Feast Days


Apolytikion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

Greek Text

Τὴν ἄχραντον Εἰκόνα σου προσκυνοῦμεν Ἀγαθέ,
αἰτούμενοι συγχώρησιν τῶν πταισμάτων ἡμῶν,
Χριστὲ ὁ Θεός·
βουλήσει γὰρ ηὐδόκησας σαρκὶ
ἀνελθεῖν ἐν τῷ Σταυρῷ,
ἵνα ῥύσῃ οὓς ἔπλασας ἐκ τῆς δουλείας τοῦ ἐχθροῦ·
ὅθεν εὐχαρίστως βοῶμέν σοι·
Χαρᾶς ἐπλήρωσας τὰ πάντα, ὁ Σωτὴρ ἡμῶν,
παραγενόμενος εἰς τὸ σῶσαι τὸν Κόσμον.

English Transliteration

Tin achranton ikona sou proskynoumen Agathe,
aitoumeni synchorisin ton ptaismaton imon,
Christe o Theos.
Voulisi gar ivdokisas sarki
anelthin en to Stavro,
ina risi ous eplasas ek tis doulias tou echthrou;
othen efcharistos voomen si:
charas eplirosas ta panta, o Sotir imon,
paragenomenos is to sose ton kosmon.

English Translation

We fall down before Your pure Icon, O Good One,
seeking forgiveness for our failings,
Christ G0d;
for it seemed good to You to ascend willingly on the cross,
in order to rescue those whom You created from slavery to the enemy;
for this reason we cry out with thanksgiving to you;
You have filled all things with joy, O our Savior,
having come to save the world.

Sung in Greek

 

Sung in English

 

 

A Divine Symphony

The themes of this hymn are tightly woven throughout, like the themes of a great symphony which the composer introduces and then intertwines, till they blend together into a great crescendo conclusion. The hymn, using ring composition, begins and ends in prayer. This prayer, however, is tightly interwoven with the catalyst for that prayer, the great act of love of God going in the flesh to the cross for our salvation.

The Icon and the Sinner

The hymn, as we have often seen, falls into two parts. The main themes of the hymn are introduced in the first two lines:

  • We venerate the icon of Christ
  • We beg forgiveness of our failings

The language of the first line explains its connection with the celebration of the restoration of the Icons, by employing the language of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (The Second Council of Nicaea–AD 787; for an explanation of Iconoclasm and the Orthodox doctrine of icons as expounded by the Council, please see https://www.goarch.org/search?p_p_id=101&p_p_lifecycle=0&p_p_state=maximized&p_p_mode=view&_101_struts_action=%2Fasset_publisher%2Fview_content&_101_returnToFullPageURL=%2F&_101_assetEntryId=2182246&_101_type=content&_101_urlTitle=first-sunday-of-lent-the-sunday-of-orthodoxy&_101_redirect=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.goarch.org%2Fsearch%3Fp_p_id%3D3%26p_p_lifecycle%3D0%26p_p_state%3Dmaximized%26p_p_mode%3Dview%26_3_groupId%3D32058%26_3_keywords%3Dlent%26_3_struts_action%3D%252Fsearch%252Fsearch%26_3_redirect%3D%252F&inheritRedirect=true)

We venerate (proskynoumen) the icon, since worship (latreia) belongs to God alone, and not to wood and paint. However, an icon is worthy of veneration because of the subject it portrays. And icon is more than a picture; it produces a real link between the image the reality behind the image. In this case, we honor the image by asking forgiveness of our sins and failings (ptaismaton imon). Through the image portrayed in the icon, we have access to the One who gave His life for the remission of our sins, and so by honoring the icon, we have a direct connection to Christ, the fountain of forgiveness.

The Icon and the Cross

These two themes, honoring the image of Christ in the icon and the forgiveness of sins, are expanded in the second part of the first half of the hymn. The pivotal words in the first part are eikona (image), synchorisin (forgiveness), and ptaismaton (failings). The cause for these words flows from them and is connected to the first part by the conjunction gar (because).

