Friday, November 21, 2014

The Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

Today is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Byzantine liturgical year.  The feasts are divided between those that commemorate the work of Christ (Exaltation of the Cross, the Nativity, Theophany, the Meeting of Simeon in the Temple, Palm Sunday, the Annunciation, Pentecost and the Transfiguration) and those which commemorate the Theotokos’ role in salvation history (Nativity of the Theotokos, Entrance into the Temple, the Annunciation, and the Dormition). That the Theotokos is prominently featured in seven of the festal icons (in addition to the previous four also the Nativity, the Meeting of Simeon, and the Ascension), makes it a bit harder to distinguish which feasts are principally Christological and which are Marian, but the division  is something like the one offered.

A few years ago, NLM offered a nice account of the Vespers for the feast. Here, I only want to offer some very brief historical notes on the broad developments of its liturgical observance. According to Vladimir Lossky, it would not be until the fourteenth century when the feast was adopted in the West and celebrated by Pope Gregory XI in Avignon. In the East, however, its history goes back much earlier.

The feast is derived from the second-century Protoevangelium of James (specifically sections 6-8).  [Hamatoura Monastery offers a delightful animated greeting card with icon figures of the basic story of the feast.] Exactly when this story began to be liturgically commemorated remains a matter of some dispute. The Palestinian Christians maintained a tradition that when the Empress Helen built churches in Jerusalem, she built a church dedicated to this feast. While I have yet to find anything to confirm the truth of that tradition, it is the case that St. Gregory of Nyssa referenced today’s events as an established fact in his fourth century homily on Christ’s Nativity. In that same homily, he identified the priest to whom Mary was presented as none other than Zacharias, the father of John the Forerunner. The basis for this is his exegesis of Lk. 11:51, as he tries to explain who was this last prophet who Christ says completes the line of prophetic martyrs:
Gregory of Nyssa
Now, provided we do not digress too far from our subject, it is perhaps not inopportune to adduce Zacharias, who was slain between the temple and the altar, as a witness to the incorruption of the Mother of God. This Zacharias was a priest; and not only was he a priest, but he was also endowed with the gift of prophecy, his power of prophecy being declared expressly in the Book of the Gospel. When the Grace of God was preparing the way for men not to think that birth from a Virgin is incredible, it set the stage for the assent of unbelievers by means of lesser miracles: a child was born of a barren woman advanced in years. This was a prelude to the miracle of the Virgin Birth. For, just as Elizabeth became a mother not by the power of nature—for she had grown old in barrenness—but the birth of her child is ascribed to the Will of God; so also, the incredibility of a virginal parturition gains credibility with reference to the Divine. Since, therefore, he who was born of the barren woman preceded Him Who was born of the Virgin, and, in response to the salutation of her who was carrying the Lord, leaped in his mother’s womb before he saw the light of day, as soon as the Forerunner of the Word was born, the silence of Zacharias was thereupon loosed by prophetic inspiration. All that Zacharias recounted was a prophecy of the future. Therefore, guided to the knowledge of hidden things by the spirit of prophecy, and perceiving the mystery of virginity in the incorrupt birth, he did not exclude the unwedded Mother from that place in the Temple allotted by the Law to virgins, thereby teaching the Jews that the Creator of existing things and King of all creation has human nature subject to Himself, along with everything else, guiding it by His own Will as He sees fit, not being Himself mastered by it, so that it is in His power to create a new birth, which will not prevent her who has become a mother from remaining a virgin. For this reason, he did not exclude her, in the Temple, from the place of the virgins; this place was the space between the Temple and the altar. When the Jews heard that the King of creation, by Divine Economy, was about to undergo human birth, fearing lest they become subject to a king, they murdered the priest who bore witness to this birth as he was serving at the altar itself.
That St. Gregory tells the story is a testament to the growing piety in regard to the Theotokos; that he tells it as part of his Christmas homily suggests that the devotion arises from a focus on Her role in the mysteries of Christ’s life, and that at this point there is not yet a distinct feast in Cappadocia for either the birth of the Theotokos or her Entrance into the Temple. A bit over a century later, the emerging devotion evidenced by Gregory had blossomed into a liturgical observance of the Nativity of the Theotokos. In a homily for Mary’s Nativity, the monk and hymnographer Andrew of Crete also recounts the story of her entrance into the temple:
Andrew of Crete
Thus the immaculate Fruition issuing forth from the womb occurred from an infertile mother, and then the parents, in the first blossoming of Her growth brought Her to the temple and dedicated Her to God. The priest, then making the order of services, beheld the face of the girl and of those in front of and behind, and he became gladdened and joyful, seeing as it were the actual fulfillment of the Divine promise. He consecrated Her to God, as a reverential gift and propitious sacrifice -- and, as a great treasury unto salvation, he led Her within the very innermost parts of the temple. Here the Maiden walked in the upright ways of the Lord, as in bridal chambers, partaking of heavenly food until the time of betrothal, which was preordained before all the ages by Him Who, by His inscrutable mercy, was born from Her, and by Him Who before all creation and time and expanse Divinely begat Him, and together with His consubstantial and co-reigning and co-worshipped Spirit -- this being One Godhead, having One Essence and Kingdom, inseparable and immutable and in which is nothing diverse, except the personal qualities. Wherefore, in solemnity and in song I do offer the Mother of the Word the festal gift; since that He born of Her hath taught me to believe in the Trinity: the Son and Word Without-Beginning hath made in Her His Incarnation; the Father begetting Him hath blessed this; the Holy Spirit hath signed and sanctified the womb which incomprehensibly hath conceived.
Between 715 and 730 A.D., the  patriarch of Constantinople, St. Germanus, preached two sermons for the feast, which also seem to have either included hymns used for the feast, or led to into such hymns:
St. Germanus I

