“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.” — Psalm 44
On November 21st — or December 4th for those using the Julian calendar — Orthodox Christians celebrate the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church and occurs just six days into the Nativity Fast. Through this feast we discover how Mary prepared for her role as the Mother of God and, through her great example, we learn how we too should prepare ourselves as we approach the great Feast of the Nativity of Christ.
Much of what we know about Mary’s life comes not from our canon of scripture but rather from the living tradition of the Church. The inspiration for the icon and some of the hymns of the feast come from a second century account known as the Protoevangelium of James. The account — while not considered the origin of the tradition regarding Mary’s childhood — provides a good summary of the stories that existed at the time of its writing and is a continuation of the oral tradition of the early Christians. It thus reinforces much of what the early Christians already believed about the Mother of God.
In the icon of the feast, we see the aging and once childless couple, Joachim and Anna following the young Mary into the Temple. Three years prior, responding to the couple’s fervent prayer and asceticism, God had granted them a daughter in their old age whom they named Mary. They now return to the Temple to fulfill their promise of dedicating the child back to God.
Joachim was worried that the young Mary might turn back at such a young age, so he called together the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews who, with fiery lamps in hand, led a procession into the Temple in the hope that Mary’s heart would be captivated.
Of course, Mary was chosen by God before all time, and later, through her own free will, accepted to become the mother of our Lord. Thus, there would be no turning back for her. As she walks further into the Temple, she is greeted by Zacharias, a priest of the Temple who would become the father of Saint John the Forerunner. He senses the grace surrounding her and exclaims:
“The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.” He then sits her on the third step of the altar.
Mary, who later becomes herself the living temple of the Creator and Master of All, is prepared for this purpose in the Temple made of stone through prayer and fasting until her betrothal to Joseph twelve years later. It is said, that as she lived in the Holy of Holies she was nourished by angels. This is theologically significant because thereafter she becomes the true Holy of Holies, the one who would bear the Word of God made flesh.
Thus, as we hear in the readings during the Vespers of the feast, she who is prefigured in the Old Testament — the ladder who reaches to heaven, the gate in the East, the house that Wisdom built — is prepared to become the new Eve, the one who through her own free will and humility becomes the path to our salvation.
As we hear the hymns of the feast and contemplate this holy icon, let us draw from it a lesson for our own preparation as we journey to the Nativity of Christ. The Theotokos is our greatest example, for she willingly accepted the purpose of our creation. She realized to the fullest the union with God.
Following her example, we too can draw closer to God and seek union with our Creator through the Holy Spirit. As we approach the manger of the Nativity, as we seek to draw closer to Divinity, let us through prayer and worship, fasting and almsgiving, continue to build the temple of the Holy Spirit within us for God to dwell eternally.
Apolytikion of the Feast
“Today is the prelude of God’s good pleasure, and the proclamation of humanity’s salvation. In the temple of God, the Virgin is presented openly, and in herself she announces Christ to all. Let us, then, with a great voice cry aloud to her: “Rejoice, you are the fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.”
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas