The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple
The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is one of the twelve great feasts of the Orthodox Church. It is a particularly beautiful and spiritually resonant feast, one that reveals to us the devotion and love for God manifested in the life of the Theotokos, which would find its ultimate fulfilment in Christ‘s incarnation within her womb.
Our knowledge of Mary‘s childhood is extremely limited. Christian accounts of her life preceding the birth of Christ have largely been inspired by the writings known as the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal gospel written in the second century. In these accounts we read about the struggles of Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos, who yearned to have a child but were unable to conceive. They vowed that if God would bless them with a child they would dedicate this child to the service of God. After the birth of the Thetokos, Joachim and Anna brought her to the temple when she was three years old in fulfilment of their promise. Mary was welcomed into the temple by the high priest whose words prophetically foretold her role in the salvation of the world: "The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations; through you the Lord will reveal deliverance to the children of Israel in the last days" (Protoevangelium of James, 7:7-8). According to legend, Mary stayed in the temple, praying and meditating on the word of God, until her betrothal to Joseph.
In order to understand the full significance of the presentation of the Theotokos into the temple, we need to consider the significance of the temple in religious worship. In Jewish practice, as well as in ancient paganism, the temple represents the manifestation of the divine within earthly time and space. The temple signifies the place of God, the bridge between heaven and earth. Throughout the books of the Old Testament, we see the prophets struggling to understand the relationship between the people of Israel and God in and through the symbols and rituals of the temple. The prophet Ezekiel saw Israel’s failure to abide by the law and word of God as a desecration of the temple. The Lord tells Ezekiel that he will remove his presence from the temple because of Israel’s idolatry and wickedness and that the people will fall into great suffering and distress because of their unwillingness to abide in his presence. Ezekiel ultimately foresees the restoration of the temple and the return of the presence of God among his people: “I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory. The vision I saw was like the vision I had seen when he came to destroy the city and like the visions I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown. The glory of the Lord entered the temple through the gate facing east. Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ezekiel 43:1-5). The last words of Ezekiel’s divine vision are “the Lord is there” (Ezekiel 48:35).
The drama depicted in the Old Testament and by prophets such as Ezekiel tells the story of mankind’s evolving relationship with God. God communes with his people in and through the covenant and the law but also through physical elements in the temple: the altar, the incense, and the sacrificial offering. God’s relationship to the people of Israel is therefore fundamentally different from the relationship between gods and people in pagan worship. The gods of the ancient Greek religion, for example, were always fundamentally distant and separate from those who worshipped them. The stories of Icarus and Sisyphus, both of whom attempted to shatter the boundaries between human beings and the divine and paid a horrifying price for their transgressions, show the emphasis in Greek culture on maintaining an essential distance between human beings and divine powers. The God of Israel, on the other hand, reveals himself in an increasingly immanent and intimate manner to his people, manifesting his divine presence among them in a way that allows them to not only see but also participate in his divine glory.
The ultimate culmination of this intimacy is when the Virgin Mary is revealed to be the new temple of God. In the Kontakion of the feast, we sing: „The most pure Temple of the Savior; / the precious Chamber and Virgin; / the sacred Treasure of the glory of God, / is presented today to the house of the Lord. / She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, / therefore, the angels of God praise her: / ‘Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.’” When Mary proclaims the ultimate “Yes!” to the Angel Gabriel (“Let it be done unto me according to your word”) she shatters the final barrier between God and humankind. The astounding nature of this unconditional acceptance of God’s will in her life is something that every Christian should meditate deeply upon. Almost all of the great prophets and patriarchs in the Old Testament, including Moses, struggle a great deal with accepting God’s will. Their answers to the call of God are often conditional and hesitant (note Moses’ anxiety and worry that he will not know what to say to his people and that his talents and abilities are simply not up to the task). Mary’s answer, on the other hand, represents the possibility of true faith and humility. She was, undoubtedly, filled with awe and fear upon hearing the Annunciation that she would bear the Messiah. Yet in her love for God and her trust in his providence she shows us the path to transfiguring the fear and doubt that so often cripple us. True faith always includes a certain kind of risk, a leap into what is unknown and frightening. In her absolute acceptance of the Word of God she shows us that when we make this leap in hope and love we manifest the true potential of our being: to bear God into this broken world.
The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple manifests a pivotal event in the history of our salvation. It reveals the moment when Mary draws near to the divine presence in preparation for her role as the God-bearer. All of us are called to be God-bearers in the image of the Theotokos in and through the courage of faith. It must have been a frightening experience for a small child to be led up the steps of the temple and to enter into the sanctuary (a rare event that shocked those who observed it) but in her courage upon entering the temple the Theotokos prefigures her ultimate act of courageous faith in her acceptance of God’s will for her at the Annunciation. All acts of love require us to accept our vulnerability and to face our fears and in this feast we are reminded that if we open ourselves up to God’s grace his love will flow through us to the rest of the world.
-Ágúst Symeon Magnússon, Ph.D.