Several events coincided this morning:
1.) I woke up, for the first time this year, to snow on the ground (cue the coziness).
2.) I also woke up to find that a Time Eternal podcast episode I produced in tandem with my friend, Angela Doll Carlson, had been posted. It’s entitled “Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Calendar.”
3.) It’s the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos.
I don’t mean to put the Feast of the Presentation on the same level as weather patterns and a podcast episode, but I’m a sucker for making much of coincidences. So, without further ado, let us… Make much.
I’ve always found it interesting that, scarcely one week into an extended fast centered on Christ’s birth, we find ourselves back in the life of the Theotokos. We find ourselves back in tradition that pre-dates the life of Christ.
Today’s feast marks the day Mary, as a young girl, was taken to the Jewish temple by her parents, Joachim and Anna, to live and serve as a Temple virgin until marrying.
If you’ve been paying attention to the liturgical year, you may recall that Joachim and Anna had trouble conceiving and were barren late into their adult lives, when they finally conceived the Theotokos. Symbolically, this is paired with the barrenness of Israel–for 400 years, they’d had no prophets. Silence from God.
Prior to getting pregnant, Joachim and Anna were visited by the archangel Gabriel, who promised them “a daughter most blessed, by whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and through whom will come the salvation of the world” (you can read more about Joachim and Anna in the Protoevanglium of St. James). In response to this promise, Joachim and Anna promised they would offer their daughter to service in the temple as a vessel of God.
So, here we are. The temple. The presentation.
A blanket of fresh snow makes the world a bit more of a forgiving place. It covers the rust and dirt and dark places with something white and redeeming.
There is something beautiful about the snow this morning–it reminds me of the Theotokos. It is still white, not yet tinged from dirt and pollution. At the risk of making the feminists cringe, it recalls to me the Theotokos’ purity as she was received by the temple. Of course she was a virgin, as we are told, but this extended beyond the anatomical sense of the word. Somehow, she managed to live as a real, flesh-and-blood woman on this earth, and yet remain unsullied by the dirt and cynicism and selfishness that clings to us. The snow, and the Theotokos on this day, remind me what I am called to: purity of heart, gentleness, forgiveness, a “Yes”-to-God attitude. I am called to make the darkness lighter and less harsh.
Maybe, too, I am called to stark realities sometimes. The temple, I am sure, was no easy place to grow up–even for a willing spirit. The Theotokos was an ancient woman in an even more ancient calendar. Ritual times and seasons would have defined the temporal rhythms of her life in Jerusalem. In the end, this brought her closer to God rather than further. It seems to have deepened her humility and love rather than dampened it. When an angel showed up on her doorstep asking Mary if, you know, she would do this thing for God, if she would bear the Son of God in her actual body and be an object of disgrace, she didn’t say “I already spent my time in the temple for you, God, now it’s my time to get married and live my life!” No, she said yes to the will of God.
And I cannot help but think maybe we can learn from her, as we try to balance our modern lives with an ancient calendar (though not quite as ancient calendar that Mary would have lived out in the temple). Not necessarily by “doing more,” but by being more willing, by being more rich towards God. By saying yes rather than saying no. I know I’ve gotten the wrong attitude during the liturgical year when I stop saying yes to God. When I start partitioning out my life between “mine” and “His” (I already went to Church this week, God, now it’s “my time!”) This is a decidedly un-Mary-like attitude.
For a hard heart, that is a cold reality. Here, too, the snow teaches me. It teaches me there is a season to die–to myself, perhaps, and to this world. It brings with it gusts of cold air I thought I’d forgotten these long months of summer and fall and then Indian summer. I forget the year of nature does not revolve around making me happy. It’s a forgetfulness that afflicts me every year–after the warm months of summer and autumn, I forget how merciless winter can actually be. I looked at my boots in the closet the other day, for the life of me trying to recall why I need them–how it can possibly get so cold I’d want to wear that many clunky layers on my feet.
Now that the cold is here, it feels as familiar as an old glove. And I remember.
I remember that even more cold, more barrenness is coming. In nature, we are being tucked into the great death that winter brings to the plants, to the soil.
But in the liturgical year, strangely, we are leaving barrenness behind and entering slowly into life over death. Today marks the last fits of barrenness for the salvific year, the fulfillment of a promise made in the midst of an empty womb. And it’s a promise that bridges the temple worship of the Old Testament with Christ; dwelling in the Temple, Mary becomes the temple that will eventually bear God. She becomes what we are all called to be: living sanctuaries of God. In Christ, as in nature, even barrenness is eventually life-giving.
The Presentation also marks the second great Marian feast day of the liturgical year. In our Orthodox year, the life and falling asleep of the Theotokos bookends the life, death and resurrection of Christ–bearing Him in liturgical time, just as she bore Him in her womb. After the Presentation, we turn more fully to the life of Christ. We will return to the Theotokos in August, celebrating her falling asleep (Dormition, August 15th). By then, we will have remembered in faith “all those things which have come to pass for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of God the Father…” as the Eucharistic canon of the liturgy puts it. In August, we will look back on the life of the Theotokos and remember in grief and in joy, all these great things God has done for us: life in the midst of death, God in the midst of man (or woman, in the case of the Theotokos), salvation in the midst of sin, birth in the midst of barrenness.
But until then–at Christmas, and Pascha, and all the events which are to come–the Theotokos will linger, like most loving mothers, never far from her Son. In a way, after today, we say goodbye to the Theotokos. But in a way, she never leaves us.
Today is the preview of the good will of God,
Of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the temple of God,
In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice,
O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.