On the Icon of the Entry of the Theotokos to the Temple
Sermon preached by Claire Koen on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.
Glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Good morning. This is the second Sunday in the Antiochian Women’s month. During this month, we are exploring the icons of the Feasts of the Church dedicated to the Theotokos. Last week Melissa preached about the Nativity of the Theotokos. This week I will be preaching on her entry into the temple.
Like the story of the birth of Mary, we have the story of the way in which Mary was dedicated by her parents to God It is also found in the apocryphal gospels that are recognized as part of the Tradition of the Church. When she was weaned, her parents dressed her in her best clothes and took her to the temple. Upon reaching the temple, Mary, of her own accord, began to climb the steps to the holy of holies. The high priest, recognizing that Mary’s desire to enter the holy of holies was inspired by God, took her hand and helped her to climb the stairs, despite the prohibition against anyone but the high priest entering that space.
In this icon, we see Mary ascending the steps to the holy of holies. In her ascent, and in the high priest's reception of her, she represents the invitation to commune with God which is offered to each human person. The hymn which begins “all of creation rejoices in you” that we sing during the Liturgy of Basil in Lent gives voice to the hope and salvation that the Theotokos offers not only to humanity, but to the whole of creation. This icon depicts not just the entry of one female child into the holy of holies, but the welcoming of the whole of creation into God’s salvation. The high priest stands in his priestly garb on the steps leading up to the holy of holies with his hands stretched out to Mary in welcome, and Mary’s hands reach out toward him. In the background, an older Mary is ministered to by an angel while she sits on a throne symbolizing, as we hear in the same hymn, the way in which she will become the throne of God, and will bring forth the High Priest, Christ, through whom all of creation is welcomed into relationship with God. We might also consider this icon as a template for our own progress towards union with God; we meet Christ, the High Priest, in the temple of our hearts, and in so doing becoming bearers of Christ.
As we heard last week, Mary was not conceived immaculately; rather, she lived her life without engaging in sinful activities. However, though she lived a blameless life, she nonetheless experienced the trials and tribulations, the heart breaks and disappointments that we all encounter. It is in her relative normalness that Mary gives us the hope to recognize and accept God’s invitation of all of humanity to live in the friendship of God’s presence.
As it is imaged in this story, this invitation challenges the view that human beings are too sinful or lowly to be worthy of God. We know from multiple sources that the priestly preparations prior to entry into the holy of holies were quite involved: the priest fasted and prayed for several days before considering himself purified. The young Mary, however, was led right into the holy of holies with no need for purifying rituals. What can be easily overlooked, though, is that even though Mary was full of grace, that grace was mediated through relationships and encounters like this one. The apocryphal writings tell us that the high priest placed Mary on the third step and that Mary “danced with her feet”, and despite her small three year old frame, continued up the steps into the holy of holies. The high priest, recognizing that she was divinely inspired, rejected the prohibition preventing others, especially a female, coming into the holy of holies, and led her in himself. Perhaps part of Mary’s blameless life was due to her early acceptance as worthy, just as she was; her desire to commune with God amidst her raw humanness.
Mary paves the way for the acknowledgement of the readiness of humanity to receive God into its midst, and this story reveals how Mary’s life touches and is touched by other people who also have a role to play in the unfolding of salvation history. Imagine for a moment, especially those of you who have children, what Joachim and Anna must have experienced in this process. They traveled to the temple: Mary was probably dressed in her best outfit, her parents were probably quite emotional, and the journey may have tested their patience, as journeys frequently do with young children. They arrived at the temple, and what does Mary do? She runs up to the front and starts climbing the ambo. Now, I know that dashing after a toddler mid service is not the most peaceful Sunday morning experience. Imagine their surprise, then, when the high priest did not prevent her ascent, but invited her to continue. Imagine their relief. My point in all of this is that Mary and her parents were affirmed in their humanness, in their ordinariness, in their simple exuberance and passion to be united with God, and in their own role in the larger narrative of Christian holiness.
In our own liturgical context, we are invited to participate in the events of the Presentation of the Theotokos in a special way during the churching of infants. This is when we offer the gift of our children to God. In our tradition this happens much earlier than in Mary's case but it is nonetheless analogous. Until about the 15th century it was the tradition to Church both baby girls and boys by taking them into the altar area. For a variety of reasons, this fell out of practice, and girls were only taken to the royal doors. This is still the case in many Orthodox churches today and what I had come to expect from my many years in the Church. However, the Antiochian Archdiocese has re-introduced the original practice of taking both boys and girls around the altar during their churching. One of my most joyous moments in recent years was the first time I witnessed a baby girl being churched by Fr. Antony when he carried the child into our “holy of holies.” The full, unbridled acknowledgment of the goodness of all of humanity, and the full welcoming into the church. All of these children, girls and boys alike, are presented to God and the community in a special way that previews their call to holiness as part of the larger community and that reminds us all of our own role in being agents of God’s grace in the continued unfolding of the Reign of God’s love and mercy.
I believe that part of Mary’s ongoing cooperation with God which allowed for the Incarnation, was brought about by her being affirmed, and fully welcomed into the temple community at a young age. This was where she was nurtured, her gifts were fostered, and she was encouraged to fulfill what she was divinely inspired to do. This is, I believe the most powerful message of this icon; humankind is welcomed and affirmed, not through proving themselves worthy, but simply through the recognition, and affirmation of their genuine goodness and potential to cooperate with God in the bringing about of God's reign. Further, it is in the ordinary humanness, the everyday moments of our lives as children, mothers, fathers, students, career women and men, and when we find ourselves in the awkward, uncertain in between stages of our lives that we are affirmed by God and invited to climb the steps to Holy of Holies and to commune with God.
I would encourage each of us here today to consider the ways in which we are invited to meet God in the “holy of holies” whether that be the altar area of our communal temple or within the temple of each human person. When you see a fellow human struggling to climb the steps to the holy of holies, reach out a hand and encourage them. After all, the most beautiful event ever, the Incarnation of God, was made possible, in part, through the simple act of encouraging an enthusiastic young girl.