The image of Christ leads to the image of His death on the cross through which the forgiveness of sins is open to us. The hymn insists that this is an act of pure love on the part of our Lord: voulisi…ivdokisas anelthin en to stavro (You were well pleased to ascend willingly on the cross). Forgiveness flows from a pure act of love.

The hymn then expands on the other two words. The word eikon is truly pregnant with meaning. In the first line, it refers to the icon, the image of Christ. However, the word was also used to express true human nature, made in the image of God (eikon tou Theou). Like the painted icon, we as human beings were created by God to reflect His presence in the world. But we failed at this mission; the tempter deceived us by telling us we could become gods without grace, without God. Instead of the usual word for sin (amartia), the hymn uses the word ptaisma which means a failure, but can also have the connotation of a defeat. We were defeated in our battle with Satan, and so we became douloi, slaves, to Satan. Through the cross, Christ defeated Satan and the power of death through which he kept us enslaved. All this is expressed in the next line: ina risi ous eplasas ek tis doulias tou echthrou. Our Lord’s love for us is expressed in His going to the cross for the purpose of freeing us from slavery, of reversing our defeat by His victory.

Filled with Joy

The second half of the hymn is an ecstatic prayer of joy, a prayer of celebration of victory. The cause and effect is expressed by othen (for this reason, hence). This time, the quiet request for forgiveness before the icon of Christ is transformed into a shout of victory and thanksgiving (efcharistos voomen si). The sorrow of the first part is transformed into joy, the joy of the whole creation, delivered from slavery and death.

The hymn adds a wonderfully intimate touch in the last line. There are many words in Orthodox hymns to express Christ’s coming to earth and taking on our human nature. Usually the word used expresses some sort of condescension as, for example, in the Creed, where this action is described as descending (katelthonda). Here, however the hymn chooses a different perspective. Christ comes to save us; the word used is paragenomenos. The root of this verb, gignomai, means to be or become. The prefix para- gives the sense of being next to something else.

And so, our Lord doesn’t save the world by some divine strike from on high; He saves us from within ourselves, so to speak. Salvation comes from God taking His place next to us, as one of us. This emphasis on our shared humanity touches back on both sections of the first part: Christ willingly goes to the cross sarki–in the flesh; and, the very existence of an eikon of the Son of God is only possible because, as our hymns say, the uncircumscribed God can now be depicted in icons because He has been circumscribed by the flesh.

We Are the Images of Christ

This beautiful hymn with its tightly interwoven themes show us the incredible love that God has for us by taking on our nature and going to the Cross to free us from slavery. The image of God which once shone in and through us, but was tarnished by sin can now be repolished and restored to its original glory.

This hymn, then, not only reminds us of our true nature as images of Christ who is the image of the Father; it also sets the tone for Lent. Always shining through the spirit of repentance and fasting is the victory won by Christ in the flesh. Lent, then, becomes a time of liberation, not of suffering. We discipline the flesh in order to rejoice in our freedom.

 

 

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Kontakion of the Sunday of the Last Judgment

Before the beginning of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church offers her faithful four Sundays of preparation. The period is called the Triodion after the book which contains the hymns for this period and for the Great Lent and Holy Week. Each of these preparatory Sundays presents a theme to help the faithful map their way through the journey to Pascha. The themes of these Sundays are:

  • The Publican and the Pharisee–humility and prayer
  • The Prodigal Son–humility, repentance, forgiveness
  • The Last Judgment
  • Forgiveness Sunday–forgiveness and prayer

Each Sunday has a special hymn, called a Kontakion, which is sung at the Divine Liturgy as the last in the series of hymns sung as the Gospel Book is brought in procession to the altar. These special hymns stress the theme of the Sunday.

Greek Text

Ὅταν ἔλθῃς ὁ Θεός, ἐπὶ γῆς μετὰ δόξης,
καὶ τρέμωσι τὰ σύμπαντα,
ποταμὸς δὲ τοῦ πυρὸς πρὸ τοῦ Βήματος ἕλκῃ,
καὶ βίβλοι ἀνοίγωνται,
καὶ τὰ κρυπτὰ δημοσιεύωνται,
τότε ῥῦσαί με, ἐκ τοῦ πυρὸς τοῦ ἀσβέστου,
καὶ ἀξίωσον, ἐκ δεξιῶν σου μὲ στῆναι,
Κριτὰ δικαιότατε.

