Dear brothers and sisters!
Greetings on this feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, whose celebration early in this season of the Nativity Fast is apt, given that the much-longed for child of the previously barren Joachim and Anna did not leave the Temple with her parents after her presentation to Zacharias the priest, but rather entered into the sanctuary and Holy of Holies, where her childhood would be an advent of preparation for the the wonderful divine-conception in which she would become the mother of the Saviour.
Like the other consecrated virgins who lived within the sacred precincts, she would have spun thread and woven cloth for the liturgical use of the Temple priests, perhaps even making the vestments of the priests, but unlike them she was set aside for a unique obedience and place in the economy of salvation in a life in prayer and contemplation, no longer nursed and cared for by her parents, but rather by the angels who ministered to her, not only within the precincts of the Temple, but within the Holy of Holies itself – as infant and child.
The Mother of God was set aside and chosen by the Lord, and in some ways this feast is a betrothal to God, as the infant Theotokos is accompanied by other girls – perhaps other Temple virgins -approaching the sanctuary with her parents, as we see in the icons of the feast and hear narrated in the stikhera of vespers:
“Rejoicing today and bearing candles, the maidens precede the noetic lamp and escort her with sanctity to the Holy of holies, revealing beforehand the Effulgence which would ineffably shine forth from her to illumine with the Spirit those who sit in darkness of ignorance.” (Verses on Lord, I have cried)
But, the scandal of the feast is that the child mounts the steps of the sanctuary and passes beyond the veil of the Temple, to where it was not lawful for any but the high-priest to go, only once a year, and not without blood.
“Into the Holy of holies is the holy and immaculate one led by the Holy Spirit; and she is fed by a holy angel, in that she is the most holy temple of our holy God, Who hath sanctified all things by her entry and hath deified the nature of mortal men which had fallen.” (Verses on Lord, I have cried)
She was brought to be sanctified, but in many ways, the bare and empty Holy of Holies was rather sanctified by her presence, and St Germanos of Constantinople develops this theme in his first homily for the feast, as he imagines the words of Zacharias the priest.
“Come to me, child, child higher than the heavens. Come, you who are seen as a child but are known as God’s workshop. Come hallow rather the gateway of the holy place, for you, so to speak, are not purified and hallowed by this gate: but instead you hallow it more.
Come gaze upon the Holy of Holies and the awesome treasury, You who will become the inexhaustible, unsearchable treasure. Come into the entry doors of the Bema, you who destroy the doors of death. Gaze upon the veil, you who enlighten through your lightning flash those who are blinded by their dull-sighted tastes…
Approach in order to venerate the table, you who are called the living, undefiled table, which has been spoken of in many symbols . Make your way through the courts of the whole sanctuary breathing out as an odour of incense. You have become more fragrant than myrrh, you who have been proclaimed by the God-chosen tongue of the spirit-filled prophet to be a censer.
Go up, go up to the steps of the holy house. Daughters of Jerusalem taking pleasure in the beauty of your comeliness joyously compose a hymn . The kings of the Earth call you blessed . Your ascent of the steps is recognised as divine and delightfully shown as a God- supported ladder to the great patriarch Jacob. Sit down O Lady, for it is proper to you as the Queen glorified above all earthly kingdoms to be seated upon such steps.
This holy place is a fitting dwelling for you who are the throne of the Cherubim. Behold, as Queen of all I have attributed, as it is fitting to you, the most honourable throne. Do you yourself raise up those who have been cast down. And now with David I cry unto you: ‘Hearken O daughter consider and incline your ear; forget not your people and your father’s house; and the king will desire your beauty.’ (Psalm 45.11)’ ”
Thus, the Temple which the prophets rejected, robbed of the Ark of the Covenant and the cherubim by the Babylonians, was consecrated and received a legitimacy as the place in which a three year-old child chosen by God to become the greater Holy of Holies – more honourable than the cherubim and truly more glorious than the seraphim – was prepared for the mystery of the Incarnation, as the one who would become the new Ark of the Covenant bearing within her the Giver of the Law and the Bread of Life; the new Mercy-Seat, upon whom the Saviour would be enthroned; the new Table of the Bread of the Presence – Christ the Heavenly Bread; and the new golden lamp-stand bearing the Light of the World.
Within the Temple, she may have even made vestments for the priests, even as the one who would give birth to the Great High Priest, Whose vestment would be the flesh that He took from her.
As she spent hours in communion with the Lord, in prayer and contemplation, in the years in which angels ministered to her and she learned mysteries that were unknown to all other children of Adam and Eve, she spiritually wove for her Lord, who would not take flesh from any random woman, but from her, prepared for the moment of His Incarnation in this childhood of dedicated holiness, set apart and consecrated to the Lord.
Thus, when – after her betrothal to Joseph – the Archangel Gabriel was sent to her with the news of the Annunciation, he was not sent to any random Hebrew girl, but to one who had already been prepared and initiated into heavenly mysteries within the Holy of Holies; whose relationship with Him, through prayer and communion within the most holy place of creation had prepared her for the Word to become flesh within her.
After the experience of the long season of preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and the realisation that she, herself, was the virgin of which the prophet Isaiah spoke…
“Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and she will name Him Immanuel.”
… the second advent – with the Annunciation, the Visitation to the house of Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem – had a context and meaning for the Mother of God, and we should remember that as we contemplate the present feast.
What did that little girl hear and see in the Holy of Holies? In what mysteries did the angels of God instruct her and what did God reveal to her? To what great depths had she already come to know God, even as a child, and with what confidence and intimacy? What great love for God had been planted and nurtured in her, in even her tenderest and youngest years?
We will never know the answers to these mysteries, but we should reflect upon the wonder of this feast and the life that it began, and the otherness of the childhood life in the Lord’s sanctuary, rejoicing that the infant Theotokos was thus prepared for the saving glory of the Nativity, in which God’s immeasurable love, mercy and compassion would be laid, as a little child, in the manger, when the God-Man would enter the world in the darkness of the first Christmas in the cave of Bethlehem.
May Christ our true God, who for our salvation didst deign to fulfil the sign foretold of Emmanuel, through the prayers of His most pure Mother; of the holy, glorious, prophet, forerunner, and Baptist John; of the holy prophet and herald of the Saviour, Isaiah; of the holy fathers, prophets and just ones who lived under the Law and awaited the Messiah’s coming; and through the prayers of all the saints; have mercy on us and save us for He is good and lovest mankind. Amen.
In Christ – Hieromonk Mark