On November 21, the Orthodox Church celebrates a rather peculiar feast, one that is not found in sacred Scripture and thus may appear to only be pious legend. The bulk of thematic material for the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is taken from the mid- to late second century apocryphal work known as the Protoevangelium of James (also known as The Infancy Gospel of James). The general narrative includes the young Mary being dedicated to the Temple by her parents in like fashion to Hanna (Greek: Anna) and her husband Elkanah who dedicated the infant Samuel to the Tabernacle at Shilo (1 Sam 1-2). Later in the work, we are told that she lived in the Holy of Holies. Important scholarly work has been done regarding the historical plausibility of this practice by Megan Nutzman of Old Dominion University, who has noted references to a guild of Temple Virgins from Jewish sources.
The Return of the Glory of Yahweh
Regardless of the historicity of the account, the theological implications of this feast are enormous. Recently, retired Anglican bishop and noted New Testament scholar N.T. Wright participated in a panel discussion at Duke Divinity school wherein he emphasized one of his most important contributions to New Testament research, namely that the New Testament often presents Jesus Christ in the motif of The Return of the Glory of Yahweh to His People.
Ezekiel 10 depicts a vision of the prophet where he sees the glory of Yahweh depart from the threshold of the Temple upon the animated cherubic chariot throne just before the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. It must be recalled that within the Holy of Holies, the inner-most room of the Temple, was the Ark of the Covenant, and on top of the lid of the Ark were two golden cherubim with their wings outstretched. These figures formed the throne of Yahweh known as the merkavah “chariot throne” or Mercy Seat, the place where the presence and glory of Yahweh invisibly dwelt among His people. The notion of a throne made of cherubim, hybrid winged creatures, was relatively common in the ancient Near East, especially in Egypt. An Egyptian motif of such a throne was found among ivory carvings from Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley in Northern Israel, where one can clearly see a king seated upon a throne of Cherubim. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is specifically referred to by the epithet יהוה צבאות היושב ההכרובים Yahweh of Hosts (Sabaoth) Who sits/dwells between the Cherubim (1 Sam 4:4, 2 Sam 6:2, Is 37:16) and as one who ירכב על הכרובים “rides upon the Cherubim” (2 Sam 22:11, Ps 18/17:11). Therefore, we should understand references to the Cherubim, especially the visions of Ezekiel 1 and 10 to be references to the chariot throne (hence the “Wheels” in Ezekiel) of Yahweh and specifically to the presence of Yahweh among His people.
When Yahweh’s glory departed from the Temple before its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, the Jews awaited the day when it would return, when the glory of Yahweh would once again dwell upon the Cherubic throne in the Jerusalem Temple. Ezekiel 40-48 describe in detail this new Temple and the glory of Yahweh descending upon it. When the exiled Jews returned from Babylon, they began to reconstruct the temple, the very same temple to which the Theotokos was brought by her parents. Yet, the glory of Yahweh never returned to this temple. No Ark was in the Holy of Holies, and Jews still awaited the return of their God to dwell among them.
The Cherubic Throne
So now we may see the significance of the entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple. When the child Mary ascended the steps of the altar and came into the Holy of Holies, we are to understand this as the return of the Ark of the Covenant, the New Covenant, into the Temple. Christians have long interpreted the following verse, Psalm 131/132:8 as referring to the Theotokos:
Arise, O Lord, to Thy resting place,
Thou and the Ark of Thy holiness (MT: might).
This psalm would perhaps have been originally sung during a procession with the Ark of the Covenant. As the priests bearing the Ark neared the steps of the Temple to return the Ark to the Holy of Holies, we can image that this verse would have been sung. So, as the child Mary walked up the steps of the temple, we see the preparation for the long-awaited return of the glory of Yahweh among His people.
The identification of the Theotokos with the Ark of the Covenant is crucial to our theological understanding of her birthgiving. Beyond being identified with the Ark itself, or rather that the Ark was a type and a shadow of her, we may identify the theotokos with the very Cherubic throne upon which Yahweh dwelt. In our hymnography, we sing two hymns to the Mother of God during the divine liturgy. At the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, we sing the following refrain:
More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim.
Without corruption you gave birth to God the Logos – true Theotokos we magnify you.
At the Liturgy of St. Basil, we sing:
He made your body into a throne and your womb more spacious than the heavens.