English Transliteration

Otan elthis o Theos epi yis meta doxis,
ke tremosi ta sympanta,
potamos de tou pyros pro tou Vimatos elki,
ke vivli anigonde,
ke ta krypta dimosievonde,
tote ryse me ek tou pyros tou asvestou,
ke axioson ek dexion sou me stine,
Krita dikeotate.

English Translation

When You come, O God, to earth with glory,
and all things tremble,
and the river of fire flows before the judgment tribunal,
and the books are opened,
and the secret deeds are made public,
then save me from the unquenchable fire,
and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand,
O most just Judge.

last-judgment

God the Most Just Judge

As we have seen with many hymns, this hymn falls into two parts. The first part sets the scene, governed by the conjunction otanwhen. The second part picks up the first with the adverb tote–then. The whole hymn is united into a whole by the address to God in the first line (o Theos), who comes to earth with glory, and in the last line (Krita dikeotate) as the most just Judge.

5 Fearful Aspects of the End

The first part of the hymn lists 5 fearful events of the Last Judgment:

  • God’s coming in glory
  • all things trembling
  • the river of fire flowing
  • the books are opened
  • the secrets made public

God’s coming in glory is a reference to the Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We hear the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which begins with Our Lord, identifying Himself as the Son of Man, coming in glory and sitting on His throne (Matthew 25:31. God finally takes His throne as true king of all creation.

But, instead of all creation rejoicing and welcoming its true king, we see the opposite reaction: fear is the prevailing emotion. The prevalence of this emotion is explained in the following actions: all the secret acts of our lives are revealed in public.

These two actions are joined together by the central image of the river of fire. The river flows past the judgment tribunal, and represents both the revelation and judgment of the actions during life of each person, and the punishment for these actions.

Saved from the Fire

The river of fire is taken up in the second part of the hymn with unquenchable fire of condemnation (ek tou pyros tou asvestou). This second part, however, takes an unexpected turn. The connection of the otan and the tote leads the hearer to expect a description of the judgment scene the first part of the hymn is building up to. However, instead of judgment, the second part of the hymn is a plea for mercy. In the light of the first part of the hymn, we realize that, before the light of God’s justice, our actions have made us worthy of a place in the fire. With that knowledge, we have no recourse but to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

Becoming a Sheep

The unusual turn of the hymn then has an even more unusual conclusion: not only do we beg for mercy and rescue from the fire, we actually beg God to be placed with the saved, to be placed with the sheep. This reference to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats takes us back to the first line of the hymn, and leads to the concluding address to God. In a final twist, this address, following on a plea for mercy, is to the perfect justice of God Himself. The hymn, then, tells us that God as King and Judge shows Himself most just when He shows the greatest mercy.

 

 

The Apolytikion of the Meeting of the Lord with the Elder Symeon in the Temple

The feast of the Meeting of the Lord with the Elder Symeon occurs on February 2nd, about halfway between Christmas and Pascha. We celebrate the day when Mary and Joseph brought the Christ Child to the Temple to fulfill two commandments of the Law: the purification of the mother from the flow of blood from giving birth (Leviticus 12:1-8); and the “buying back” of the first born male from God (Exodus 13:11-16).

Greek Text

Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη Θεοτόκε Παρθένε,
ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ ἀνέτειλεν ὁ Ἥλιος τῆς δικαιοσύνης,
Χριστὸς ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν, φωτίζων τοὺς ἐν σκότει.
Εὐφραίνου καὶ σὺ Πρεσβύτα δίκαιε,
δεξάμενος ἐν ἀγκάλαις τὸν ἐλευθερωτὴν τῶν ψυχῶν ἡμῶν,
χαριζόμενον ἡμῖν καὶ τὴν Ἀνάστασιν.

English Transliteration

Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene,
ek sou gar anetilen o Ilios tis dikeosynis,
Christos o Theos imon, photizon tous en skoti.
Efphrenou ke si Presvita dikee,
dexamenos en angales ton eleftherotin ton psychon imon,
charizomenon imin ke tin Anastasin.

