The Entrance of the Theotokos: Heralding the Return of Yahweh among His People

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.

497Ezekiel 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 vmdirectperhaps 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.

22 comments:

  1. “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.”

    I couldn’t help but think of St. John being “in the spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10) and then seeing the heavenly throne in chapter 4 and 5 and beyond…and of course seeing the ark within the Temple (11:19) followed immediately by the sign of the Woman clothed with the sun (12:1).

    Have you any references to this practice of Jewish mysticism?

    1. The vision of St. John in the Revelation stands squarely within the apocalyptic vision tradition which formed part of the earliest stratum of Jewish mysticism. Taking their cues from Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1 and 10, the apocalyptic literature such as Daniel, 1 Enoch, et al., presents the same sort of mystical ascents to behold divine secrets. The Revelation, of course, has routinely been interpreted within Orthodoxy as a liturgical drama of sorts, paralleling many aspects of the Divine Liturgy (See Fr. Hopko’s wonderful audio series on the Apocalypse). Regarding the references to Jewish mysticism, of course read the above-mentioned parts of the Bible, the pseudepigraphic literature (such as Enoch), and the relevant Dead Sea Scrolls such as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. The main flowering of this type of mysticism was the merkavah/merkabah mysticism of the Hekhalot literature. James Davila has done the only English translation of the entire body of texts in a volume called _Hekhalot Literature in Translation_.

  2. Very, very interesting and edifying (I enthusiastically second Fr. Lourie’s reply)! We were actually discussing the Divine Liturgy last night and this would be a wonderful article to bring to the discussion. Thank you very much!

  3. Can we really so easily set aside “the historicity of the account” of this feast and others, not to mention other events found in Scripture? It seems that a good deal of what you are writing on (and what some have had trouble digesting) has this very question always lurking in the background. Perhaps addressing this issue is called for as caveat and context for much of what you write is called for, and doing so in a way that sensitively takes into account the concerns many have over scholars who have “gone too far” (as atheists, modernists, the non-Orthodox, etc.)

    For example, how are we to understand events you or others might take as “myth” in light of the way 2 Peter 1:16 and 1 timothy 1:4 understand the falsity of “myth” and “fable”? How are we to understand people and events in Scripture understood as “real” and “historical” by the New Testament and the Fathers, which you or others might say are “myth” or a story whose meaning is real but which is “just a story”? How are “Christian myths” then different than the myths of not only those in the Near East, but from the Greek and Roman gods, from the “real” stories of ahistorical Hindu deities? How can Christ be a real New Adam if the Old Adam is just a story, and since Paul seems to take Adam as having been more than simply a symbol, metaphor, cipher, or myth signifying “Humankind” and nothing more? We may not need to rely on Paul for the science of creation, but it would seem we should rely on him for a theology of salvation based on the reality of Adam and the Fall.

    Without addressing these sort of background issues, I think you may incite more antagonism than anyone (including you, I think ) is interested in. Raising difficult questions is great, following up with answers is even better. In fact, pastorally, I think it a species of malpractice for a teacher of the faith to stop at merely raising the question. I am very much interested in your thoughts on these kind of questions as one who is deeply immersed in the biblical texts, the societies from which they came, and the theology and tradition of the Orthodox Church.

    1. I did not “set aside” the historicity of the Entrance as to dismiss it as ahistorical. In fact, I cited evidence that lends toward its historicity. So, I’m not sure what you’re griping about. My point is that, aside from debates about its historicity, we should focus upon the theological import of it. Debates about historicity accomplish very little, IMO. In regard to the historicity of other aspects of the OT or the presence of myth in it, there is a tendency to deride these claims as being “mere stories” that render the New Testament attributions, for example, of Christ as the New Adam as moot. I disagree. Even if, to take your example, Adam was not a historical person (this can neither be proven or disproven by historical inquiry) the REAL Adam is Christ. Christ is the prototype, not Adam. Christ is the First Adam, “so that in everything he might have preeminence,” as St. Paul says. The function of the OT, whether historical or mythological, is to reveal Christ the Logos. Even if the ancients regarded elements of the OT as historical, which modern scholarship doubts, it does not obviate the theological meaning that they attributed to these persons or event. If the Exodus or the Conquest of Canaan didn’t happen exactly as the OT describes, it still does not destroy the theological significance of these events. They still have meaning, because the reality remains Christ and the Church, regardless of what “actually” happened before hand. So, let’s leave these questions behind and focus upon the reality of Christ and the Church. Maybe Adam existed as a real person, or maybe he didn’t. It does not matter, because either way Christ is still the Adam who has recapitulated the human race in Himself and has saved us.

