Hebrews 9:1-7; Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28
Today we celebrate the feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most Holy Theotokos. Her elderly parents Joachim and Anna offered Mary to God by taking her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem as a young girl, where she grew up in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord in a unique and extraordinary way as His Virgin Mother. This feast foreshadows the good news of Christmas as it highlights Mary’s preparation to become the Theotokos who gave birth to the Son of God for our salvation.
Joachim and Anna had a long and difficult period of preparation to become parents, as they had been unable to have children until God miraculously blessed them in old age to conceive. This was especially troubling for them as descendants of Abraham, who God promised would be the father of a multitude. They desperately wanted to play their rightful part in the fulfillment of that promise from generation to generation. Like Abraham and Sarah, they knew that the child of their old age was a blessing not simply for the happiness of their family, but for the salvation of the world. Their faithfulness as they suffered years of barrenness prepared them to offer their young daughter to the Lord. They knew that their marriage and family life were not about satisfying themselves, but were blessings to be given back to God for much higher purposes.
What is sacrificed and offered to God in a temple becomes holy and is no longer oriented simply toward its usual use or function in this world. That is true of the bread and wine offered in every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, for they become the Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. God fulfills the purposes of food and drink for sustaining life and community as they become the medicine of immortality in the Eucharist and our participation in the eternal blessedness of the heavenly kingdom. We commune with our Great “High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.” (Heb. 8:1-2) “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:12)
The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple provides an icon of the new covenant’s fulfillment of the old. Like Abraham and Sarah, her parents had waited for decades for the birth of a promised child. Joachim and Anna offered her for the service of God as Hannah had offered long-awaited Samuel. She entered into the temple, where the flesh and blood of animals were sacrificed, in preparation to become the Living Temple when she received Christ into her own body and blood as His Virgin Mother. In the Child born of her, all the promises to Abraham are fulfilled. In Him, we become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace and living temples of the Holy Spirit.
In order to celebrate this feast with integrity, we must not rest content with magnifying how her entrance into the temple foreshadows the coming of Christ. Instead, we must embrace our vocation to follow in her way of entering into the holiness of God as those who have received the fullness of the promise. We must place no limits on what it means to do so, for our Savior has offered up Himself without reservation as our Great High Priest for the salvation of the world. As those who are in communion with Him, our lives must become a continuous entrance into His Kingdom.
The Theotokos devoted herself fully to our Lord, choosing the one thing needful as she heard the word of God and kept it. Had she not done so, she would have lacked the spiritual strength to respond as she did to the astounding message of the Archangel Gabriel that she was to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Her humble obedience and receptivity to Christ were not limited to the events leading up to His miraculous conception, for the Theotokos loved and served the Savior throughout her life, even as she saw Him die on the Cross and then joined the other Myrrh-Bearing Women in going to the tomb early on Sunday morning, where she received the glorious news of His resurrection.
As we prepare to welcome the Lord at Christmas during these weeks of the Nativity Fast, we must all take a close look at our own lives in order to discern what steps we need to take to enter more fully into the blessed life of His Kingdom. That is simply another way of saying that we must all follow the Theotokos in preparing to become better living temples of the Lord, Who becomes one of us at His Nativity for our salvation. Doing so requires that we offer our lives for healing and sanctification as we set ourselves apart to become like the bread and wine offered in the Divine Liturgy. They find fulfillment as the Body and Blood of Christ, not due to their innate characteristics in this world, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we remain fully human, but the God-Man shares the divine energies with us so that we may participate personally in His restoration and fulfillment of the human person in the likeness of God.
In order for His gracious purposes to be accomplished for us, we must die to the corrupting power of sin in our lives. No matter how appealing it is in the moment, sin cannot be made holy or offered to God; we must turn away from it in repentance. That is the only way that disordered desires, words, thoughts, and deeds may be set right. We must reorient ourselves toward the Kingdom as we turn away from all that would hinder us from becoming more fully our true selves in God. The intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of these weeks of preparation for Christmas give us ample opportunities to find the strength to do precisely that. The same is true of the holy mystery of Confession. These are not negative practices in the sense of dreary legalistic requirements designed to take the joy out of life. Indeed, they are the very opposite, for there is no greater joy than to experience liberation from slavery to that which inevitably leaves us weak, frustrated, and unfulfilled. There is no greater blessedness than to open ourselves, even in small ways, to the freedom of becoming more fully who God created us to be in the divine image and likeness.
During the Nativity Fast, our focus should not be on what we are leaving behind, but on where we are going. It should not be on what we are abandoning, but on the One in Whose life we are sharing ever more fully. We must attend to growing in love and in union with Christ, to becoming more receptive to His healing and sanctification of every dimension of our humanity. In comparison with the joy that He is born to bring to the world, our passions and temptations amount to nothing but distractions. The less attention that we give them, the better. We must mindfully take the steps necessary to follow the Theotokos in becoming holy living temples of the Lord. That is the only way to celebrate this feast and to prepare to celebrate Christmas with integrity.