The Psalter, Ezekiel 33-35, Isaiah 6
We have had several weeks of worship in which other hymns have pre-empted the usual resurrectional-dismissal hymns to the Theotokos. This week in our worship, we repeat the “Theotokion” in tone three, which I considered in this blog several weeks ago! I have decided, then, to delve into another stunning hymn used this week that concerns the Theotokos and her relationship to our Redeemer. For those who are looking for it in the Vesperal service, this hymn is sung after the end of the “aposticha” (a set of hymns that follows a verse), and is in tone five, as are most of our hymns for this week.
Most precious Virgin,
You are the gate, the temple,
the palace, the throne of the King.
From You, my Redeemer, Christ the Lord,
appeared to those asleep in darkness.
He is the Sun of Righteousness,
Who desired to enlighten His image, whom He had created.
Since you possess motherly boldness before Him, all praised Lady,
Pray unceasingly that our souls may be saved!
This hymn hides its depth in seeming simplicity. In it several images from the Old Testament are used in order to call attention to the unique place of holy Mary in God’s economy of salvation. As befits a hymn for the Lord’s Day, it focusses upon the Resurrection—but it also envisages the creation, the virgin birth, the harrowing of Hell, and the continuity of salvation history.
Since its scope is so grand, we will concentrate upon the Old Testament images used to illumine the Theotokos. Here she is called the Gate, the Temple, the Palace, and the Throne of the King. As we encounter this series of pictures, we may recall old Jerusalem, in her heyday under King Solomon, when she was a glorious walled city, set on high, and ornamented with both a Temple and a Palace.
The Psalms and Prophets are replete with references to the gates of Jerusalem: “the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” (Ps 86/7:2); “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name” (Ps 99/100:4); “Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem” (121/2:2); “Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion. For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; he has blessed your children within you. He makes peace in your borders” (146/7:12-14); “Open the gates, so that the righteous nation who keeps the truth may enter in, because they hope forever in You, O Lord” (Isaiah 26:2-3).
This final verse from Isaiah reminds us of the purpose of “gates”— they are a way in, of course, but they are also a continuation of the wall, to protect the faithful and to keep out the violent who do not belong. In ancient times, too, gates were a natural gathering place, as we hear in the Old Testament, where the judge sat in court at the gates, handling disputes, or where inhabitants gathered to exchange news. Of the virtuous woman it is said, “Give to her from the fruit of her hands; and let her husband praise her at the gates” (Pro 31:31). When Jerusalem was rebuilt in the time of Nehemiah, it appears that it had ten gates (we can count them in several OT books); there may have been twelve in Jesus’ day. Certainly, the apostle and prophet John had a vision of a time when there would be twelve glorious gates, representing the fullness of God’s people (like the twelve tribes, or twelve apostles, cf. Rev. 21:21). Indeed, in that glad day, when all rebellion has been quelled, there will be no need to shut the gates, either by day or night, but all who come in will do so to bring glory to God (Isa 60:11; Rev 21:24-5) As the prophet exults, “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, nor wasting or destruction within your borders; but you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise” (Isa 60:18).
So then, the gates provide an entrance for all who belong in the holy city. But, of course, in our hymn, holy Mary is called the gate, just as Jesus is called “the way.” There is something singular, or special, about the entrance that she gave to the incarnate LORD, and that she gives to those who seek God’s presence. Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem by the East (or Beautiful) Gate, which was blocked in by the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent centuries later. The prophet Ezekiel (in chapters 33-35) foresees this sealing event, and refers to the uniqueness of the king who will enter through this gate, so it would not be appropriate for another to use it. The Church has taken these passages to refer to the ever-virginity of Mary, since the entrance from her holy womb was the portal taken by the infant LORD, so that our Savior could come into our midst. In this very particular way, then, she is the gate of the One who is our salvation. As we think of her place in God’s economy, we may rejoice with the Psalmist: “This is the gate of the LORD, by which the righteous shall enter. I will praise thee: for thou hast heard me, and art become my salvation” (Ps 117/8:19-21).
She is the gate, but she is also, says our hymn, the Temple. The constructed Temple, of course, was not originally God’s idea, but that of David. God reminds us, indeed, of the impossibility of “containing” Him: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1) Yet He condescended to meet with His people at the mercy seat, the ark that prefigured the times to come. It is holy Mary, a human being made by God, and not by human hands, who would become the living shrine of the living God-Man, holding physically within her the Savior of the world. If we stop to think about this, we can scarcely take it in, and will exclaim about her womb becoming “more spacious than the heavens”—ample enough, by God’s grace, to contain the uncontainable LORD!
