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Homily for the Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple, 21 November 2020
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit! Amen!
On Saturday, 21 November, Orthodox Christians who keep the New Julian Calendar, like us in this parish, celebrate the Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God into the Temple. For us Orthodox, this is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Liturgical Year. Like several other feasts of the Virgin, it draws its inspiration, not from any of the Canonical Gospels, but from a late second-century ‘Gospel’ (though not called a ‘Gospel’ in the manuscripts), the so-called ‘First Gospel of St James’, or Protevangelium of St James, which is a kind of ‘prequel’ to the accounts of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ that we find in the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke.
It is one of the so-called ‘apocryphal Gospels’—or ‘hidden’ Gospels—that attract perennial interest and are often alleged to contain traditions about the ‘real truth of Christianity’—which had been subsequently suppressed by the Church. The Protevangelium was indeed not included among the Gospels included in the canon of the New Testament, but to talk of ‘suppression’ by the Church seems to me to be doubly wrong. The most immediate reason for its not being regarded as canonical was probably because, although compared with other ‘apocryphal’ Gospel it is quite early (second half of the second century), compared with the Gospels included in the New Testament, it is distinctly late, as all the canonical Gospel belong to the first or possibly early second century. But not to include it in the canon of the New Testament is not to ‘suppress’ it, and the Church can hardly be said to have suppressed it, for several of the events that it relates have entered into the liturgical life of the Church: the feasts of the Conception of the Mother of God by the righteous Anna (9 December), of her Nativity (8 September), and of her Entry into the Temple (21 November) celebrate events we only know of through the Protevangelium, and one could add to that our knowledge of the names of the Virgin’s parents, Anna and Joachim. Are these events authentic? I doubt it, though it is beyond doubt that Mary was conceived and born, for the Protevangelium is clearly a work of imagination, building up a picture of the events in Mary’s life that preceded what we learn from the New Testament—her conception by aged and barren parents and subsequent birth, her life as a young girl in the Temple, leading to her betrothal to Joseph and her giving birth, as a Virgin, to Jesus, the Son of God. The meaning of the stories it tells about Mary the Virgin (or Ever-Virgin, for it emphasizes that Mary was found to be a virgin after childbirth) lies in their significance, not in their historical truth.
The Protevangelium is a strange work. It is quite short (much shorter even than Mark); it consists of a series of short meditations on events in the life of the Mother of God, which it sees as full of hidden meaning, which needs some pondering to work out. Sometimes we find, as in the canonical Gospels, the reworking of traditional themes. Take her birth: her parents are beyond having children, something that for both of them is a matter of shame. Several of the prophets, Samuel, for example, were the children of aged parents, as was John the Baptist, as Luke relates. In all these cases, this is a sign that the prophet is made for great things—and from a barren womb there is born a son. The author of the Protevangelium models his account of the birth of Mary on these accounts, but with this twist (inevitable, in retrospect) which is nevertheless made clear in the pace of the story: ‘…in the seventh month, [Anna] gave birth. She asked the midwife, “What is it?” The mid-wife replied, “θήλειαν—female.”—Oh dear! you can hear the disappointment in ‘a female’, not even ‘a girl’; but the account continues without a hitch—And Anna said, “My soul is exalted today”’—echoing beforehand, as it were, the words of her daughter Mary when she visits her cousin Elizabeth who feels the foetus-John the Baptist kicking in her womb. Throughout the Protevangelium, there is a sense that the events described are full of mysterious significance, and what is particularly striking about the Protevangelium is the way it associates the Virgin Mary with the Jewish Temple. In a wonderful scene, depicted unforgettably in the mosaic of the life of the Virgin in the inner narthex of Constantinople’s Church of the Chora (Kariye Camii), the six-month old Mary is placed by her nurse on the ground and walks seven steps towards her mother. Anna vows that Mary will no more walk on the earth, until she goes to the Temple. She is then presented at the Temple, and lives there until the age of twelve, when she is betrothed to Joseph. A little later she is one of the virgins chosen to weave the thread from which the cloth for the Veil of the Temple is to be made—the red and purple thread for the Veil that will be torn in two at the moment of the crucifixion of her Son. All this, however, without comment: the hidden meaning is not declared, but is there to be divined.
Historically implausible much of this is, but its significance lies in the fact that Mary is destined to be a living temple, in which God will dwell, and that as she spins the thread for the Veil of the Temple, in her womb there is beginning to be woven the human nature of Christ: the flesh, which the epistle to the Hebrews calls the veil (Heb. 10:20)! By her ‘Yes’ to God, the Jewish girl Mary becomes God’s dwelling-place, a living temple—a living temple, not just a place where prayers are offered, but one who herself embodied prayer, ‘who kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2: 19, cf. 51), ‘unsleeping in her prayers, unfailing hope in intercession’, as we sing in the kontakion for the Dormition. Or, to change the imagery, she becomes Paradise restored: as one of our Orthodox liturgical hymns puts it, ‘her womb is shown to be the spiritual paradise, in which is the divine plant, eating of which we shall live, and not die like Adam. Christ is born, to raise up the fallen image’.
Though there are many songs and hymns about the Virgin throughout Christendom, both East and West, the West has often seemed to hanker after something more definite, either dismissing devotion to Mary on historical grounds, or expressing it in terms of defined dogmas—the Immaculate Conception, or the Assumption. The Christian East has remained content with celebration in song. The most famous Byzantine hymn to the Mother of God, the Akathist Hymn, cries out to her:
Hail, you through whom joy will shine out,
Hail, you through whom the curse will cease.
Hail, recalling of fallen Adam,
Hail, redemption of the tears of Eve.
Hail, height hard to climb for human thoughts,
Hail, depth hard to scan even for angels’ eyes.
Hail, for you are a throne for the King,
Hail, for you carry the One who carries all.
There is perhaps a deeper reason behind the way the Christian East expresses its devotion to the Mother of God in song rather than in intricate theological definition. For song and celebration foster a fundamental attitude to the world and our life in it: an attitude of joy and thanksgiving. In contrast, one of the most insidious effects of sin, very evident in society today, is the way it leads to an approach to life characterized by suspicion, resentment and fear—conspiracy theories, for example, that prey on our deepest anxieties, catch on so easily. On the contrary, the attitude of thanksgiving was characteristic of one of the great Saints of the early Church, St John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople, who experienced in his life much opposition and misunderstanding, and died in exile. According to his biographer, his constant response, whatever happened, was: ‘Glory to God for everything’—Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν!