The Centrality of the Church in the Christian Life - A Homily on the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple (2021)

The Centrality of the Church in the Christian Life - A Homily on the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple (2021)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

Introduction

The first tabernacle, the portable earthly dwelling of Yahweh, was built by human hands under the direction of Moses, according to the instructions given to him by God on the peak of Mount Sinai. It is modeled after the temple of Heaven, a model which indicates the ascent towards God which was exemplified on Mount Sinai where the people stayed at the foot of the mountain listening to the thunder and watching the lightning, the elders of the people went up onto the mountain, and only Moses climbed to the summit where he beheld God.

In the Epistle reading for the Feast today, the Apostle Paul explains that the priests regularly enter the first part of the temple, that is, the sanctuary, where divine services are performed. The inner part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, which was enclosed by a veil, was entered once a year by the high priest who offered a sacrifice of blood for the sins of ignorance committed by the people. The Holy of Holies was the gate of Heaven, for here is where God dwelt.

Today the three-year-old daughter of Joachim and Anna is brought into the Holy of Holies to live.

Narrative

St. Maximus the Confessor, writing in the seventh century, acknowledges that the description of the infancy of the Virgin Mary comes from the apocryphal book, the Protoevangelium of James, and not from the Gospels. However, this does not negate or dismiss its validity because, he says, the Fathers previous to him who also affirm this narrative can be trusted in their judgments because they are wise, virtuous, and inspired by God. The Fathers he speaks of are St. Gregory the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, and St. Dionysius the Areopagite.[1] He writes, they are “holy and deeply devout Fathers, whose words are full of all wisdom and were written by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and their works are beautiful and virtuous.”[2]

The Virgin Mary was born to the childless Joachim and barren Anna. The couple’s childlessness distressed them both, brought reproach upon them from their countrymen, and greatly burdened their lives, yet they remained faithful to God and not negligent of their religious responsibilities. Both continued in prayer, offering to dedicate the child to the service of God if He should so grant this miracle. The Lord looked upon their prayers and said to each of them that Anna would give birth to a daughter, and she did. At the age of three, they brought her to the Temple to dedicate her to the Lord and be raised therein.

The Prophet King David wrote about this event in Psalm 45, saying, “they brought virgins to the king.” The Psalmist continues in praise of the Virgin Mary, he says, “upon thy right hand did stand the queen (that is, the Virgin Mary, standing to the right of the Altar in the Holy of Holies, which is truly at the right of God, His manifest presence in the world).” (Ps. 45.9) Extolling her development unto good works and godly thoughts, he writes that she is “all glorious within” (vs. 13), clothed with gold (vs. 13), that is with many-hued virtues, writes St. Maximus,[3] the gold of Ophir (vs. 9) and she matures into complete harmony with the will of God, notes St. Gregory Palamas.[4] As she grew in stature, so did the beauty of her virtues, and the King desired her beauty, the Psalmist writes (vs. 11). Such is the preparation of the Virgin Mary for the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, conceived in a barren womb and cared for by the powers of Heaven within the Temple.

Church Architecture and the Ascent Towards God

There are many points of significance pertaining to the Mother of God being brought and raised within the Temple, growing in virtues and in the graces of the Holy Spirit. However, let us dwell only on one of these points today, and that is the significance of the place she was brought to – the Temple.

The significance of the Temple is that it is the central place on earth of the Divine Liturgy, which corresponds to the Liturgy in Heaven that the angels serve. Not only is there a correlation between the Liturgies, but even the design of the Temple is an architectural layout for how God is communed with, which began with the creation of the Garden of Eden, as the work of Fr. Bogdan Bucur narrates. 

As Eden is considered an elevated area from which the four rivers flow, so does one ascend from outside via steps further and further into the Temple – ascending up to the sanctuary then again up to the Holy of Holies.

In the Garden, God is present and moves about, as the author of the book of Genesis writes, noting that God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day (3.8), So also does He “walk in a Tent and in a Tabernacle” as the Prophet Samuel writes (7.8). For the Jews, the Garden of Eden represented the Holy of Holies; the life of Adam and Eve consisted of Levitical duties of work and keeping guard over their holy place. On the first day of exile, outside of the Garden, the Book of Jubilees notes the priestly-like life of Adam wherein he offers up incense outside of the Garden of Eden, which corresponds to the incense offered outside of the Holy of Holies. Enoch will then offer up incense in the evening.

The Garden of Eden is topographically described by St. Ephrem the Syrian in his Hymns on Paradise and parallels the Temple of the Jews and the Church of the Christians. For him, Paradise is a circular mountain. Halfway up this mountain is the Tree of the Knowledge beyond which Adam and Eve were forbidden to go. Higher up is the Tree of Life and atop the summit is the Divine presence.

The purpose of connecting these dots is to illustrate the importance of the Church structure, which has continued from the Garden of Eden to the Churches in which we Orthodox worship today. The significance is the physical representation of how we each meet God and which God has ordained it to be so. Even today, we come from outside of the church, from inside the world. We ascend into the church and enter with prayers, having prepared ourselves to be here. We stand in the nave (the back) looking forward towards the Holy Altar until the moment in the Divine Liturgy where we approach the Royal Doors, opened and revealing our access to God, and outside of which we are communed with the real body and blood of Christ and are being united to His holy body through these gifts and are being transformed. The physical movement and ascent reflect the higher spiritual ascent we are called to as the Apostle Paul says we are being transformed from glory to glory (1 Cor. 3.18).

From the Garden of Eden to the contemporary Orthodox Church, there is always a place of worship and a way to worship, but what is more, this is a unique place to meet God, not that He is not everywhere, but here is a unique place that He has chosen to dwell wherein we can meet Him within a particular environment and in specific moments, i.e., within the divine services. There is no substitute for the Church and no other way to draw close to God, which equals the Church. And it is here, in the Church, into the Holy of Holies, to which the Mother of God was brought to live and to learn, to be fed by angels and to be taught by God.

Do we really need the church building?

Perhaps someone will respond, denying the need for a church building or the continuity of liturgical worship from the Old Covenant by quoting the words of Christ, saying, “For God is spirit, so those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4.24). However, Christ was not denying the need for the Church or Divine Services but was abolishing the sacrificial system. Addressing the Samaritan woman, Jesus addresses how the Samaritans, and the Jews, were careless about their souls but took great pains regarding the cleanliness of the body. As St. John Chrysostom writes,

It is not by purity of body, but by that which is incorporeal in us, namely the mind, that the incorporeal One is served. Sacrifice then not sheep and calves, but dedicate thyself to the Lord; make thyself a holocaust, this is to offer a living sacrifice. Ye must worship ‘in truth;’ as former things were types, such as circumcision, and whole burnt offerings, and victims, and incense they now no longer exist, but all is ‘truth.’ For a man must now circumcise not his flesh, but his evil thoughts, and crucify himself, and remove and slay his unreasonable desires.[5]

Conclusion

If we desire to learn the Christian life, we cannot neglect the need to be in the Divine Services where we will see and hear and experience our salvation, where we will see and hear and experience Christ.

THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF THE THEOTOKOS, SAVE US!

 

[1] Maximus the Confessor.The Life of the Virgin. Stephen J. Shoemaker, trans. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 41.

[4] Cf. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. Christopher Veniamin, trans. (Essex: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), Homily 52 & 53.

[5] Homilies on John, XXXIII.


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