The story in the gospel of Christ’s visits to the Temple in his childhood – the first at 40 days of age (marked by the Feast of the Presentation and the occasion of prophecy by the Elder Simeon and Hannah the Prophetess) and at age 12 when He is lost and later found giving instruction to the teachers and scribes, is a reminder of the importance of children in the Temple of God. In Orthodox liturgical practice, a child is “churched” after its Baptism, being presented to God. The priest concludes the Churching by holding the child before the Royal Doors and reciting the words of the Elder Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…” In Orthodox practice in some places, the child is then placed on the floor of the ambo and the mother picks it up – the clear implication that God has accepted the child and now returns it to the parents to be raised in the Church. It also is a reminder that our care for children is underwritten by the childhood of Christ – that to misuse a child is to misuse Christ. He has radically identifed Himself with the “least of these.”
It reminds me Stanley Hauerwas’ statement (I misplaced its source long ago) that “since Christians already know the outcome of history, we have nothing better to do than to have children and tell them about Jesus.” I studied with Hauerwas for two years – I can remember much that he said but not always where he said it – for he (not surprisingly) liked to quote himself.
Another feast of a child entering the Temple occurs this week (on Wednesday the 21st – New Calendar): the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. The historical evidence for this feast rests within Tradition rather than Scripture which leaves it in a questionable category for most Protestants. But the Biblical evidence of the feast rests in a category unknown to many Christians that was the delight of the Fathers and remains one of the joys of being an Orthodox Christian. It is the category of typology.
The Fathers’ reading of the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, is to see in its pages “types” of Christ. Christ Himself had said that the Scriptures of the Old Testament “testify of me,” and thus from the Apostles forward, the Church has learned to read and find Christ in every word and image of the Old Testament. These images fill the liturgical life of the Church. Just as Protestants sing, “Rock of Ages cleft for me,” so the Orthodox will sing of the Rock and the Ladder and the Burning Bush and every stick of furniture in the Temple and – well everything.
The types are not always pointing to Christ Himself – some point to important events or people around Him. None can be more important than His mother, without whom there is no incarnation. Her existence and role in the defeat of Satan are already part of Biblical prophecy in the words of Gen. 3:15.
In reading the typology of Scripture, the Fathers are particularly drawn to irony – for it marks virtually the whole of God’s economy of salvation: the strong becomes weak; the wise becomes foolish; the righteous becomes sin; death is defeated by death; we lose in order to gain, etc.
The irony of the child Mary entering the Temple is an image the Fathers could not ignore. Drawn on the literal level from Tradition, it is then found echoed in images and types throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. Thus the liturgical service of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple took its shape. The greatest irony is that the Temple is, in fact, empty of its glory. There is no ark in this Temple – it having long since been lost. There is no story of its having been filled with God’s glory at its dedication (as had been the case with Solomon’s Temple and the Tabernacle of Moses). But this child who enters the Temple is the True Ark for she will bear God in her womb. She is the true bearer of the glory of God. The irony is far too rich to be ignored. Two of the hymns from that feast: the first from the stichera on Lord, I Call, the second from the Litya. Both are wonderfully rich. A child has entered the Temple.
Today, let us dance, O faithful,
singing to the Lord in psalms and hymns
and honoring His sanctified Tabernacle, the living Ark,
that contained the Word Who cannot be contained;
for in wondrous fashion she is offered to the Lord
as a young child in the flesh,
and Zachariah, the great High Priest, joyfully receives her
as the dwelling place of God.
Today, let heaven above rejoice,
and let the clouds rain down gladness
at the mighty and exceeding marvelous works of our God.
For behold, the Gate that looks t’wards the east,
who was born from a barren and childless woman according to the promise
and dedicated to God as His dwelling place,
is today brought to the Temple as an offering without blemish.
Let David be glad, striking his harp.
For he says: “Virgins shall be brought to the King after her,
her companions will be brought to Him”;
that she may be raised within God’s tabernacle, His place of atonement,
to become the dwelling of Him Who was begotten of the Father without
change before the ages.
for the salvation of our souls.