English Translation

Rejoice full of grace Theotokos Virgin,
For from you arose the Sun of Righteousness,
Christ our God, enlightening those in darkness.
Rejoice also, righteous Elder,
having received in your arms the Liberator of our souls,
who grants us also the Resurrection.

The Hymn Sung in Greek and in English

A Dance Around Christ

The hymn, as is typical of many hymns, falls into two parts. Each part looks at a main character of the story, and directs the characters to the overarching main character, Christ.

The first part addresses the Thetokos, the second the Elder Symeon. Each is given a command to rejoice.

Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene

Efphrenou ke si Presvita dikee

They are then given the reason for this: the Theotokos has given birth to Christ; Symeon has received the Christ child in his arms.

The third line then applies a participle to Christ, attributing an aspect of our Salvation to the particular description of Christ.

  • In the first part, Christ is addressed as the Sun of Righteousness. His action is to enlighten those in darkness.
  • In the second part, Christ is called the Liberator of our souls. His action is to grant the Resurrection, the ultimate liberation from sin and death.

From Christmas to Pascha and Back

Since this feast fall roughly midway between Christmas and Pascha, it looks in both directions, thereby joining the themes of the two feasts together. In order to express this aspect of the feast, the Apolytikion uses language which captures all the highlights of the various feasts, melding them into one hymn.

The Previous Feasts

The first line:

Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene

is a variation on the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary when he announced to her that she was chosen to be the mother of God (Luke 1:28).

Chere kecharitomeni, o Kyrios meta sou

Thus, the hymn begins at the beginning, at the Annunciation.

The second line:

ek sou gar aneteile o Ilios tis dikeosynis

mimics a line from the Apolytikion of the Nativity:

[tous magous] se proskynin ton Ilion tis dikeosynis

quickly moving from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ.

The third line:

Christos o Theos imon, photizon tous en skotis

connects the hymn to the Feast of Lights, Theophany. In the Gospel for the Sunday after Theophany, we read how St. Matthew refers this prophecy of Isaiah to our Lord (Matthew 4:16):

O laos o kathimenos en skoti phos eiden mega, ke tis kathimenis en chora ke skia thanatou phos anetile aftis.

The people who were sitting in the shadow saw a great light, and upon those sitting in the land and the shadow of death a light has arisen.

The Future Feasts

The shift to the righteous Elder Symeon also shifts the perspective to the future, just as Symeon himself looks to the future of the child in his arms.

Symeon has received the liberator of our souls:

dexamenos en angales ton eleftherotin ton psychon imon.

The title eleftherotis is appropriate for our Lord’s death on the cross, since through His death He liberated us from sin and death.

Finally, through His conquest of death, Christ also grants to us the Resurrection, the promise of renewed life.

From Christmas and Pascha and Back…to Us

On this Feast Day, we too stand poised between Christmas and Pascha. Our hymn reminds us that we cannot separate the two events, that they are inextricably bound up with each other. Christmas can never be for the Orthodox Christian a warm cuddly feeling about a little child in a manger with cute little animals all around. Christmas must always point to God’s great sacrifice for us, it shows us the Child, not a sweet little boy, but as the Liberator of our souls. In the same way, the great acts of our salvation, our Lord’s Death and Resurrection, can never be separated from the initial sacrifice of the Son of God in becoming a human being, in taking on our human nature and living and sanctifying every aspect of our human lives. Very often in our “religious thought” we consider the only events of our Lord’s life to be Christmas and Pascha, and that these are two very distinct events. This Feast and its apolytikion remind us that these events frame a whole life and that they can never be separated but must be joined together into one whole continuum of salvation.

 

The Apolytikion of the Nativity of our Lord

Why are we talking about stars at Christmas?

In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, the Divine Liturgy of Christmas day commemorates the arrival of the Magi to offer their gifts to the Christ Child. The role of the star in this story helps to reinforce the theme of the Divine Light coming into a world of darkness.

