and Tradition teach as Truth, thus we are free to believe these stories based on our own intuitions. (pretty cool huh?)
Supposedly, Joachim felt a kinship to his deceased forefather Abraham. This makes sense as both men were vastly wealthy and well respected in their communities, but both carried the deep wound of a barren marriage. Famously, God promised and delivered a male heir to his faithful servant Abraham. Remembering God’s generosity and goodness, Anne and Joachim devoted themselves to prayer and fasting in the hopes that God would also bless them with a child.
According to the story, an angel appeared to St. Anne and her that she would conceive… just as an angel had appeared to Abraham and told him that Sarah would conceive (Genesis 18). Then, from both of these couples, “Israel” descends.
A great nation descends from Abraham because of Isaac. Isaac fathers Jacob, also known as Israel. Israel is the father of twelve sons from whom the Twelve Tribes of Israel descend.
Another “nation” of sorts descends from Joachim. Joachim fathers Mary. Mary is the mother of Jesus, the “new Israel.” The fact that Jesus has twelve disciples is not an accident. The Twelve symbolized that Jesus was reuniting God’s people. It was these twelve men who gathered believers together and helped Christ (after his Ascension) to establish the Church…a universal nation. A Catholic nation. The nation of Israel in the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the Church. It is from both of these instances that we come to understand the fullness of God’s plan for his people: everlasting union with God. Until that time comes in fullness, the people of this nation will continue to “wrestle with God” hoping to be blessed by him. See Genesis 32:22-32 for the full understanding of what I mean here. The name Israel means, “he who wrestles with God”; in this Scripture passage, Jacob refuses to let go of his opponent until he receives a blessing. This is exactly how we should approach our lives… wrestling with God… with the good and the evil… never giving up the fight until we get the blessing of eternal life!
“Today’s Swap Moment”
Neither Isaac nor Mary would have been conceived if it were not for the presence of God’s grace in both of these stories. Sarah and Anne possessed the same “weakness.” Both women were barren and had already gone through menopause at the time they conceived. Even within the eyes of the scientific world, the conception of both these children would be considered miraculous.
These miraculous conceptions are actually an incredibly common theme found throughout scripture; women who have been barren for decades find themselves able to have children with the help of God. This not only points to God’s almighty power (2 Cor 12:9)… it points to the fact that God has been with this child from the very beginning of his or her life… and he’s been with them in this way because this child will play a pivotal role in the story of Salvation History and they need special graces. Without him, they’d be nothing. Their beginnings make this truth very obvious.
Today, on Mary’s birthday, we celebrate her birth because of what it means for all of mankind. St Augustine actually explains how her birth is the beginning of mankind’s salvation since the human nature that the Christ inherits is born. If you stop and really think about it… this really is a big deal! We do not celebrate Mary because of anything she did or accomplished… we celebrate the fact that God created her. We are marveling at God’s handiwork and majesty. Her conception and birth are the beginning of the New Creation Story, our second chance at eternal life. We are given a New Eve, who begins her life without the stain of sin (just as the original Eve had begun her life).
The difference here can be observed right off the bat. In Genesis, Eve comes from the body of Adam. But this time, the New Eve comes first… and our New Adam comes from her body … almost as if God is reversing the story.
And the best part is that in this reversal, the serpent loses. While the sin of Adam and Eve led to the downfall of man, the obedience of the New Adam and the New Eve will lead to the resurrection of all.
Today, we celebrate the creation of this New Eve, and the beginning of God’s New Creation. Mary’s birth is the quiet dawning of the Day of our Salvation.