Today the gate of the divine temple, opened wide, receives the eastward-facing and sealed gate of the Emmanuel, which is entering into it (cf. Ez. 44:1-3, read in Vespers for the feast). Today the holy table of the temple begins to be made splendid, having assumed the transfer to bloodless sacrifices by participation and the sweetest embrace of the heavenly and life-sustaining bread from a table of divine veneration. Today she alone is dedicated to the place of propitiation for the floods of errors that have overthrown mortals, being called a new, most godlike cleansing place of propitiation not made by hands. Today she is about to be welcomed by the sanctity of the Spirit into the holy of holies; she who was raised in a most marvelous way beyond even the glory of the cherubim, is stored up in a most holy way and gloriously in the holy of holies, for a greater sanctity, at an innocent impressionable age.
Hail, the shining cloud that lets fall drops of spiritual divine dew on us, having today, at your inconspicuous entrance into the holy of holies, caused a radiant sun to shine on those held in the shadow of death! Divinely flowing spring from which the rivers of divine knowledge disperse the most discerning and brilliant water of right belief, as they destroy the band of heresies!
A century later, St. Tarasios, patriarch of Constantinople, formally introduced the feast into the Byzantine calendar. The liturgical observance continued to develop. In an eleventh-century manuscript about the liturgical observances of the Monastery of Mar Saba near Bethlehem, we find the prescription to read excerpts from the Life of the Virgin, attributed to St. Maximus the Confessor, (although whether he is the real author is disputed). According to the manuscript, the monks were to read the section of the life that begins with Mary passing the age of nursing and stopping with the story of the prophetic revelation she received prior to the Annunciation at 12 years old while living in the Temple, which revealed to her that she would be the mother of the Lord. The text is devoted to offering a spiritual reflection on the Theotokos’ entrance to the Temple, more than merely recounting a history, and this is done specifically through an exegesis of Psalm 44. (The psalm also serves as the Alleluia verses for the Divine Liturgy of the day, as well as the Aposticha antiphons: “She is led to the king with her virgin companions.” “They are escorted with joy and gladness; they pass into the palace of the king.” “Hear oh daughter and incline your ear.” etc.)

According to author of the Life, the psalm is fundamentally a prediction of Christ, but included in the mystery of Christ are necessarily references to either the Church or the Theotokos, and this psalm can be interpreted as applying to both. And even more specifically, he writes:
Behold, then, how beautifully he foretells not only about the Entrance in the Temple, but also about her other spiritual goodness and beauty. The queen stood at your right. This statement foretells her Entrance in the Temple and her location to the right of the altar in the Holy of Holies, which is truly regarded as being to the right of God....And as she grew in age, the adornment of virtues increased greatly. And that is why the king desired her beauty, and he dwelt within her.
While there are undoubtedly more steps in the development of the liturgical observance of today’s feast, what is striking is that while the origin of the story seems to be the second century apocryphal Gospel, the theology, details, and liturgical hymns are profoundly formed by a Patristic exegesis of the accepted canon of Scripture: from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s exegesis of Luke 11, to St. Andrew’s veiled references to the Epistle to the Hebrews, to St. Germanus’ use of the prophet Ezekiel, and lastly “St. Maximus’ ” exegesis of Psalm 44. This exegesis also culminates in the icon which is shown in the post below, and interpreted in the work of Lossky, cited above. For the Byzantine tradition, therefore, this feast is far from merely an apocryphal import, but rather, much more a mystery contained in the deep spiritual sense of God’s self-revelation.

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