The Greek Text

Ἡ γέννησίς σου Χριστὲ ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν,
ἀνέτειλε τῶ κόσμω, τὸ φῶς τὸ τῆς γνώσεως,
ἐν αὐτῇ γὰρ οἱ τοὶς ἄστροις λατρεύοντες,
ὑπὸ ἀστέρος ἐδιδάσκοντο,
σὲ προσκυνεῖν,
τὸν Ἥλιον τῆς δικαιοσύνης,
καὶ σὲ γινώσκειν
ἐξ ὕψους ἀνατολήν,
Κύριε δόξα σοί.

The Transliteration

I yennisis sou Christe o Theos imon,
anetile to kosmo to phos to tis gnoseos,
en afti gar i tis astris latrevontes,
ipo asteros edidaskondo,
se proskinin
ton Ilion tis dikeosynis,

ke se yinoskin
ex ipsous anatolin,

Kyrie, doxa si.

The English Translation

Your birth O Christ our God
raised upon the world the light of knowledge
and to those who worshiped the stars
through a star learned
to worship You the sun of righteousness
and came to know You the Orient from on high.
Lord, glory to You.

The Apolytikion sung in English by the Boston Byzantine Choir

(Not) Blinded by the Light

The hymn of Christmas is full of light; not just any light, but the light that casts out the darkness of the world. The poetry of the hymn reinforces this image. The idea itself comes from two New Testament sources.

The light that overcomes the darkness comes from the Prologue to the Gospel according to St. John (John 1:4-5)

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend (or overcome) it.

What is the light that overcomes the darkness? Naturally, it is the rising sun! This connection becomes clear in the hymn which Zacharias sang at the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:76-79).

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high will visit us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The Morning Star

This complex of images underlies the poetry of the first part of the hymn. The birth of Christ causes the light of knowledge (to phos to tis gnoseos) to rise up. The verb anatello is the common word for the rising of the sun; it is used transitively (i.e. it conveys the action of a subject to the object) for raising something up. In Matthew 5:45 it is used in connection with the sun: “…so that you become sons of your Father in heaven, because he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good…”

Like the Light in John 1, the birth of Christ causes the light of knowledge to rise over the world. The image invokes the natural phenomenon of the morning star pointing to the rising of the sun. The birth of Christ becomes the morning star whose rising heralds the coming of the light of knowledge. This knowledge, as we have seen in the hymn of Zacharias, is the knowledge of salvation, which is the revelation of the true God through the God-man Jesus Christ. 

Star-Gazers and the Star

The initial image of sun and morning star leads naturally to the star which guided the astrologers from the East to find the newborn Christ Child. It is in the light of knowledge that the Magi, who were ancient astronomers, began their search for the newborn King of the Jews. Although they had worshiped the stars (oi tis astris latrevondes), God sent them a star which shone with light of knowlege (iper asteros edidaskondo). The roles are now reversed: the sun has become the morning star, pointing beyond itself to the greater truth.

How can the star teach? Every Christmas we are subjected to endless speculation about the nature of the star that the Magi followed. Was it a miraculous, moving star? Was it a confluence of planets? Was it some unusual astrological sign that had meaning for the astrologers? In the Orthodox tradition, none of these questions are meaningful. The true nature of the star lies beyond the simple physical phenomenon. We see what the star truly is in the icon of the Nativity. There the star is more than an astronomical event; it is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit Himself.

At the top of the icon is the dark blue semicircle which is the iconic symbol of the Father. From this circle emanates a ray which terminates in the star over the head of the Christ Child. This symbolism shows that the star is one of the Trinity, pointing to the incarnate Word. We see the same arrangement in the icon of the Baptism, where the Spirit is symbolized by a dove.

Ultimately, then, the Magi are led by the Spirit, who always points us to Christ. The Holy Spirit is the true light of knowledge.

Two Things to Learn

The third part of the hymn tells us the two things which the Magi learn through the star, the light of knowledge: to worship you (se proskynin) and to know you (se yinoskin). The order is the opposite of what we expect. Our rational, post-Enlightenment society has been taught that knowledge comes first.The debate about infant Baptism, for example, revolves around the objection that infants are too young to understand what is going on. For the Orthodox, however, worship always comes first, because the mystery always exceeds our intellect. When we are faced, like the Magi, with the pre-eternal God now lying in the food trough of dumb animals, all we can do, like the Magi, is to fall down and worship the mystery. The morning star has led us to the rising of the true Sun of Righteousness (ton ilion tis dikeosyne). The light that heralded the coming of the light of knowledge has now become the sun, and the light of knowledge yields to worship.

