Friday, November 20, 2009

Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

A friend of mine was appalled one time when I declined to attend his Christmas party because it was happening during Advent. He just could not understand why I wanted to keep Advent, which to him was meaningless and dreary. I was new to Orthodoxy and wasn't really able to explain. If he ever asks again, I'll give him answer that includes a lot of what is below.

During the fasts of the Church year are the placement of some of the Great Feasts. Its nice since it lets us escape rice and beans for a day and have fish (No meat or dairy though). The Great Feast that happens during Advent is The Entrance (or Presentation) of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21. Thus this Feast is part of Advent.

This feast is not one of the earliest feasts of the Church, however, there is evidence that it was being celebrated in the 4th Century. We can learn a lot about the feast from the Icon. (There is an Icon for each of the Great Feasts) The major figures in this Icon are Mary “the first and only woman to enter the Holy of Holies(1) ”, her parents Ss. Joachim and Anna, and her kinsman the priest St. Zacharias. Like all of the Feasts and their Icons, this Feast and Icon are not just commemorations of historical(2) events. This Feast is instruction in the way of holiness. In the Icon we see the role of parents and the Church in the formation of young souls. Mary did not enter the Temple alone(3), but was with her family and the priest. The point of this is that sanctification occurs in the natural community of the family and in the spiritual community of the church. We also see that the way to sanctification is gradual. There are fifteen steps. There are three chambers. The point of this is that sanctification does not happen alone and it doesn't happen in an instant. We must progress from the courtyard (active life) to the Holy (natural contemplation), then from the Holy to the Holy of Holies (the spiritual life).

There are three Old Testament readings during the Vigil (on the night of Nov. 20) for this Feast which climax with a revelation of the Theotokos as the Temple of God:

A. Exodus 40:1-5, 9-10, 16, 34-35 which refer to the outfitting of the Tabernacle
B. I Kings 7:51; 8:1, 3-7, 9-11 which refers to the dedication of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem
C. Ezekiel 43:27-44:4, which talks about the temple gate but has traditionally been interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of Mary's virginity.

So why all of this? Because, in some way I do not understand unless it is that all three are the dwelling place of God it is that the Temple, the Church, Mary are all thrown together into the same bag. They all explain each each other and reveal something very important about God and salvation.

The two main hymns make this connection more clear:

Today Anna bequeaths joy to all instead of sorrow by bringing forth her fruit, the only ever-Virgin.
In fulfillment of her vow,
today with joy she brings to the temple of the Lord
the true temple and pure Mother of God the Word. (Troparion, 4th Tone)

Today the universe is filled with joy
at the glorious feast of the Mother of God, and cries out:
"She is the heavenly heavenly tabernacle." (Kontokian, 4th Tone)

Later, during the Divine Liturgy (on the morning of Nov. 21) for the Feast we will hear the the first few verses of the 9th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews read:

Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and [for] the errors of the people.

What is going on here? We see light, and sacrifice, bread, and a veil, God's provision for his hungry people, his Law, life coming from lifelessness, angels guarding the mercyseat, which is God's throne. And the picture is becoming more clear.

Then, all of a sudden, so we don't get carried away and step over the line like the Jews of old who seemed to worship the temple and not God who lived in the Temple (Jer. 7:1-7), the Deacon proclaims the Gospel:

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)
And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed [is] the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed [are] they that hear the word of God, and keep it. (Luke 11:27-28)

And here we see that it isn't just the Tabernacle, or the Temple, or Mary, where God dwells. Rather, everyone who lays aside the cares of this world and hears and keeps the Words of Jesus is blessed. The hearers/keepers are the dwelling place of God. They are the Temple. And though the book is never read liturgically in the Orthodox Church, we see this explicitly in Revelation 21, where the Church is called the New Jerusalem and God dwells with human beings for ever.

You can read much more about this feast, including a a sermon by St. Gregory Palamas here.

So, this is part of what Advent is about. How can I not love it?

(1) Quenot, Michael, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (Crestwood. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), Page 51
(2) Two famous and very influential American priests, Fr. Thomas Hopko and Blessed Seraphim (Rose) are in disagreement concerning the historicity of this event. Nevertheless, they both see the feast as a very important revelation concerning the attainment of holiness.
(3) My pastor and friend Archpriest Victor Sokolov used to say "the only thing a person does alone is go to Hell."


GretchenJoanna said...

This was the first year I was able to pay much attention to this feast, and it was very rich, thanks partly to reading about it in Fr Hopko's book The Winter Pascha. Our priest mentioned in his homily the Virgin running up the steps in eagerness, and I was so happy.

Matt said...

I have not read that book. I've always wanted to read it during this season, and about mid-October I think of buying it. Then I think, "When between November 1 and January 7 wil I have the time?" So, I don't buy it. This year I have a 16 week graduate level research course crammed into four weeks in December. So, its another year of putting of Fr. Tom's book.

The reason I know he thinks the feast is non-historical is because he visited my parish a few years ago on this feast. During a talk after the Vigil he scandalized the choir. One of them said "Then what is all of that stuff we just sang?" I don't think any of them were satisfied by his answer.

For me I think of it the same way I think of Judith and Job. Judith starts out with a phrase that pretty much means "once upon a time" and though I think Job and his friends were real people, I doubt they sat around talking to each other in complicated poetic forms. I am happy our church uses various kinds of literature to get the Gospel across.