by V.K. McCarty
“Today Anna bequeaths joy to all instead of sorrow by bringing forth her fruit.
Today with joy she brings to the Temple of the Lord
The true Temple and pure Mother of God the Word.” (Troparion in Tone 4)
As faithful Orthodox navigating a tumultuous world, what does the upcoming Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple mean for us? One thing which helps us to unravel its mystery is hearing Jesus teach about the great treasury of Heaven in his Parable, about the divine storehouse of the soul (Luke 12:16-21), which is associated with the feast. This is one of several Parables about the topos of the Rich Fool. And even as we encounter the Gospel story, we are being uniquely guided into our celebration of the feast itself. This is one of the wonderful times when the Gospel is leading us straight into the mystery of the feast. For we are learning from Jesus, just like the “Rich Fool” in the story: You are always seen as rich toward God, not for the treasury of your grain, but for the treasure of your soul.
During the Feast of her Entry into the Temple, Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos Mary is modeling for us the pilgrimage of the soul, our inner treasure from God, shining bright with gratitude and repentance. Take care for the treasure of your own soul; seek the riches of your connection to God. I tell you, reflecting prayerfully on the images of this feast will leave you longing for a deeper pilgrimage of your soul toward God.
In a way, when considering the feast, we are looking at the same story, about the treasury of the spiritual life—how to be rich toward God, as the Gospel says—but told from a different angle than the Parable of Jesus described in the Gospel of Luke (12:16-21). Orthodox tradition is presenting us with the early life of St. Mary, a life of matchless faithfulness—a young woman who said “yes” to God—for here, we can see St. Mary as a young child. And isn’t it extraordinary to imagine her entering the Jerusalem Temple with all its jeweled magnificence?
When you are in Venice, at St. Mark’s Square, and you go over the bridge to the Accademia Gallery—and after enjoying the glorious Byzantine altarpieces on the main floor, you go upstairs for the rest of the collection. You may not notice, if you don’t turn around and look back, that the entire hallway over the two doors has been designed to display the Titian Renaissance painting showing this very feast-day. It is a spectacular panorama, over twenty-five feet wide, with Israelites milling around outside the Temple crowding around Anna and Joachim, and St. Mary as a little girl climbing the impressive steps up to the Temple to be received by the High Priest.
It is simply amazing to see it in the eye of your heart. But it is a moment right after this that I invite you to ponder. For the Orthodox story in the Synaxarion tells us that Anna and Joachim’s blessed child Mary was led by the great High Priest Zacharias toward the most secret reaches of the Temple. Can you picture that? Each of us will see it differently, and that is the marvel of the narrative—for this story is meant to help us identify and visualize the sacred place where the soul inside us is striving for God.
This is a story about faithful parents, our holy Ancestors, Anna and Joachim, as they are fulfilling the promise they made to dedicate their child to God. We pray for these good parents every time we receive the Final Blessing at the end of the Sunday Liturgy. And I hope you pray for your parents who have gone before you—many times, of course, and especially during that Blessing. If you make that a regular prayer askesis of remembering them as you receive the Final Blessing, then you know you have prayed for them at every Liturgy.
So, in the next moment of the story Anna and Joachim’s child, the handmaid of the Lord, is led away by the High Priest, Zacharias, and drawn toward the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, to the astonishment of everyone present. And this is where it becomes our story, for Zacharias the High Priest draws back the Temple curtain, the veil separating Heaven and Earth—just picture that—and the child, who will become the Mother of God, enters the Holy of Holies. And as she does, she leads the soul, radiant in the heart of each of us, into the sacred presence of God. And she has been doing it ever since.
Now, we all know the story. We know, because of the radical generosity of Our Savior Christ, because of the courage and humility of Jesus Christ suffering in His Crucifixion, that this very veil of the Temple, separating Heaven and Earth, was rent asunder forever by His saving action, the saving action of God in the Word made flesh on the Cross—but here is a foretaste. Here in the riches of the Orthodox tradition, we can see the High Priest drawing back the veil for St. Mary and revealing the treasure inside.
And when that veil is drawn back, it is our story. Jesus isn’t teaching us in the parable that a man suffering a big business failure is closer to the Kingdom of God than a rich farmer—nor that some lazy man is more precious in the sight of God than a hard worker. Jesus is reminding us in his teaching—and in a mystical connecting way, also in the story of the very young Virgin Mary—about the treasure that is our relationship with God. So, as the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is celebrated, we are invited to see behind the veil separating Heaven and Earth and to glimpse the soul, our own soul, bright with gratitude and seeking God in repentance. As it says in the Liturgy for the feast: “Today is the prelude of God’s good pleasure, and that which was foretold of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the Temple of God, and foretells Christ to all. So, let us cry to her: Rejoice!”
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity.
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