From worship follows knowledge. The true Sun is not just light of day, but the rising sun. In this way, the Holy Spirit leads us not only to the Christ Child, but moves immediately to the “other end” of the story, the Resurrection. The rising sun is the image of the risen Christ, and, for this reason, from the beginning, Christians face East when they pray, and especially at the ultimate meeting with the risen Christ, the Divine Liturgy. For the Orthodox, Christmas can never remain the sentimental meditation on a baby in the manger. It points to the entire plan of salvation. The hymn for Christmas takes us to the culmination of that plan through the beautiful image of the morning star leading us to the rising sun.

 

 

 

The Apolytikion or Dismissal Hymn of Pentecost, chanted by Nikodemos Kabarnos

EuloghtoV ei Criste o QeoV hmwn

O pansofouV touV alieiV anadeixaV

katapemyaV autoiV to Pneuma to Agion

kai di autwn thn oikoumenhn saghneusaV

Filanqrwpe, doxa soi.

Evloyitos i Christe o Theos imon

O pansophous  tous aliis anathixas

katapempsas aftis to Pnevma to ayion

ke thi afton tin ikoumenin sayinevsas

Philanthrope, thoxa si

Blessed are you, O Christ our God

Who showed forth the fisherman all-wise

When you sent down on them the Holy Spirit

And through them you caught the whole world in the fishing net,

O Lover of humanity, glory to you.

The hymn for Pentecost presents some interesting features. First of all, unlike western hymns for Pentecost, this hymn is addressed not to the Holy Spirit, but to Christ. In a certain sense, it really reflects the role of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit’s presence pervades the hymn, but is not contained by the hymn. The Holy Spirit fills and transcends the work of Christ in the world.

We also see the two aspects of the descent of of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. First of all, the disciples, mostly fishermen, are shown to be able to speak to the people each in their own language. They have also become eloquent preachers. Peter’s words “cut to their heart” (Acts 2:37) and that day 3000 people were baptized. In this way, the presence of the Holy Spirit transformed the earthly occupation of the disciples into a missionary occupation. They were literally now “fishing for humans” and capturing them in the net of the Church.

And so, this hymn shows us the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Church. First of all, it transforms our mundane lives into spirit-filled lives. No matter how high or low the world values our occupations, the Holy Spirit finds each one valuable and is able to give a divine wisdom in it, so that the humblest uneducated peasant is able to refute the wise men of the world through the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost[1]

The icon of Pentecost also reflects this truth. As the disciples are seated in the upper room, the Spirit descends on them in the form of tongues of fire. As the flame lands on each one, he turns in a different direction. In this way, the icon shows that each disciples had a particular gift from God, but that all of these gifts were special and unique. The Holy Spirit uses our individual gifts and our individual occupations for a purpose; there is no single mind or single thought in the service of God.

The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit is also beautifully expressed in the hymn: mission. The disciples become apostles (from the Greek apostello “to send out”). The first thing the Apostles do is to preach Christ crucified and risen and the need for repentance. The message, the Good News of resurrection and forgiveness of sins is something the world needs. When preached through the power of the Holy Spirit (and not through our own agendas or desire for self-aggrandizement), it strikes to the heart, and captures the world in the fishermen’s net.

Each Orthodox Christian experiences a personal Pentecost when he or she is chrismated after Baptism. Also, each Divine Liturgy is a personal and corporate Pentecost, when the priests asks the Father to “send the Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here offered”. At each Divine Liturgy we are filled with the Holy Spirit, transformed into the Body of Christ and then, like the Apostles on the first Pentecost, sent out into the world as missionaries. Preaching the Gospel is not the realm of specialists; it is the grace of the Holy Spirit working in and through our lives.

If we have not yet struck people to the heart through our preaching, not just in words but, more importantly, in deeds, then we should examine ourselves. Have we been cooperating with the grace of the Holy Spirit, or have we been standing in the way? Have we been conduits or obstructions? Have we spread out the nets, or have we folded them away?

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.