Today is the foreshadowing of the good pleasure of god and the herald of the salvation of men. The Virgin is revealed in the temple of God, and beforehand she announces Christ to all. Let us therefore cry to her with mighty voice: Rejoice! Fulfilment of the Creator’s dispensation. (Apolytikion of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos)

Entrance of the Theotokos

We don’t find the event in the Gospels. Because of its lack of so-called historical evidence, the feast was supessed in the Roman Church in the reforms of the Missal by Pius V in the 16th century. It is not even a very well known feast among the Orthodox faithful. And yet–our celebration of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21 is full of profound theological meaning! The story comes from one of the earliest non-canonical Gospels, the Protoevangelion of James. This book tells the story of the birth of Mary and the promise made by her parents, Joachim and Anna, to return their child of promise to the Lord by taking her to the Temple in Jerusalem when she was two years old

When the time came, Joachim reminded his wife of their promise. Anna, however, being a mother, did not want to let her only child go quite so early, and so decided to wait another year, until the child was weaned and would no longer need her mother. A beautiful, human touch to the story. Or is it? This detail is an important sign post that the story is more than it seems; Mary’s offering of herself at the temple becomes the basis for the renewal of God’s covenant with man in the person of Jesus Christ.

Most of the offerings made at the temple were young animals of  a year. There was one exception. In Genesis 15 we read of God’s first covenant with Abram (before he was even given his new name of Abraham). In order to confirm this covenant, God had Abram place a series of three year old victims. While Abram slept, God passed between the victims as a symbol of ratification of the covenant he swore to Abram

Then [God] said to [Abram], “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the chaldeans, to give you this land to possess. But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle dove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two…When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. (Genesis 15:7-10, 17-21

This small detail opens up the greater depths of the story. Like the three year old victims in the original covenant, Mary offers herself up as the sign of the new covenant, one in which Abram would not simply posses a limited piece of property, but the whole world in faith. The new covenant transcends space and time, reconciling all people to God through our Lord Jesus Christ

Let us turn our attention to one further detail of this rich feast. If we look carefully at the scene represented in the Icon, we see that more is going on than a simple narrative of the story.

Entrance of the Theotokos (detail of Mary and altar)

Mary is standing on the temple steps. Behind her is the altar of sacrifice. Or is it? This square structure, covered in rich purple cloths and mounted by a canopy would hardly work for the bloody animal sacrifices that went on daily at the temple. Mary’s position in front of the altar certainly emphasizes her self-sacrifice, that she has replaced the continual animal sacrifice. But what does this unusual structure mean? It is, in fact, an altar from a Byzantine Church, the altar of the continual sacrifice of Christ in the Divine Liturgy. A further detail completes the picture: the curtain which normally obscured the altar in the early churches (and often in our modern churches as well) is drawn back. This indicates that the Divine Liturgy is now being celebrated. Mary’s life becomes a continuous celebration of God’s presence within her, which will in time become also a physical reality. This same reality takes place within us also as we offer ourselves to God in the Divine Liturgy.

When Mary entered the temple, God no longer had a home in a building of wood and stone, but in a human being. This Feast challenges us to live in the same close union with God, so that God also dwells in us, and that we become God’s hands, eyes, and heart in the world.