We are in the middle of the new and old calendar feast day of the Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. What follows is a sermon on this feast taken from the book “O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee”.
The Entrance of the Most-Holy Theotokos into the Temple
Beloved of God, although this feast we celebrate today is an event in a single day in the life of the Most-Holy Mother of God, it should not only be reflected upon as an isolated happening, but as part of a stage in the life of the Theotokos. This event is the first day of her nine years living in the Temple, and of her preparation to receive God within her womb, and so become the Mother of God Incarnate, Jesus our Lord, God the Son. So today let us consider this event as the beginning of this stage in the life of the Theotokos, and let us see just what was the preparation for the woman who was to become the Mother of God. Simultaneously we should also ponder this: What kind of qualities of soul did she possess so that God chose her to be his bride?
As a beginning, we need to look at the history of this event which the Church has passed down to us. We know from the tradition of the Church that the parents of the Theotokos, the Righteous Joachim and Anna were, childless and that among the people of Israel this was considered a matter of reproach, like a divine curse. And it was in answer to their prayers of desperation, and their vow to dedicate their child to the Lord, that St. Anna conceived and gave birth to a baby girl, Mary, who would become the Most-Holy Theotokos. So even the childlessness of Saints Joachim and Anna was part of God’s providence for the Theotokos because it became the motivation of dedicating their child to God.
Fulfilling their vow, they brought their daughter, Mary, at the age of three, to the Temple to be reared together with the community of young virgins that were there praising God day and night. When Mary was placed before the doors of the Temple, she quickly ascended the fifteen steps of the Temple which led to the altar of burnt offering, and not looking back at all, seeking her parents as children would normally do. Then, when she reached the top of the steps, the priest Zacharias, husband of her older cousin Elizabeth, brought her into the Holy of Holies. (1) This is something that was completely unheard of and, as our services say, it caused even the angels to marvel. As a historical event, this was a proclamation of who she was, and a foreshadowing of who she would be – the woman whom the prophets foretold in many figures, she is the woman who would soon give birth to the awaited Messiah Whom we know to be God in the flesh.
And what was her life like in the temple? We have an idea from the account in the ancient apocryphal Gospel of Matthew:
This was the order that she had set for herself: From the morning to the third hour she remained in prayer; from the third to the ninth she was occupied with weaving; and from the ninth she again applied herself to prayer. She did not retire from praying until there appeared to her an angel of the Lord from whose hand she used to receive food; and thus she became more and more perfect in the work of God. Then, when the other virgins rested from the praises of God, she did not rest at all; so that in the praises and vigils of God none were found before her, no one more learned in the wisdom of the law of God, more lowly in humility, more elegant in singing, more perfect in all virtue. She was indeed steadfast, immovable, unchangeable, and daily advancing to perfection…She was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law. (2)
So in brief, this is the history we know of the preparation for the young girl, Mary, to become the Most-Holy Theotokos. Her whole life was completely dedicated to God. She lived away not only from the outright evils of this world, but also from the seemingly innocent distractions which take our attention away from God.
But what were her qualities of soul? In today’s Gospel, we heard Christ say of Mary of Bethany the following words, “Mary hath chosen the good part which shall not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42). This is what Mary the Theotokos did when she was brought as a child to the Temple. She swiftly went up the stairs in the temple without looking back, and she did not seek her parents. This amazed both her parents, and the priests; even at such an early age she exercised her will, and made a resolute decision. She chose the good part – as Mary of Bethany did in the Gospel today. The young child Mary steadfastly chose to dedicate her whole life to God. And there is also a tradition that during her time in the Temple when she had come to understand the need of the Messiah for Israel, the Theotokos prayed to be worthy to be the handmaiden of the woman who would bear the Christ. So she abounded in humility. As even the Apocryphal Gospel of St. Matthew says: she was “more lowly in humility” than the other virgins. This is also testified to in the Gospel of St. Luke, where Mary declares in the Magnificant that God has “reguarded the humility of His handmaiden” (Luke 1:48).
Now let us turn to the Great Father of our Church, St. Gregory Palamas, who gives us some insight into the qualities of the Theotokos in his Homilies on this Feast. (3) In order to gain a proper understanding of his comments, we must consider who he was. St. Gregory was at first a simple monastic. Later he was called upon to defend Orthodoxy. And finally he was also consecrated a bishop. In his simple monastic life he lived in a similar way as the Theotokos did in the Temple. He especially applied himself to a life of solitude, silence, fasting, and unceasing prayer. He experienced the fruits of this asceticism, which were the vision of God, and an experience of God’s life. So when St. Gregory reflects upon the life of the Theotokos in the Temple and writes his homilies for this Feast, he speculates as to the surpassing state of purity she acquired and the abundance of grace she must have experienced. Because she began this life as a pure child at the age of three, whereas he, who experienced so much grace of the Holy Spirit, began this ascetic practice at the age of 19.
So St. Gregory tells us that during her time in the temple, and study of the Sacred Scriptures, the Theotokos came to understand the fall of man, and the need of the Savior to come into the world. She had pity on the whole race of Adam which was in need of redemption, and was resolved to pray for the coming of the Messiah. And in seeking to discover what was most beneficial for her as an intercessor, she came to understand that solitude, stillness of thoughts, and unceasing interior prayer were needed. St Gregory says that in this way she found a new way of ascent to God. And he comes to the conclusion that she saw the glory of God more clearly than Moses.
What does this tell us about her? It tells us two things. First, her purity of heart. St. Gregory testifies that such experiences are given to those who have already purified their hearts by sacred silence. And the Lord Himself says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mat. 5:8). Second, and even more important is her love for us. The Theotokos had pity on the whole race of Adam because of our fallen condition, and she dedicated herself to prayer for us. She resolutely set herself in the position of intercessor for the human race. This implies a great love. And here we should also note that she did not only enter the Holy of Holies once per year, but she was permitted to enter as often as she desired in order to pray. And there, in that earthly place of atonement, she sacrificed herself in prayer for us.
So these are the things for which we should admire Mary, the Theotokos. Not because she was daily given bread by an angel, or because saw the glory of God better than Moses, or because of the other visitations of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which it is said she experienced while in the Temple. But because from an early age she chose the good part, and with a firm resolve wholly followed God. Because of her depth of humility that caused God to look upon her. Because of the surpassing state of purity she acquired through the struggle of stillness, and unceasing prayer. And because of her love for us which has made her a mediator for our race, and our Mother in Christ. If through remembering these things we can increase our love for her, she will surely fervently intercede for us. And through her prayers we shall be provided with an entrance into the kingdom of her Son, Who is our good God, together with His Father Who is without beginning, and His all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, throughout the endless ages, world without end. Amen
(1)The source for the information we have for the Life of the Virgin Mary is primarily the Liturgical Services of the Orthodox Church found mostly in the monthly Menaion. The Liturgical Services draw on early Christian traditions which have been preserved in the ancient Apocryphal Gospels that are referredj to by scholars as The Protevangelion of James, and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Translations of these Apocryphal Gospels by Alexander Walker are found in Volume 8 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956] pages 361-383.
(2) The Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, Chapter 6. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8 pg. 371.
(3) An English translation of these homilies is found in Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by St. Gregory Palamas, edited by Christopher Veniamin, South Canaan, PA, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2005. These Homilies are the prime source of information for the following paragraphs.