  4. Thank you for this very interesting and timely article. If I am not mistaken, in the Christian tradition, just as in the Jewish, the divine Name is not to be written out or pronounced (as in your articles’ title), but is replaced with “the Lord” (or sometimes “the LORD”), following the usage of the Septuagint Scriptures which always write “Kyrios” instead of the Hebrew letters YHWH. If for purposes of Scriptural scholarship it is necessary to specify which Name you’re referring to, then the Tetragrammaton – YHWH – should be used, without the vowels.

    1. I’ve explained this elsewhere, but I will reiterate: The name Yahweh is recognized across the academic field as being the accepted name of Israel’s God, and its reconstruction is relatively certain. I use it in its fullness to emphasize the sense of the fulfillment of prophetic expectation and the continuity of the Christian tradition with ancient Israel. Also, I believe that there is a holier name, the name that is above every name, one that is elevated above the name Yahweh, which is Jesus, and that is a name that we place on our lips as often as possible in prayer, believing that that name has great power. We do not shy away from speaking it or think its pronunciation to be Taboo, even though in the Christian tradition, it was almost always abbreviated in writing, IC XC. I write the Tetragrammaton out in full (1) because I am an academic, and (2) I hold the name Jesus to be the fullest revelation of that name.

    1. Dn Herman is correct about the use of kyrios in the LXX and NT, though these are simply imitating Palestinian Jewish usage. I would think that any associations of kyrios with YHWY were lost on the vast majority of people throughout Christian history, who had no idea what the divine name was. Furthermore, the pronounciation of the Tetragrammaton only became a taboo in the post-exilic period. I believe it is in Daniel that we first find adonai used in place of the Tetragrammaton, so, it comes relatively late in the Yahwistic faith of the Israelites/Jews. We even find it spelled out in various ways in Greek and Samaritan Hebrew during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, e.g. IAO. When we write or say ὁ ὦν “the one who is,” we are pronouncing a Greek translation of a Hebrew cypher to the Tetragrammaton – ehyeh asher ehyeh “I am that (which) I am.” IMO, It’s not so much that the name continues to bear taboo, but that it drops out of usage entirely, being replaced by kyrios and of course the name of Jesus. The revelation of the Holy Trinity brings “Yahwism,” as it were, to a close. The Holy Trinity is Yahweh, but there is a definitive transition that comes with a fuller revelation of theology. I see no reason, therefore, why Jewish taboos should be binding on Christians, unless it is to avoid causing offense. I use the name only because it is an established usage in the academy.

  5. Hi Eric –

    I am really enjoying this blog. Could you give some of us “amateurs” a good book list to start delving in to some of these Biblical studies topics?

    1. It’s hard to say exactly since there are so many different angles one could take. If you can narrow down a place in biblical studies that you would like to start, I could direct you then.

      1. Sure, one area would be the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. In general, it seems like most resources I can find are either Evangelical Protestant or purely secular. Is there anything that includes up to date discoveries with the typological tradition of the Church?

        1. The Old Testament in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition by Fr. Eugen Pentiuc might be a good place to start. Secular works are not all bad. If you have a sufficient grounding in the Church, you should be able to filter what is and is not compatible with Tradition, as long as you give the scholarship a fair shake.

          1. Thanks Eric! Also, do you think any of the modern one volume commentaries (Eerdmans, Oxford, HarperCollins) are a good place to start or do you recommend any other general resource?

  6. Eric,

    Thank you for your blog. I have thoroughly enjoyed sitting at your feet. First… if I offend anyone by inadvertently saying the wrong thing, please accept by apology in advance. I am not Orthodox (the closest Orthodoxy parish is over 100 miles away).

    Having been raised RC, I have been queasy about issues surrounding the Mother of Christ since I was a teenager. The understanding that I grew up always seemed to me to quasi-deify her. Maybe that was my own misunderstanding.

    Reading Orthodox blogs like Fr. Freeman, Fr. Farley, Fr. Damick and others have helped me come to a much better understanding. But this article really helped to pull it together for me. Perhaps by the Lord’s grace I was just ready to hear it. But thank you for being His instrument.

    I want you to know that your blog is on my “must read” list.

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