The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple
by Mary Grace Ritchey
On the first Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the kontakion reminds us of the reason we venerate the Virgin Mary and why Icons of Christ and the saints can be used: The infinite word of God became circumscribed when He was incarnate in you, O Mother of God. He restored our corrupt image to its former beauty by joining it to the divine splendor. Wherefore we now proclaim our salvation and make it known by word and deed.
Mary was the first to be restored to the image and likeness of God and this feast points out by word (“the icon corresponds entirely to the ‘word’ of scripture”-p.10 Theology of the Icon by L. Ouspensky) and deed (the prayers of Liturgy) some explicit instances of this story.
The origin of this feast can be found in the Protevangelion of James. Mary was brought to the Temple by Joachim and Anne at the age of three to be consecrated to the service of God. Preceded by young girls with lighted candles ( often shown in this icon), she entered into the Holy of Holies. The account tells that Mary danced before the Ark of the Covenant. In Archbishop Raya’s book Theotokos (p. 96) he says: We are totally convinced that Mary’s supreme dignity as future Bearer of God merits her not only to enter the Temple but to penetrate to the most sacred place of the Temple, the “Holy of Holies.” This part of the temple is called the “Holy of Holies” because it contained the “Shekhina,” the glory of God, with the Manna, the Rod of Aaron, and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. Mary was no mere receptacle of signs and symbols, as was the Temple. She was more sacred and holier because she was to contain Glory Himself . . . (p. 96)
The theme of the feast and the Icon of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is that this historic event marks the end of the physical Temple of the Old testament and is the beginning of the salvation plan for all humanity. Mary is the new Temple or tabernacle of the presence of God! She is the first to be a “Temple of the Holy Spirit” and at Great Vespers the cantor chants: Today let us, the faithful, dance for joy, singing to the Lord with Psalms and hymns, venerating His hollowed Tabernacle, the living Ark, that contained the Word who cannot be contained. For she, a young child in the flesh, is offered in wondrous fashion to the Lord, and with rejoicing Zacharias the Great High Priest receives her as the dwelling of God. (P. 166 The Festal Menaion)
In the reading from Exodus (40: 1-5, 9-10, 16, 34-35) we are reminded that the Israelites were led by the Tent or Tabernacle of the presence of God which contained the Ark of the Covenant containing the Manna, the Rod of Aaron and the Ten Commandments. The cloud surrounding it during the day and the pillar of fire by night signified the presence of God with the Israelites, the people of the one, true God. This portable Temple was replaced by the Temple built by Solomon. The Temple Mary enters is the rebuilt Temple of Zorobabel which no longer contained these five things found in Solomon’s temple: “Fire from on high, the Oil of anointment, the Ark, the Holy Spirit, the Urim and the Thummin (p. 153 The Meaning of Icons by L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky).”
At Orthros (Matins) the Magnificat is replaced by these words: “Beholding the entry of the All-Pure, the angels were struck with amazement, seeing how the Virgin entered into the Holy of Holies (p. 190 Menaion ).” No one entered the Holy of Holies except the High Priest and only once a year. Yet Zacharias does not prevent Mary from entering the Holy of Holies. This mystery of the incarnation, hidden from the angelic orders, is acknowledged by the one who is to be the father of John the Baptist, Zacharias. Mary enters into the Temple to prepare herself to later become the Temple of the body of Christ and we are led to meditate on the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ, and the Eucharist! The Theotokos (God-bearer) prepares to receive the humanity of Christ. Mary is truly the first Christian (Christian means Christ-bearer) and our model.
The scene in the icon is the inner court of the Temple. (The Temple was divided into three courts, the court of the people which was divided into men and women, the court of the priests and the Holy of Holies.) Zacharias stands on the steps and Mary stretches her hands toward him. In some icons Mary is seen a second time in the Holy of Holies being assisted by an angel. She is to be nourished by “heavenly bread.” The virgin does not look like a child except in size because already she is a “mature” or perfect person. The background shows other temple buildings.
The kontakion of the feast states: The All-pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Bridal Chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasure of the glory of God, is led today into the house of the Lord, and with her she brings the grace of the divine Spirit. Of her God’s angels sing in praise: “She is indeed the heavenly Tabernacle.” (P. 195 Menaion)
The Epistle, Hebrews 9: 1-7, describes the Tabernacle of the old covenant. The Gospel, Luke 10: 38-42; 11: 27-28, speaks of Martha and Mary. Mary is the model of “listener” of the Word of God. It also contains the mysterious words concerning the Mother of God “Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.” Thomas Hopko in Volume III, The Orthodox Faith says “This ‘glory of the Lord’ is referred to the Mother of Christ (see also Ezekiel 43: 27-44:4) and it ‘fills’ her and all people after her who ‘hear the word of God and keep it’ as the Gospel of the festal liturgy proclaims.” (P. 143)
All icons are meditation on and symbol of the reality of the incarnation of Christ and the consequences of His incarnation for humanity. Mary, who is “full of grace” by reason that “the Lord is with you” is Temple of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, our gift from God at Chrismation is the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit into our own senses. Mary is the example of each individual’s possible theosis. We, too, are tabernacles of the Lord.