Even more, she offers a picture of what each of us hope to become—living shrines of the Lord, offering His life to others. As Jesus promised, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). She alone “bore” Jesus as a mother bears a child, enshrining Him in her womb, and giving birth for us the One who is our salvation. Yet all of us may “bear” Him in different manner, carrying His life within us so that others may see it: “we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved” (2 Cor 2:15). The popularity of the name “Christopher” (literally, “Christ-bearer”) attests to this role, to which each of us is called. Mary may be the unique bearer in terms of giving birth, as she was, quite literally, “the way” by which the LORD came among us. But all of us are called to carry Christ, and to “lift high the cross,” as the Western hymn puts it. Together, we are the holy ones, the “temple” of the living God—a tangible and physical sign of God’s presence in the world.
She is also called “the palace.” Jerusalem had a Temple for the LORD and a palace for the King, when it was in its prime. Never was the king’s palace seen as something that should overshadow the glory of God, but it was understood to exist because of God’s favor and clemency. Indeed, David reasoned with God that is seemed impertinent for him to have a royal house, while God was worshipped in the impermanence of a moveable tabernacle (2 Kingdoms/Samuel 7:2). God had no need for this man-made construction, but eventually allowed Solomon to build a temple for Him—and the king saw to it that the Temple was more glorious than his palace, for theological reasons. The LORD alone was to be worshipped, and the king’s glory depended upon the God who anointed him. We see this emphasis in a visionary book called 1 Enoch, where we hear about two buildings: “And that house [the palace of the king] became great and broad…and a tower lofty and great was built on the house for the Lord; that house was low, but the tower was elevated and lofty, and the Lord … stood on that tower and they offered a full table before Him” (1 Enoch 89:50). Indeed, when we remember that Jesus is King of Kings, it seems appropriate to unite the images of Temple (where He made atonement for our salvation, and where He meets with us) and Palace (where we see Him in all His glory). Isaiah’s “throne-room” vision catches a glimpse of the LORD in a Temple-Palace, on His throne!
And so we turn to the final picture of our holy Mother: she is the “throne” of the LORD. It is in this role that we see her in many icons, her arms encircling Him as an arm-chair does one who sits upon it. The throne is the focal-point of the palace, just as the Ark of the Covenant is in the central and most important place of the Temple. It is helpful to remember that the Ark was not only the chest that contained the relics of the people of Israel (the manna, Aaron’s budding rod, and so on), but it served as a kind of “seat” for the invisible God of Israel, and was surrounded by representations of adoring cherubim, curved around it. It is, indeed, the “throne” of God in the Temple, and is also called “the footstool” where He promises to meet the people.
Here God meets His people—as the King, as the Priest, and as the Sacrifice for all! Isaiah suggests that this temple-throne was a representation of something so glorious we can scarcely imagine it: “I saw the LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. The house was full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:1). It is in this vision that God’s glory is celebrated by the seraphim, who cry the thrice-holy hymn; it is in this vision that Isaiah understands his sin, and the sin of Israel; it is in this vision that the prophet is touched by the living coal, cleansed and commissioned; it is in this vision that both the desolation and restoration of Israel are promised.
The prophet understood what the book of Hebrews makes clear—that the earthly Temple (and palace) with its throne, are only copies or representations of a realm that we cannot yet see, but into which Jesus has gone ahead, preparing a place for us. He has entered for us into the true holy place, and so made it possible for us to draw near to the heavenly Mount Zion, joining “the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). When we worship, gathering together, we have a potent foretaste of that time when we will be together with patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, virgins, prophetesses, archangels, angels, and our beloved Mary, who is “the gate, the temple, the palace, and the throne of the King.”
For it is from her that the LORD appeared to those of us who were “in darkness,” bringing us light, hope, and the promise of glory. Her “yes,” her child-bearing, and her motherly woes at the cross, were all instrumental in our salvation. Yet all this imagery does not detract from the One who alone is our Creator and our Salvation. As with our usual rhythm in prayer, in this hymn we remember her, but worship Him: “calling to remembrance our all-holy….Lady Theotokos, we commend …all our life to Christ our God.” He alone is “the Sun of Righteousness,” and so holy Mary delights also to turn to Him in hope, interceding with her Son for us, as our mother, too.