|11 Sunday Before the Theotokos' Entry Into The Temple - November 19, 2006|
It’s been some time since the Church has had a major feast. Our last major feast was the Elevation of the Cross on Sept 14. It’s as though we have been traveling the last two months through the wilderness like the Israelites of old after they crossed the Red Sea. With Christ’s Cross elevated before us and guiding us over the last 10 weeks, we are now drawing near to the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple as to the borders of the Promised Land. Mary, who will bear Christ like “a holy Tree who brings forth fruit to God,” is brought at the age of three to the temple by her parents, Joachim and Anna. They offer her as “an acceptable sacrifice” in their gratitude to God for healing their barrenness and giving to them a daughter who is to become the Mother of God.
This is a most beautiful feast. It is often said that this feast is not in the bible. On one level, this is true. It is a feast based on an apocryphal story found for the first time in the Protevangelium of James, composed sometime in the second century. But, in fact on the deeper level of the Holy Spirit, the inspirer of Holy Scripture, this is not true: the feast of the Holy Virgin’s Entry into the temple is in the bible. It is a profoundly biblical feast, and the so-called ‘legend’ of Mary’s Entry into the Temple as told in the Protevangelium of James is not a legend as such, but rather the unveiling of a hidden story in the bible. That this feast comes from under the veil of the OT is made abundantly clear simply by looking at all the references to the Old Testament in the hymns of the feast, revealing to the eyes of faith that the Virgin’s Entry into the Temple is the final chapter of the OT and the dawning of the NT.
It is therefore not insignificant that the priest who receives the Theotokos into the Temple is Zacharias. He is the father of John the Baptist who was born of a barren womb as was the Theotokos! John was the last and the greatest of the prophets because he is the prophet who actually presents the Christ to the world when, in John’s greatest prophetic act, he baptizes the Word made flesh to reveal to the eyes of faith the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the salvation of the grace of God of which the prophets made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating regarding the Messiah, and to know those things into which angels long to look.
In the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, the parent of John the Baptist receives from the parents of the blessed Virgin she who is to become the Mother of God. Joachim and Anna offer her to God. Zacharias, the high priest, receives her from her parents and escorts her into the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple. There she is fed manna from heaven, as were the Israelites when they were sojourning in the wilderness.
The Entry of the Theotokos is of one piece with the preaching of John the Baptist. The Mother of God has appeared on earth and enters into the Temple preparing herself to become the beautiful dwelling place of God, the holy and Ever-Virgin Panagia (All-holy one). John preaches a baptism of repentance that prepares the way of the Lord. In these two events, we have the two final prophetic acts of the OT – the one of her whom the Church honors as the “archetypal feminine” and the other of him who is honored by the Church as the “archetypical masculine” – showing that the age of the prophets has come to an end. The journey of Israel through the wilderness is nearing the Promised Land, God’s Heavenly Kingdom.
We say that this feast is profoundly biblical, even though you won’t find it in the bible. You won’t find it in the bible if you are reading the bible according to the letter. Only in the Holy Spirit, does one see that the story manifests the spiritual meaning of the Old Testament. In the hymns of the Feast, the Church sets before us the vision that appears to the eyes of faith that have been opened by the Holy Spirit to see the mysteries of the Theotokos revealed everywhere in the OT, so that even to us whose eyes are yet still unable to see, the spiritual beauty of the OT is made visible in the beauty of this Feast of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple. Let me give some examples.
Her parents offer her in the temple. They offer her in the same way that the Israelite of old was commanded to make an offering to the Lord of an ewe-lamb without blemish and a pure dove. The Church sees the Levitical command to offer the ewe-lamb and the pure dove as a prophecy of the ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna, coming to the temple to offer as an acceptable sacrifice her who would become the Mother of God, making his Incarnation possible. As it says in the hymn for the feast of the Theotokos’ Entry: “The ewe-lamb without blemish, the pure dove is brought as an offering to dwell in the house of God: the undefiled Virgin who was foreordained to become the Mother of God.”
In the apocryphal story of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple, she is accompanied by virgins. This detail makes its way into the hymns of the feast: “Dwelling-place of God, the Theotokos Mary, three years old after the flesh, is offered in the holy temple, and the virgins her companions, carrying lamps, go before her.” But the hymns of the feast also bring out details not found in the apocryphal story. They are found, however, in the OT, confirming that the source for this story is not the apocryphal Proevangelium of James but the OT. For example, in the hymns for the feast, we find this detail that is not found in the apocryphal story: “David, leading the dance, leaps in gladness and rejoices with us, and thee, O undefiled and all-pure Virgin, he calls the Queen, clad in raiment of many-colored needlework, standing in the temple before the King and God.” Virgins accompanying the Theotokos clad in raiment of many-colored needlework: these are not insignificant details in the story of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple. The Church finds their meaning beneath the veil of David’s prophecy in the 45th Psalm. “The King’s daughter is all glorious within; her clothing is interwoven with gold. She will be led to the King in embroidered work; the Virgins, her companions who follow her, will be brought to thee. They will be led forth with gladness and rejoicing. They will enter into the King’s palace.” The Church sees the King’s Daughter whom David was seeing in the Spirit as the Theotokos: “David sang in honor of thee,” the hymns for the Entry say, “calling thee the daughter of the King, for he saw thee in the beauty of the virtues, in raiment of many-colored needlework, at the right hand of God; therefore in prophecy he cried aloud: “O pure Virgin, thou art truly high above all.”
