November 21, 2018

On the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (St. Gregory of Nyssa)

By St. Gregory of Nyssa

Now, provided we do not digress too far from our subject, it is perhaps not inopportune to adduce Zacharias, who was slain between the temple and the altar, as a witness to the incorruption of the Mother of God. This Zacharias was a priest; and not only was he a priest, but he was also endowed with the gift of prophecy, his power of prophecy being declared expressly in the Book of the Gospel. When the Grace of God was preparing the way for men not to think that birth from a Virgin is incredible, it set the stage for the assent of unbelievers by means of lesser miracles: a child was born of a barren woman advanced in years. This was a prelude to the miracle of the Virgin Birth. For, just as Elizabeth became a mother not by the power of nature—for she had grown old in barrenness—but the birth of her child is ascribed to the Will of God; so also, the incredibility of a virginal parturition gains credibility with reference to the Divine.

Since, therefore, he who was born of the barren woman preceded Him Who was born of the Virgin, and, in response to the salutation of her who was carrying the Lord, leaped in his mother’s womb before he saw the light of day, as soon as the Forerunner of the Word was born, the silence of Zacharias was thereupon loosed by prophetic inspiration. All that Zacharias recounted was a prophecy of the future. Therefore, guided to the knowledge of hidden things by the spirit of prophecy, and perceiving the mystery of virginity in the incorrupt birth, he did not exclude the unwedded Mother from that place in the Temple allotted by the Law to virgins, thereby teaching the Jews that the Creator of existing things and King of all creation has human nature subject to Himself, along with everything else, guiding it by His own Will as He sees fit, not being Himself mastered by it, so that it is in His power to create a new birth, which will not prevent her who has become a mother from remaining a virgin. For this reason, he did not exclude her, in the Temple, from the place of the virgins; this place was the space between the Temple and the altar. When the Jews heard that the King of creation, by Divine OEconomy, was about to undergo human birth, fearing lest they become subject to a king, they murdered the priest who bore witness to this birth as he was serving at the altar itself.

We have, however, wandered far from our subject, and must return to Bethlehem in the Gospel account. For if we are truly shepherds and keeping watch over our flocks, the voice of the Angels which proclaims these good tidings of great joy is assuredly directed to us. Let us, therefore, look up to the heavenly host, behold the choir of Angels, and hear their Divine hymnody. What is the sound of these who keep feast? “Glory to God in the highest,” they cry. Why do the Angelic voices glorify the Divinity beheld in the highest? Because they say “and on earth peace.” The Angels have become exceedingly joyful at the spectacle: “and on earth peace.” That which was previously accursed, which brought forth thorns and thistles, the place of conflict, the exile of the condemned, has received peace. Oh, the wonder! “Truth is sprung out of the earth, and righteousness hath looked down from heaven.” Such is the fruit that the earth of men yielded. And these things come to pass for the sake of God’s good will towards men. God is mingled with human nature, in order that humanity might be raised up to the height of God. Having heard these tidings, let us go to Bethlehem and behold the new spectacle, how the Virgin exults in childbirth, how she who knew not wedlock suckles her infant. But let us first hear from the stories related about her who she was and whence she came.

I have heard a certain apocryphal account, which presents the following narratives concerning her. Her father was distinguished for his scrupulous observance of the Law and was well known for his virtues. However, he had reached old age without having sired any offspring, for his wife was unable to bear children. Now, there was a certain honor ascribed to mothers on the basis of the Law, an honor in which barren women had no share. His wife replicated the story of the mother of Samuel. Having entered the Holy of Holies, she besought God that she not be deprived of the blessing that comes from the laws, since she not sinned against the Law in any way, but that she become a mother and dedicate to God the child that she would bear. Strengthened by Divine assent to the favor that she requested, she conceived. When she brought forth the child, she named her “Mary,” so that through the similarity of the name it might be indicated that the favor was granted by God. When the little girl was sufficiently mature, so that she no longer needed to cling to the breast, her mother made haste to give her back to God, in fulfillment of her promise, and conduct her to the Temple. The priests brought up the child in the Holy place for some time, just like Samuel, but when she was grown up, they took counsel as to what they could do about that holy body without sinning against God. To subjugate her to the law of nature and enslave her through marriage to one who would take her to wife was utterly unacceptable. Indeed, it was regarded as absolute sacrilege for a man to be master of something consecrated to God, for it was decreed by the law that a man should be master of his spouse. However, it was not lawful for a woman to consort with priests in the Temple or to be seen in the Holy place, and besides, such a thing was improper.

As they were deliberating on these matters, they received advice from God that they should betroth her nominally to such a man as would be apt to guard her virginity. Joseph, the kind of man they were looking for, since he was of the same tribe and family as the Virgin, was found, and on the advice of the priests he was betrothed to the girl. Their affinity extended only as far as betrothal.

Excerpt from Gregory of Nyssa's Homily on the Nativity of Christ.