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November 21 (New Calendar) marks the Great Feast of The Presentation of the Theotokos, the third in the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. The Feast occurs one week into the Advent season, which starts on November 15, and runs until Christmas Eve Vespers, and commemorates the presentation of Mary, still a young child, to the Temple in Jerusalem, where she will live a life consecrated to God. Like the first feast of the liturgical year, The Nativity of the Theotokos, this Feast both parallels and foreshadows other narratives, and like the earlier Nativity, it is an expression both of how special Mary had to have been to have borne the Incarnation, and of how venerated she has been since the very early days of Christianity.
As with first Feast, we are still primarily drawing on the Protoevangelion of James, a non-canonical work of the 2nd century which was both in circulation in the early days of Christianity, and much beloved by Christians for centuries afterward. We will return to this work at least two more times in the series.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, oh virgin Theotokos. Blesséd art thou among women, and blesséd is the fruit of thy womb, for thou has borne the savior of our souls.” The Magnificat.
“Rejoice, for thou art the Throne of the King”
Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos, Romanus the Melodist (around 556 AD).
Why is Mary full of grace? She bore within her womb the Incarnation of God the Word. God, who is uncontainable, was contained by choice within Mary. For this reason, she is called “Throne of the King” by Romanus, among other terms. But why was Mary herself chosen? Both Mark and John start right with the ministry of Jesus, and Mary appears only as traveling with Jesus. Matthew has little more to say than that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only in Luke do we have a fuller account of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity. Yet Luke does not take the tale back any further. Why, therefore, was Mary chosen to bear The Incarnation of the The Lord in this world? Christians have speculated on this from the earliest times until the present day. We cannot know today the full extent of what books and letters might have been in circulation during the early years of Christianity and can only look at what has survived or what has been quoted, summarized, or otherwise referred to in other surviving writings, and the oldest of what does remain is the Protoevangelium.
In the Nativity of the Theotokos, we looked primarily at Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna. It is not out of bounds to consider that if Mary herself was extraordinary, then her parents too must have been devout and favored by God. As with Hannah, the mother of Samuel, Anna bore Mary at an advanced age, and she and Joachim chose, therefore, to dedicate Mary to the Temple in return.
And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest [Zacharias] received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. Orr, James (Translator). The Protevangelium of James (Annotated) (pp. 24-25). CrossReach Publications. Kindle Edition.
In addition to the similarity to the account of Samuel, this story has a parallel to that of her own son Jesus (whose own presentation will be discussed in February). As with Jesus, Mary is greeted by a priest we already know: Zacharias, the future father of John the Baptist. Why is this important? The test continues:
And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back. And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel. Ibid.
This says the Zacharias took her into the very heart of the Temple, the altar. Mary goes on to live in the Temple until the age of 12, said to have received food from “the hand of an angel”. This signifies that she has been kept free from any sort of worldly defilement. According to other later texts, Mary even entered into the Holy of Holies at times, and it is said that when she at last left the Temple, at the age of twelve (her coming of age, when these accounts say she was betrothed to the elderly widower Joseph), the presence of God left the Temple with her. According to Father Thomas Hopko:
She was led to the holy place to be “nourished” there by the angels in order to become herself the “holy of holies” of God, the living sanctuary and temple of the Divine child who was to be born in her… The main theme of the feast of Mary’s entrance to the Temple, repeated many times in the liturgical services, is the fact that she enters the Temple to become herself the living temple of God, thus inaugurating the New Testament in which are fulfilled the prophecies of old that “the dwelling of God is with man” and that the human person is the sole proper dwelling place of the Divine Presence (Ezek 37.27; Jn 14.15–23; Acts 7.47; 2 Cor 6.11; Eph 2.18–22; 1 Pet 2.4; Rev 22.1–4).
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 (Troparion).
The most pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Chamber and Virgin, the Sacred Treasure of the Glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven! (Kontakion).
Thus the ultimate meaning of the feast is that Mary’s presentation and dwelling at the Temple signify the coming end of the Temple period, when The Lord will become incarnate and reveal Himself to all nations. According to the Protoevangelium, Mary was kept pure and made ready by her devout parents, and by living in purity in the Temple. Yet even if this account of Mary’s dwelling at the Temple is perhaps, a bit of a stretch, we nevertheless must understand that Mary was, indeed, special and “full of grace”, to have been chosen to bear the Lord. As one of the hymns of the Feast says:
Come let us the faithful dance for joy * on this day, while singing * songs and hymns unto the Lord, * to honor the tabernacle He hath sanctified, * the rational living ark, * which hath contained God the Word uncontainable; * for as a child in the flesh, * she is now wondrously offered unto our God. * And the holy Zacharias, * the great High Priest of the Lord, * doth receive her with gladness * as the dwelling and abode of God.”
Oh Strange Wonder, Verse 6, Translation by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2005.
The icons of this feast generally share the same themes. In the foreground we have the priest Zacharias bowing slightly in a gesture of reception towards Mary. Mary is often (though not always) already depicted wearing a blue dress overlaid with a red cloak, which itself has three stars upon it. The stars, on her forehead and each shoulder, signify her perpetual virginity (one star each for past, present, and future). Behind Mary are her parents, Joachim and Anna, and behind them the procession of virgins bearing lights. All of the foreground scene is underneath a canopy that signifies the Temple. In the background we see stairs leading up to a smaller canopy, where Mary also sits. This signifies the Holy of Holies where she is said to have been fed by angels, and near that canopy you will see such an angel visiting her.
The icon is structured with the same conventions we have seen earlier. All events are depicted out of doors, with the canopies and draped cloths signifying the Temple. By the towers in the background, we know that this is in a city. With multiple overlaid events we have a flattening of time, both capturing the entire story in one panel, and presenting the story as timeless itself. Notice too the gold background, and the lack of shadows. This is another means to indicate the eternality of the story, that it can be said to stand outside of time, and that we might be said to be participating in it eternally.
On a personal note, when I first started exploring Orthodoxy, this was the first Great Feast I experienced. I had only been attending my parish church for a couple of weeks when our priest announced a coming evening service. I don’t recall exactly what he said the Sunday beforehand, other than something about a weekday evening service of Thanksgiving, and “something something Vespers… Theotokos”. I had already been to one Saturday Vespers service, which was fairly short, and so assumed that this one would be fairly abbreviated as well. It was not, it was a full evening Divine Liturgy service that followed an Akathist (a prayer recitation in multiple verses). A good hour in, my wife was already texting me to ask where I was. At two hours the texts were getting more insistent. There was a homily in there too, which surprised me for an evening service. This was where I first learned of the Protoevangelium and started to understand, listening to the hymns and the scripture readings, just why Mary was so revered by the early Christians, how short-changed she so often is today. As one writer put it:
In my own evangelical background, Mary was trotted out every December, mostly in the form of a chipped statue in a crèche and the obligatory sermon about her admirable obedience and purity. She was then tucked away both physically and metaphorically with the Christmas decorations until the following December.”
As we proceed into the Christmas season, and prepare to celebrate the coming Nativity of Christ, perhaps we ought to consider not letting her slide into the background once the season has passed.