Feasts This Week
The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple
Sermon from Fr Emmanuel
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.
Today we celebrate one of the great feasts of the Orthodox Church, The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. This feast is celebrated in the Divine Liturgy of all Orthodox jurisdictions throughout the world, firmly established in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, based on The Protoevangelion of St James. See also The Synaxarion: Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Vol.2, pp. 193-196]. However, the feast is not mentioned in the New Testament. We do know that in first century Palestine observant Jews would bring their new-born children to the Temple to celebrate their birth and to dedicate the lives of their children to God. Furthermore, in the Gospel of St Luke, chapter 2, verses 22 to 38, Jesus Christ Himself was dedicated by Holy Mary and St Joseph in the Temple. At that dedication, both Simeon and Anna recognised Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ who had come to save all people throughout all time.
Writing in The Festal Menaion about the Great Feasts, Metropolitan Kallistos has pointed out that, and I quote: “From one point of view the whole history of the Old Covenant [with the Jewish people] points forward to her [the Theotokos]; and for this reason the Orthodox Church constantly discerns, throughout the pages of the Old Testament, veiled references . . . to the Theotokos. The long sequence of patriarchs, prophets, priests, and kings reaches its culmination [that is, its highest point, its climax] in the daughter of Joachim and Anna. Born under the Old Covenant, she is the last and greatest of the righteous men and women of Israel; in her is summed up all the holiness and faith of God’s chosen people, the children of Abraham. When she answered [Archangel Gabriel] at the Annunciation [with the words], ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word,’ she spoke not only for herself but as their representative, in the name of them all. [Thus, the Theotokos] . . . is the link between the Old and the New [Testaments], between the Law and Grace” [The Festal Menaion, St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998, p. 48].
Metropolitan Kallistos continues: “[Holy] Mary’s Entry into the Temple and … her dwelling there signifies her total dedication to God, in readiness for her future vocation [that is, her divine calling] as Mother of the Incarnate Lord. At the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit overshadowed [Holy] Mary at the word of the angel, and she conceived the Saviour; but the [Holy] Spirit had also dwelt within her from infancy, preparing her in body and soul to be a fitting tabernacle [that is, a holy place] for the Deity-a living Temple, a personal Holy of Holies. Such is basically the spiritual meaning of [this] feast,” reflected Metropolitan Kallistos. “Its chief theme is this indwelling grace of the [Holy] Spirit, present and active within her from her earliest moments. . . . Along with [Holy] Mary’s Nativity on 8 September, her Entry into the Temple is a feast of anticipation. . . . As we show honour to [Holy] Mary ‘the child of God’, we look forward always to the Incarnation of Christ. We look forward, more specifically, to the feast of Christmas which is to follow in little more than a month,” concluded Metropolitan Kallistos [pp. 51-52].
In order to share with Metropolitan Kallistos this awareness of the importance of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple, it is helpful to appreciate how significant the Temple itself was in Jewish life in Jerusalem in the first century. The Christian scholar, Dr Alfred Edersheim, a convert to Christianity from Judaism, has reflected that: “The Temple and its services form … part of the life and work of Jesus Christ; part also of His teaching, and that of His apostles.” In the book, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ, Dr Edersheim sets the bold goal for his readers “to realise the scenes, as if we ourselves were present in them”. The most holy place in the Temple, the Holy of Holies, was covered by two curtains; and the Jewish High Priest entered this holy place only once a year on the Day of Atonement to pray to God and to seek forgiveness of the sins of the people. In the Orthodox Christian Tradition in The Protoevangelion of St James, when Holy Mary was 12 years old, Zachariah, the future father of St John the Baptist, was the High Priest that year who guided Holy Mary to come under the protection of the widower St Joseph [chapters 8 & 9].
It is not possible for us today to know every detail of Holy Mary’s life in the Temple precincts and of how she came to live under the protection of St Joseph. From a Biblical perspective, perhaps the most important verse in the New Testament about the Temple is in the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 27, verse 51, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook; and the rocks were split.” Reflecting on this verse, the third century Orthodox Christian theologian Origen suggested that “Anyone who searches the Scriptures with some diligence will see that there were two curtains, an inner curtain which covered the Holy of Holies and another curtain exterior to either the tabernacle or the Temple.” Origen thinks that it was “only the outer curtain that was “torn from top to bottom . . . [because] we still know only ‘in part’ [as explained in First Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 9 and] . . . we are [only] being brought gradually to the knowledge of new things” [Commentary on Matthew 138].
For the parents of Holy Mary, Saints Joachim and Anna, this entry of their daughter into the Temple was a moment of great significance. Not only was Holy Mary leaving home, but she was going to live in the courts of the holiest place in the Jewish world of the first century, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Orthodox theologian Georges Barrios has written of how “the presence [of God] is not to be conceived as if God were confined in a place. . . .[Yet,] paradoxically, the Temple [was] the locus [that is, the exact location] and the focus of divine power: the ark of the covenant [present in the First Temple] with its sacred contents [that included the tablets of the Ten Commandments], is ‘energized’ by the Living God in a unique way,” concluded Professor Barrois [Jesus Christ and the Temple, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980, p. 61]. The sacred contents would no longer have been present in the Second Temple. Nevertheless, for Mary to be welcomed into the Temple by the High Priest for that year, Zechariah, the future father of St John the Baptist, was still a great honour for her and her parents, as well as a great challenge to live out God’s plan for their lives.
Surprisingly, each of us today are in a similar position to Joachim and Anna. We do not know fully the plans of God for our lives, but we trust Him to guide and protect us. The Entry of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple happened two thousand years ago, but it has great meaning for us today. The Holy Theotokos continues to guide us throughout our lives closer and closer to Her Son Jesus Christ. We too are called to dedicate ourselves to God, to become ready for our own unique vocations and to follow in the footsteps of the young Holy Mary as she danced into the Temple in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
And so, we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.