On November 21, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation, or Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.
This feast of the Mother of God, like all her other feasts, has no biblical reference, meaning that the story of her entry is not found in any of the holy Scriptures, but is instead based on Holy Tradition, especially found in one of the second-century Apocrypha books known as the Proto-Evangelium of James. So, in order to understand the spiritual and theological meaning behind this feast, we must adopt the readings from the Vespers and Matins, as well as the Epistle and Gospel readings from the Divine Liturgy.
It is worth noting that the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple leads directly to the Nativity of the Saviour as an almost anticipation of this great event, the coming of the Redeemer to the world. Liturgically, from this day, the nativity Katavasia is sung, and on the first Sunday after the farewell to the feast, we chant in the Divine Liturgy the Nativity Kontakion, “Today the Virgin comes to the cave…”.
We read the story of the feast in the Synaxarion of Matins: “Leading the procession into the Temple were virgins with lighted tapers in their hands, then the three-year-old most-holy Virgin, led by her father and mother. Fifteen steps led up to the Temple. Joachim and Anna lifted the Virgin onto the first step, then she ran quickly to the top herself, where she was met by the High Priest Zachariah, who was to be the father of St. John the Forerunner. Taking her by the hand, he led her not only into the Temple, but into the “Holy of Holies,” the holiest of holy places, into which no one but the high priest ever entered, and only once each year, at that. Zachariah ‘was outside himself and possessed by God’ when he led the Virgin into the holiest place in the Temple, beyond the second curtain—otherwise, his action could not be explained. The Most-holy Virgin remained in the Temple and dwelt there for nine full years.”
The Theotokos, as a three-year-old girl, according to Jewish law, was forbidden to enter the temple. Nevertheless, moving prophetically, the High Priest Zacharias overturned these laws and received her with gladness into the dwelling and abode of God. We read that he enters her directly into the Holy of Holies “by the Holy Spirit”.
In the service of the Vespers, we read that: “Zechariah cried unto her: To thee, the Lord’s Gate, do I open the temple’s gates, gladly enter in, dance for joy therein roundabout. For I believe and truly know that Israel’s ransoming shall straightway come manifestly, and that from thee shall the Word of God be truly begotten, even He that grants peace and great mercy to the world.” (Aposticha).
The main recurring theme in the Vespers and feast service is that the Virgin Mary is ” the living temple of the holy majesty and glory of Christ our God”. The images follow in the Vespers in the three readings of the Old Testament, respectively (Exodus 401-5,9-10,16,34-35), the third book of Kings (8:1,3-4,5,6-7,9,10-11), and Ezekiel the Prophet (43: 27-44, 44: 4). These readings of the Old Testament speak of the “tabernacle of witness,” “the ark of the testimony,” and “locked gate of the sanctuary, which looks toward the east”. All these images are interpreted as symbols of the Mother of God. The Theotokos is described in the hymnology of the Church as “the sanctified tabernacle” and “the rational living ark, which hath contained God the Word uncontainable”, and the “impassable gate of the Lord Most High”.
Undoubtedly, the verses below of Psalm 45:10-17 are strongly present today on the feast of the Mother of God, as the Church understands the direct connection of this prophecy with Mary’s consecration of her life in the temple after she left her parents Joachim and Anna. Her parents entered the temple accompanied with the young virgin to behold the Lord’s most holy temple and dwell therein that she might become “the divine throne and habitation of God, the Master, and king of all”.
“Listen, O daughter, behold and incline your ear, and forget your people and your father’s house. For the King desired your beauty. For He is your Lord. And the daughters of Tyre shall worship Him with gifts; The rich among the people shall entreat your favour. All her glory as the King’s daughter is within, adorned and embroidered with golden tassels. The virgins behind her shall be brought to the King; her neighbours shall be brought to you; They shall be brought with gladness and rejoicing; They shall be led into the temple of the King. In place of your fathers, sons shall be born to you; You shall make them rulers over all the earth. They shall remember your name from generation to generation; Therefore, people shall give thanks to you. Forever and unto the ages.” (Psalm 45:10-17).
The reading from the Gospel of Luke (1:39-49, 56) is read during the Matins. The reading describes the visit of the Theotokos to her cousin Elizabeth, and the evangelical passage ends with praise from Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.”
In the Divine Liturgy, the Epistle reading is from Hebrews (9: 1-7). The Epistle also talks about “the tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies; which contained the two tablets of the covenant; and above it the two Cherubim of glory overshadowing the Ark’s lid”. Once again on this feast, this Old Testament image is interpreted as a symbol of the Mother of God.
The biblical reading is from Luke (10:38-42; 11:27-28). In this reading, St Luke refers to the attributes and virtues of the Mother of God through her namesake, Mary, the sister of Lazarus. When Jesus visited the two sisters, Mary and Martha, Martha was distracted with serving, “as for Mary, she sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching.”
The passage ends when a woman in the crowd raises her voice and says to Him: “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts that Thou didst suck!” This beatitude is evidently directed at the Theotokos. Jesus answers the woman, saying: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”. This beatitude also refers directly to the Theotokos, as she heard His word and kept it in her heart (Luke 2:19), and thus the Theotokos received a double blessing.
We can understand the spiritual significance of this feast to be that the Theotokos became “the living temple of the holy majesty”. The human person becomes a temple of God and the sole proper dwelling place of the Divine Presence. Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” And he adds in the sixth chapter verse 19: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, which you have from God? and that you are not your own,” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Every Christian who listens and preserves the words of God, that is, lives it by exercising it in their life, becomes a divine dwelling place as God dwells within him, according to the Evangelist John: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and to Him, we will come and with Him, we will make a home”. (John 14:23).
The feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the temple offers an example to all Christian parents and families on how they should behave and raise their children in the fear of God. The readings of the feast show us the joy of Joachim and Anna as they presented to God the three-year-old innocent girl: “Joachim is radiant with joy today, and the spotless Anna brings as a sacrifice to the Lord God the holy daughter given her by a promise,” (Matins – Ode 8, second Canon).
Mary was the only daughter of the ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna, of whom God bestowed upon them after a long age, yet they did not keep their daughter to themselves, but rather gave her as a “gift to God” and offered her into the Temple of the Lord, “to be consecrated as the dwelling of the King of all”. We read in the Vespers what St. Anna says to her daughter: “Depart child and be thou His who has given thee unto me, become a gift and an oblation made unto Him, and the pleasant smell of sweet incense unto the Lord. Enter the innermost sanctuary, learn through its mysteries, enter and make thyself ready to be the fair and delightful house and dwelling of Jesus, who both graciously bestow His great mercy on the world,” (Vespers Aposticha).
Joachim and Anna are the perfect model and paradigm of the pious and virtuous Christian family that dedicates its children to the Lord and presents them as a “gift to God” where He will accept them and bless them. Amen.
+ Metropolitan Basilios