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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Temple of God’s Glory

Reflections on the Temple of Jerusalem, no longer standing but still alive in the Theotokos.

Emmanuel! God is with us! The first-chosen Israel bequeathed to mankind not only belief in the one, true God but also that this one God dwelt among men. Though all transcendant, so holy that His name could not be uttered, His presence in the midst of the people served as the foundation of the faith of the Old Testament. The Temple of Jerusalem stood as the key symbol of this faith, for it contained the shekinah, the Indwelling. It was here that man could catch a glimpse on earth of the Glory of the God of heaven. Only here could sacrifices be offered to God. Only once a year on the Day of Atonement dared the High Priest enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of propitiation on the altar.

Today the temple stands no more, having been destroyed, several times in its history, by the violence of man. Only a fragment of the western wall remains where the remnant of Israel gathers to mourn. And yet, God’s presence is still manifest to the world as today’s feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple proclaims.

No trace in the canonical gospels serves as the legend for this holy day, but that should not surprise us. The Church often mines the apocryphal gospels for her liturgy because even these fanciful sources contain a lode of truth, if not always literal, then symbolic. The Nativity of the Mother of God and Her Dormition both trace their origins to “gospels” not accepted by the Church into the canon of her Scriptures.

On November 21 we celebrate the feast of Our Lady’s entrance into the Temple. The Protoevangelion of St. James is its basis. According to this charming collection of pious legends:

When the child was three years old, Joachim said, “Let us invite the daughters of the Hebrews, who are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them be lighted, that the child may not turn back again, and her mind be set against the temple of the Lord.”

And they did thus till they ascended into the temple of the Lord. And the high-priest received her, and blessed her, and said, “Mary, the Lord God hath magnified thy name to all generations, and to the very end of time by thee will the Lord show his redemption to the children of Israel.”

And he placed her upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord gave unto her grace, and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.

To fulfill their vow to dedicate their child to the service of God, Sts. Joachim and Ann brought Mary to the temple when she was three years old. There “to continue in the temple as a dove educated there, and receiving her food from the hand of an angel.”

Though the Church rejects as a whole the source of this legend, she does accept this legend as true, at least in its symbolic sense. Let the liturgy of the Byzantine Churches unlock the mystery of this festival:

Today the living Temple of the great King enters the temple to be prepared as a divine dwelling-place for Him.

Today the Theotokos, the Temple that is to hold God, is led into the temple of the Lord.

O Virgin, fed in faith by heavenly bread in the temple of the Lord, thou hast brought forth unto the world the Bread of Life that is the Word; and as this chosen Temple without spot, thou wast betrothed mystically through the Spirit, to be the Bride of God the Father.

Today the Virgin without blemish is led to the temple to become the habitation of God the King of all, who sustains our life.

The divinely-wise Eastern Fathers take the home-spun legend of the Protoevangelion and fashion from it the splendid raiment of mystical theology. A pious legend becomes the symbol of one of the crowning dogmas of the Catholic faith: Mary, a daughter of Eve, becomes the Temple of God, because Christ, the new Adam, the Son of God, dwells in her womb. Though the physical temple is no more, the spiritual Temple stands forever.

All creation rejoices in you, O full of grace. The choirs of angels and the races of men magnify you. O hallowed Temple, spiritual paradise and glory of virgins. From you our God, who exists from before the ages, took flesh and became a little child. He has taken your womb as His throne, making it more spacious than the heavens, Wherefore, O full of grace, in you all creation rejoices. Glory to you.

This sublime hymn, composed by Saint John of Damascus, expresses the mystery as perfectly as human nature can endure. The corresponding icon which reveals the mystery in color and space even as the hymn manifests its truth in melody and time, shows Mary within the temple, bearing Christ God to the world of angels and men. St. John, in his monastic cowl, kneels at the foot of Her throne, offering Her, the Temple hallowed by the fullness of grace, this paean of praise.

Another theme that courses as a leitmotiv through the poetry of the feast is the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God. This dogma finally illumines the gloaming of Ezechiel’s prophecy:

Then He brought me back the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary which looketh toward the east; and it was shut. Then said the Lord unto me. ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut. It is for the prince; the prince, he shall sit in it to eat bread before the Lord; he shall enter by the way of the porch of that gate, and shall go out by the way of the same.’ Then brought He me the way of the north gate before the house; and I looked, and, behold, the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. (Ezech. 44:1-4)

Three times the prophet declares that gate of the temple to be shut for only the prince may enter and leave thereby. Likewise the Mother of God is glorified as Virgin before, during, and after bearing God the Word. To this day we can discern on icons of the Virgin the three stars, one on her forehead and one on each shoulder, as eloquent witnesses to the mystery of Virginal Motherhood and Child-bearing Virginity.

The feasts of the Church do not merely commemorate what happened long ago, but they make those events mystically real for us here and now. Notice the frequent repetition of the adverb “today” in the liturgical texts. What took place “then” mystically takes place “now.” How does this feast take place in our lives?

The Virgin Mother of God becomes the Temple of God’s glory. She brings forth God to the world. She is the perfect icon of the Church and the Christian. We are called to be Temples of God’s glory, bearing God to this world of ours. As temples we must be filled with the fragrant incense of prayer and the fire and blood of sacrifice. How else really to distinguish a temple from a building profane? And as the Virgin became Mother and suffered not her virginity to be destroyed, so will we receive the indwelling of God and bear Him to the world without diminishing our human identity.

At the onset of winter’s chill, we say with gratitude:

Lo, a glad springtime has shone now to the ends of the earth, making our soul and understanding and mind bright through grace: for today is the feast of the Theotokos. Let us rejoice mystically.

Father Romanos is a regular contributor to Catholic Near East Magazine.

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