November 21, 2016

History of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

By John Sanidopoulos

The Feast of the Entrance of our All Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary into the Temple, which is called the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the West, is believed to not be among the most ancient festivals of the Church. However, indications that the feast was observed in the fourth century are found in the traditions of Palestinian Christians, which say that the Empress Helen (May 21) built a church in honor of the Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple, though there is no evidence for this. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, also mentions the Entrance of the Holy Virgin, along with Jerome, Gregory the Theologian, Epiphanius of Salamis, Proclus, Andrew of Crete, John of Damascus and other Church Fathers, though it is not mentioned in any way as a festival of the Church until the eighth or ninth century, perhaps due to the rise of the influence of monasticism in the liturgical life and in the lives of Christians at this time, since the Entrance presents the Theotokos as a monastic attaining the heights of the spiritual life alone in the temple. Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 to 730, wrote two homilies for the feast. Tarasios (+ 806), the Patriarch of Constantinople, introduced it at Constantinople a century later as an official feast, though it had already been celebrated (this reintroduction may have been due to the first wave of Iconoclasm having passed). George of Nicomedia (9th cent.) wrote three sermons on the subject which address every detail of the feast, including a beautiful homily which addresses rhetorically the temple itself; he also composed hymns for the feast together with Leo Magister. It was celebrated in the monasteries of Southern Italy by the ninth century as well. The first calendar to describe the Feast as the Εἴσοδος τῆς Παναγίας Θεοτόκου (Entry of the All-Holy Theotokos) was in the Menologion of Basil II, an 11th-century menology of the Eastern Roman Emperor Basil II.

The festival blossomed forth from the Tradition of the Church, which made use of the second century apocryphal source, the Protoevangelium of James, as a number of our Marian feasts do, in order to emphasize the fulfillment of the economy of the Creator and the self-consecration of the chosen Virgin to a life in the service of God. The Church breaks the silence of the canonical Gospels that we may behold the incomprehensible ways of Providence which prepare Mary, the receptacle of the Word and the Mother predetermined before the ages. She who was preached by the prophets is now introduced into the Holy of Holies, like a hidden treasure of the glory of God, in anticipation of the fact that like the Holy of Holies her womb will contain God Himself. Thus "God has sanctified all things by her entry and has made godlike the fallen nature of mortal men" (Vespers Sticheron).

Historically the feast is said to have originated as a result of the dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary the New, having been consecrated on 20 November 543, and built by Emperor Justinian I near the site of the ruined Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The proximity to the Temple may have brought the event of the Entrance of the Theotokos to mind. This basilica was destroyed by the Sassanid Persians under Khosrau II after the Siege of Jerusalem (614). However, the association between the consecration of this basilica and the celebration of the Feast of the Entrance seems to have been proven false, as there is no documented proof that this is the case in any of the calendars of the time, though it may have had a later influence in determining the date of the feast to November 21st. Even when Sophronios of Jerusalem mentions the Entrance in his homily dated between 634 and 638, he does not do it as a separate feast, but in a homily delivered for the Feast of the Annunciation. This suggests that the feast was not yet established in Jerusalem as an independent celebration.

A homily specifically dedicated to the Entrance was not made until Germanos I of Constantinople some time between 715 and 730, suggesting the feast was established first in Constantinople around this period. According to Theodore Balsamon in the 1100's, the Entrance was celebrated for the first time in Constantinople in 730. The fact that the next homily we have about the Entrance was made by Patriarch Tarasios in the late eighth or early ninth century strongly indicates that it originated in the eighth century in Constantinople. The association of the feast with the consecration of the Basilica of Saint Mary the New in Jerusalem is probably a connection made later, looking back into history, as there is no documentation that supports the association. As Lafontaine-Dosogne has shown, the first clear instance of the feast being designated for celebration on November 21 is found only in the 9th century cod. 2 at Saint Andrew’s Skete (Mount Athos), while the Palestinian calendar does not mention the date until the tenth century.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the event of the Entrance would not have been celebrated as a part of other Marian festivities at an even earlier date. The earliest celebration in the honor of the Theotokos is the “Synaxis of Mary” on December 26th, dating from the early fifth century Constantinopolitan calendar. In Jerusalem, however, the most important early festivities in honor of the Theotokos were concentrated around August 15th, a date that was eventually connected with the Dormition of the Theotokos, the most significant Marian feast in the contemporary Orthodox Church. These celebrations were later expanded to a five-day celebration, which allowed the commemoration of several events in the Theotokos’s life, including the Entrance. Thus, it would be logical to assume that the celebration of the Entrance as a separate feast started in Jerusalem, but, as mentioned earlier, this hypothesis is as yet unsupported by direct evidence.

The hymnography intended for the feast of the Entrance does not precede the homiletic texts for the feast, but the events of the Entrance are mentioned in the kontakion of the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8) by Romanos the Melodist. The hymn suggests that the celebration of the Entrance themes is connected with the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, which would logically place the feast after September 8th and before December 25th, which celebrates the birth of Christ.