On November 21, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos in the Temple. Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, were childless for many years and they made a promise to God that if He granted them a child, they would dedicate the child to Him.
One day, Archangel Gabriel brought Joachim and Anna joyous news that they found favor before God and were to expect a child. This was a miraculous event since both Joachim and Anna were old in age and Anna was barren. Despite being childless for so many years which in Semitic culture was considered a curse, their faith always remained steadfast.
Nevertheless, after Mary was born and reached the age of three, Joachim and Anna brought Her to the Temple and dedicated Her to God, as promised. Mary remained in the Temple until She was betrothed to Joseph, around the age of fifteen.
What is significant about this Feast is that Mary was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. First, only males enter the Holy of Holies, second, in the Jewish faith, the high priest or ranking priest would enter only once a year in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur which is the Day of Atonement.
On Yom Kippur, the high priest would offer sacrifice first for his own sins and then for the people. When the second and final destruction of Solomon’s Temple occurred in 70 AD this practice ceased to continue. However, for Christians the need to enter the Holy of Holies once a year was no longer necessary when Christ was crucified; then the Sun was darkened and the veil of the temple was torn in two (Lk 23:45).
The veil that separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the Temple was a symbol of the separation between God and man. Christ’s death opens the way into the presence of God for all people; I am the door, if anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture (Jn 10:9).
Today in the Church, we see a curtain which separates the altar from the nave. The curtain is drawn open during liturgical services to emphasize the communion with God which was at one time sealed off from humanity but is now available to all who approach in faith. We see the clergy pass in and out of the Holy Doors of the altar freely. This privilege is made possible only by Christ’s crucifixion.
For most of the feasts dedicated to the Theotokos, the Epistle and Gospel readings are the same. For the Epistle, Hebrews 9:1-7, it mentions the “second veil” which separated the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies. It also mentions that inside the Holy of Holies was “Aaron’s rod that budded;” this is a prefiguration of the Theotokos.
Likewise, the mention of “tent” or “tabernacle” also refers to the Theotokos since She herself is a “tabernacle” that beheld the Logos. Mary was granted the privilege to enter the Holy of Holies because She was to be the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Mary was nourished by an angel of the Lord who fed Her mystically from Heaven and She lived among other virgins.
St Gregory Palamas said: She, being filled with Divine gifts even at such a tender age, …She, rather than others, determined what was being done over Her. In Her manner She showed that She was not so much presented into the Temple, but that She Herself entered into the service of God of Her own accord, as if She had wings, striving towards this sacred and divine love.
As we hear in one of the prophecy readings from the vespers of the Feast: Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. And the Lord said to me, "This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, shall enter by it; therefore, it shall remain shut. Only the prince shall sit in it to eat bread before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way (Ezekiel 44: 1-3). Thus, Mary is referred to as the East Gate, the Gate that looks towards the East and the East Gate…who awaits the entrance of the Great Prince.
The Entry Feast is a foretaste for the coming of the Lord; thus, His Incarnation. We have just begun Advent about a week ago on the 15th of November in preparation for Christmas. The Feast of the Entry always falls within Advent and prepares us for the Nativity of Christ.
As we hear in one of the stichera of the vespers of the Feast: O believers, let us dance today, singing to the Master in the words of Psalms and hymns, and honor His tabernacle that He sanctified, the animate Ark that held the uncontainable Logos within Herself. For She is offered to God, being a babe in the flesh supernaturally. And the great and holy high priest Zacharias feeling joy in his heart now receives Her who in time will be the dwelling of God.
With this Feast we see the fulfillment of a promise Joachim and Anna made with God to dedicate Mary to Him. We see Mary enter the Holy of Holies, an unprecedented event signifying that salvation was at hand, since Mary would bring forth the Savior, Jesus Christ. Mary’s stay at the Temple for those twelve years was spiritual preparation for Her. Mary found favor before the Lord for Her piety and virtues to become the Theotokos.
When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her, announcing to the Her that She was to conceive and bear forth the Savior, She replied: Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be according to your word (Lk 1:38). Without the Theotokos and Her acceptance of the Divine call to beget Jesus, how could the Incarnation have been possible? Thus, how could mankind be saved?
The Logos, Son of God, obtains His humanity, thus, His flesh from the Virgin Mary. If He was not fully human, then how could we be saved? St Athanasius tells us: God became man so that man can become God. Man does not become God in essence but by grace. Man is united to God in His Heavenly Kingdom. Mary entering the Holy of Holies was a foretaste of the rending of the curtain of the Temple once and for all; when He was on the Cross, so that we all may enter His Kingdom.
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 (Festal Apolytikion).
O Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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