The Theotokos is the virgin of whom Isaiah spoke: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” She is the rod of the root of Jesse from whom the Christ blossoms. As the hymns say: “The Law prefigured thee most wonderfully as tabernacle, jar of manna, strange ark, veil of the temple, rod of Aaron, temple never to be destroyed, and gate of God; and so it teaches us to cry to thee: O pure Virgin, thou art truly high above all.” From these and many other details in this feast and all the other feasts of the Theotokos, it is clear that the Theotokos is herself the OT, so that one wonders if Christ is referring to her when he says to the Pharisees: “You search the scriptures thinking you have life in them; but they are speaking of me”. For, she holds Christ in her womb just as Moses and the prophets hold the Divine Word of God in the womb, the words, of their prophecies. The prophets bring forth in their prophesies the Word of the Lord as a word that foretells the coming of God in the flesh. The Theotokos, as the personal incarnation of the OT, fulfills that prophetic act by bringing forth the Word of God in the flesh. She, the personal embodiment of the OT, gives birth to Christ, the personal embodiment of the NT.
It is therefore not at all surprising that we would find in this feast of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple themes that reveal its internal unity with Christmas and Pascha.
“He who is without beginning begins,” we find in the hymns for the Matins of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple. “From a Virgin Maid, the Word is born in the flesh according to his good pleasure, God and mortal man, and in his extreme compassion he refashions us who had fallen.” The Katavasia for the Ninth Ode of the Matins for the feast of the Theotokos’ Entry, too, breaks into a vision of Christmas: “A strange and most wonderful mystery do I see: the cave is heaven; the Virgin the throne of the cherubim; the manger a room, in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid. Him do we praise and magnify.”
In the feast of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple, we are coming to the end of the wilderness. We are coming already into the light of Christmas and the birth of the Savior, God the Word made flesh. For, he receives her into his Temple, to prepare her to become his dwelling place, that he in his turn might enter into our humanity that she offers to him and dwell among us. Even as the sun weakens in the heavens and the days grow shorter, the first light of Christ’s incarnation is dawning on the horizon with the advent of this feast of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple. He who is the Light of the world is beginning to shine in the darkness.
In these overtones of Christmas sounding from the hymns for the feast of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple, you can already hear the melody of Pascha, the Feast of feasts. It begins to sing in this hymn from the Matins service for the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple: “The sea monster spat forth Jonah as it had received him, like a babe from the womb; while the Word, having dwelt in the Virgin and taken flesh, came forth from her yet kept her uncorrupt. For being Himself not subject to decay, he preserved his Mother free from harm.”
In this short hymn, we not only come upon the inner unity between the feast of the Theotokos’ Entry, Christmas, and Pascha, but we also catch a glimpse of the theological truths that are set forth in the Church’s doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos. The Virgin Theotokos enters the Temple as she enters the cave of Bethlehem. She herself is like the cave of Bethlehem and the cave, i.e. the tomb, of Pascha. By her consent, Christ enters her womb on the Feast of Annunciation (Mar 25) as he enters the tomb of Pascha. He makes the tomb of Pascha, just as he makes the Virgin’s womb, more spacious than the heavens. And on Christmas, he comes forth from the Virgin’s womb as he comes forth from the tomb on the feast of Pascha. In coming forth from her womb, Christ preserves her virginity; that is to say, he preserves her natural integrity, her purity. Christmas is a prophetic act of God himself that foretells the miracle of his only-begotten Son’s holy resurrection, when Christ will come forth from the tomb like a Bridegroom from the bridal chamber and restore our humanity to its original purity, its original virginity, incorrupt as it was in the beginning in communion with the Holy Trinity through the Spirit of Christ who is the Icon of the invisible Father.
The mystery of the Virgin’s perpetual virginity is like the feast of the Entry in that it, too, so it would seem, is not found in the bible – until the bible is read in the Spirit of the Church. Then, we see that Solomon foresaw the Virginal birth and described it in “dark sayings”, as it says in the Festal Menaion, when he spoke of the Virgin “as the gate of the King and the living fountain sealed, from which came forth untroubled waters unto us who cry aloud with faith: ‘O pure Virgin, thou art truly high above all.’” The hymn is referring to verse from the Song of Solomon: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a rock garden locked, a spring sealed up” – like the sealed tomb of Pascha.
Now we see that the Feast of the Theotokos’ Entry into the Temple is bringing us out of the wilderness of our daily lives and under the cloud of the Theotokos herself and the mysteries that she holds in her womb: the mysteries of God the Word becoming flesh, his birth as a child and his dwelling among us, and finally all the mysteries of his Passion: his holy resurrection, his Ascension and Pentecost, by which he leads us on the better and changeless path that ascends to God to our true home in the Garden of Eden, where we partake of God from the Tree of Life in the eternal joy of his Heavenly Kingdom.
By practicing the spiritual disciplines of the Church: mindful reading of scriptures, saying the prayers of the Church as our own, observing the fasts according to our strength and circumstances, and practicing the commandments of Christ, we in our daily life can enter body and soul and mind with the Theotokos into the Temple and so transfigure our bodies from a barn that holds riches of the world that perish into a temple of God that holds a heavenly treasure that is from everlasting to everlasting: Christ our God, our hope of eternal life, in the joy and consolation of his Heavenly Spirit with God the Father.
 Festal Menaion, p. 181
 Festal Menaion, p. 164
 1 Pt 1:10-12
 See Paul Eudokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World.
 Festal Menaion, p. 184. Cf. Numbers 6:14, Leviticus 14:10,22.
 Festal Menaion, p. 178.
 Festal Menaion, p. 177.
 Ps 45:13-15
 Festal Menaion, p. 191
 Festal Menaion, p. 180. Cf. Isa 7:14
 Festal Menaion, p. 181
 Festal Menaion, p. 191
 Festal Menaion, p. 189
 Festal Menaion, p. 193.
 Festal Menaion, p. 185.
 Festal Menaion, p. 191
 Song of Solomon 4:12