The hymns placed in this part of the divine liturgy clearly present the Theotokos both in terms of the angelic attendants of the Lord and as a throne. If we understand the notion of the cherubic throne detailed above, we see the real significance of these hymns, which, being more than mere hyperbolic decoration, describe the Theotokos as being the very cherubic throne of Yahweh, the place where God dwells among His people. In fact, even our iconography depicts the child Christ Immanuel seated upon the lap of His mother as if upon a throne.
The Mystical Ascent to the Heavenly Throne
The significance of these ideas goes far beyond mere typology, for in it we may observe the mystical ascent into the Heavenly throne room of God that takes place at each celebration of the Divine Liturgy. In Jewish mysticism, a mystic would pray specialized hymns and names of God in hopes of being mystically transported to the supernal heavenly temples, whereupon arriving and traversing them unharmed would be granted a vision of the merkavah chariot throne, the very glory of Yahweh depicted by Ezekiel. That the object of mystical contemplation in Judaism is the chariot throne helps us to understand our own contemplation of the Theotokos, who occupies the same place. In the Divine Liturgy, we all make a mystical ascent into the supernal, heavenly temple. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Faithful, we sing “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim…” At arriving at this place in the Liturgy, we find ourselves mystically, that is in a hidden and spiritual manner, standing in place of the angelic attendants of the throne room of God. We have entered the inner-sanctum of the heavenly Temple, where we behold the glory of Yahweh. In the inner-sanctum we join with the choirs of the Seraphim singing “Holy Holy Holy, Lord Sabaoth,” the Eucharistic gifts are consecrated, and then we sing one of the hymns to the Mother of God described above. At this point, we turn our contemplation to the throne of God itself, Christ’s mother.
The significance of this liturgical act is this: by directing our contemplation to the Mother of God, the Liturgy takes us, as if leading us by the hand, to the Cherubic throne of Yahweh the God of Israel. And what do we find? An invisible presence? A pillar of fire or a cloud? No, we find the Virgin and her Son, the Incarnate Son of God. The culmination of the mystical hope of the Jews, the long awaited return of Yahweh among His people, has been accomplished in the birthgiving of the Virgin. Yahweh dwells among His people once again, seated upon His maternal throne.
Though the Son of God descended to be born of the Virgin, He also ascended in to Heaven. The return of Yahweh to his people is not accomplished only by Him coming to dwell with us on Earth, but rather that He raises us up to dwell with Him in His heavenly glory. In our mystical ascent in the Divine Liturgy, we are raised to Heaven, to the very throne room of God, and we dwell with Him in Eucharistic communion.
After singing the hymn to the Mother of God, we then sing (or say) the Lord’s Prayer. We have continued our ascent not stopping at the throne itself. Rather, we find that we too are seated upon thrones as “joint heirs” with Christ (Romans 8:17). In the Lord’s Prayer, we “dare” to call upon God as “Father,” which we do only because we have been given the status of sons and daughters of God by the adoption of grace. We are joint heirs with Christ of the Kingdom of God, therefore along with Christ we pray “Our Father.” It is only after doing this that we receive communion. Only after contemplating the heavenly throne and our adopted sonship in the Kingdom, we actualize this relationship, for we are adopted as sons and daughters of God because we are one body with Christ. As members of His Body, we “rule and reign with Him” in His Kingdom.
What to Take Away
- The Ark of the Covenant and the Cherubic throne of Yahweh is a type and shadow of the Theotokos.
- The entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple signified the return of Yahweh to dwell among His People, which was accomplished in the birth of Christ, the Incarnate God.
- The significance of the Theotokos as the Cherubic throne is realized in our mystical ascent in the Divine Liturgy.
- By contemplating her place as the throne of God, we discover our own place as adopted sons and daughters of God, joint heirs with Christ in His Eternal Kingdom.
The feast of Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple heralds the return of the glory of Yahweh, which glory we perceive in the face of Christ Immanuel – God with Us. He is seated upon his throne, and He raises us up with him into the heavenly Temple, where we may commune with Him and reign with Him in His Kingdom as joint heirs. Let us not sing the hymns to the Theotokos the same way ever again. When we sing “More honorable than the Cherubim,” let us contemplate the real significance of it and realize that we are being raised from Earth to Heaven to commune with the One who sits upon His Cherubic Throne, the Virgin Mary.