Bay leaves and Sparrows

December 24 2013 by Kelly O'Brien Pahman

Christmas is all about baby Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.

Welcome to the Incarnation where matter suddenly matters (we are anchored in the eternity of the divine Logos).

God takes on human form….

He has a body.

He is born.

He is nursed.

The wonder of it all is endless. We have eternity to celebrate how creation is reunited with God.*

It’s fascinating that Christ comes in the darkest of seasons; he is the light that warms the earth after winter solstice (how creation testifies!). Only now am I learning more about how God has come to humanity in and through a place of such grief and loneliness and brings deep hope, life, and union.

Growing up Protestant, I knew very little about Mary. She was like a distant relative that showed up at Christmas and Easter and was forbidden to talk to anyone. It wasn’t until I became Orthodox and read a book by Frederica Mathewes-Green now called Mary As the Early Christians Knew Her: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts, that I was awakened to the wonder of what God has done and introduced to this extended family that I had previously been unaware of.

Mary has parents….

Which means Jesus has Grandparents.

This is when I met Sts. Joachim and Anna in the Protoevengelium of James (a second century writing, a prologue to Christmas).

When reading this the theology student in me quickly recognizes how this text is buttered with biblical references. Salvation history is woven in every page, and it is truly delightful to wonder in an “oh, this is what God was saying!” moment.

This brings us to Joachim and Anna (where I had hoped to begin…).


Joachim is a good man; he is diligent, wealthy and generous; he loves God. Joachim is righteous in all the right ways.   

In the middle of an offering, in a time that is meant to be full of joy and celebration some (goodfornothing sonofajackleinsesative3@$!@^&) gentleman (ahem) heckles Joachim and tells him that even though he has the world to offer God, what kind of righteous man is he without children? Needless to say Joachim who is familiar with this struggle is grieved, so grieved that he just goes straight to the mountains in shame. He doesn’t even say goodbye to his wife Anna.

Anna is also in deep grief, lamenting that she is not only is she without children but now she is also without a husband! Her servant, in an effort to comfort her, offers her a beautiful headdress and encourages her to meet her husband. There is a bit of a banter, Anna, upset in her grief, takes it out on her servant who retaliates with something like “Why are you angry at me? God is the one who did this to you?!”

Anna goes to be alone. Her heartbreaking lament:

Looking up toward heaven, Anna saw a sparrow’s nest in the Laurel tree. Immediately she began to lament within herself, “Oh, what father begot me, and what mother brought me forth? For I was born only to be cursed before the children of Israel, and reproached, and mockingly cast out of the temple of my God.”

Even in this desperate place we see a whisper of hope. Laurels (bay leaves) are what the Romans used to crown victors. And the sparrow! Later Jesus talks about sparrows (Mt 6:25-26) and God’s tender care for them: He tells us, “Are you not worth more than the sparrow? If God will care for the sparrow then certainly he will care for you.”

Soon angels come to both of them and Joachim and Anna meet with a sweet tender love that is seasoned with age and a shared grief.  Then they conceive Mary in their old age (reminiscent of Elkanah & Hannah and Abraham & Sarah before them).

It is in this dark and lonely grief that God greets us, reminding us that we are not overlooked but deeply cared for. We are not defeated, but we are crowned as victors. In the darkest places, he brings light.


God is with us.

Merry Christmas!

*Within the creation story humanity is originally created to care for the earth and walk with the Divine (God), and when our passions are disordered there is suddenly a separation between us and our microcosm selves are left severed and disoriented from God. Christ’s incarnation is an invitation to enter into that original order, where we are united with God and walk with him in a way that heals not only our own disorder but heaven and earth as well.

If your interested in last years post...

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