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November 21, 2019

Homily on the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple (St. Theophylact of Ochrid)

By St. Theophylact of Ochrid

All too often the “remembrance of the righteous, which is accompanied by encomia” is an opportunity to censure the person praising if he falls short of expressing the worth of the person being praised - because the address is not always, nor in all circumstances, equivalent to reality. But how can I speak of the Lady of all the righteous, the Mother of God, of He who is the King of Righteousness, or touch very lightly on even a part of her real worth, since it is my intention to praise her memory?

I think that if there were angelic voices who really were the heralds of certain mysteries, even they would not be able reach the sublime grace of the Mother of God. No human person could ever, in a fitting manner, hymn the praises of her whose holiness surpassed the whole of creation. Shall we then keep silent and dismiss the Mother of God without further ado, who for us is the underlying cause of a life of reason, or shall we speak with whatever strength we possess, blessing her in accordance with the prophecy, and with all of our strength we will revere all the wondrous works she has done? In doing this we will also glorify the great and indescribable things of God, proclaiming His greatness, which of course is beyond comprehension, however at the same time we also who speak of these things as well as those who listen will become sanctified.

The entry of the Mother of God into this present life is richly adorned with divine grace, to the extent that the end which was to come about would be of the same import. She was endowed with all the virtues, superior to all created things, descended from a royal race, namely the tribe of Judah, born of parents who were also of noble lineage and even nobler piety and she was, indeed, a gift to them from God. Regard, however, the purpose of God. They were without reproach all their lives but were in danger of being unable to live down the shame of being childless.

This may have been because God wished to test their faith, just as He had done with the Forefather Abraham (since it is God’s habit to settle a heavier burden on those who are strongest, that, in the end, they may be crowned more brilliantly for their faith and be a comfort to the people who will succeed them) or because He wished to show them something more arcane, more symbolic. Because, whatever way we look at the matter, their hearts were overshadowed by the recollection of their lack of children and they were greatly distressed by it. In particular, the heart of the blessed Anna was pierced as it were with a sword, being a woman. They are more sensitive beings, more susceptible to sorrow and more generous of their efforts.

So what did they do? They did not take recourse to doctors, they did not burden themselves with amulets, seek a medicine to aid in pregnancy, or go to sorcerers. All of these options are indicative of people who really are sick, whose souls have been devoured by lack of faith and have fallen into the hidden snares of the Evil One. But Joachim and Anna were not like that. They turned their attention to the Creator of the universe, to Him Who fashioned humans and multiplied them, Who brought to life the dead womb of Sarah.

They began to fast and to try to attract divine goodness through prayer, to bring to His mind all the ancient miracles which the wives of the Patriarchs enjoyed, the Shunnamite woman, Hannah, the mother of the Prophet Samuel. “They sowed and reaped in joy”. Joachim and Anna were worn down, but were transformed and acquired a daughter, who surpassed them in sanctity and divine grace, since God dwelt to a greater extent in her than in them. God simply dwelt within them, according to the saying: “I shall dwell among them and walk with them”, but He actually filled the womb of their daughter.

Did they disdain divine grace? Did they imitate timid parents and keep their daughter at home and give her a gentle upbringing, in the hope that she would look after them in their old age, as their heiress and successor? They would not have been her true parents, nor would they have been worthy to bear her at all if they had thought like that. With the assistance of the Holy Spirit, they were alienated from any corporeal behavior, they exhibited a superior attitude, they handed back to God the gift He had given them and thus demonstrated that they realized that the blessing that had befallen them was in His gift and that they were returning it to Him. In the Temple, they presented the Lord with an offering who lived and moved and brought added beauty. The locus of the temple was chosen as the dwelling-place of glory, which for David was a “consummation devoutly to be wished”, but which he was not permitted to see with his own eyes. And the little girl forgot her family house and was taken to the King Who desired her beauty.

She was taken of her own free will, with honor and glory. She left her house in a splendid procession, with everyone applauding her exit. All their relatives, friends and neighbors accompanied her parents. Fathers gladly went along with the father and mothers with the mother. Girls and maidens holding candles walked alongside the handmaid of God, like a circle of bright stars around the moon. The whole of Jerusalem learned of the event and followed this unprecedented occasion, that is, a little girl of three years old surrounded by so much glory, being honored with such a great torchlight procession. When they arrived at the Temple, the whole order of the clergy was waiting for them and welcomed them with psalms, with the High Priest himself visibly moved by this wonder- more than anyone else, in fact, since he was divinely inspired.

The parents took their daughter to him, entrusted her to him and told him the story of Anna’s sterility, the promise they made, and acknowledged that her upbringing was now more than they could manage. Because she was so beloved of God, her upbringing had to be commensurate, so that a pearl so precious and rare should not be sewn onto cheap and inferior cloth, but onto royal raiment that would be its setting and background.

At that moment, the High Priest fell into something like ecstasy; he was possessed by the Spirit of God and had the insight that the maiden was indeed the dwelling-place of divine grace and that she, rather than him, was worthy to appear constantly before God. What is apposite here is what was said in the Law, with profound significance, about the ark of the covenant: that it would reside in the Holy of Holies. Clearly this really refers to this young maiden. Without reservation and without fear, the High Priest undertook something entirely just, which transcended the Law, or rather the human Law and the lack of clarity of the letter of the Law, because he followed the Holy Spirit and led this offering into the Holy of Holies and left her there.

This place received the maiden, a place which other people had not even seen, which the priests themselves did not enter, except the High Priest and that only once a year. Of course, it was only proper that she should not slavishly follow the precepts of the Law, because, by her purity, she had been sanctified to a greater extent than the whole of creation and had been justified from the time she was in her mother’s womb. The Law had been put into place not for the righteous but for sinners. The Law was established with an eye to transgressions and was an instructor for those who needed correction. For her who surpassed the angels, it was not the Law but the grace of God which wrought perfection. God showed that He was pleased with what had happened, because He sent an angel as a servant to nourish the oblate child who would give birth to Him and rear Him, so that no characteristic of hers would seem human, but rather that in everything she would appear divine.

This is today’s feast, the event we’re celebrating today, the escorting of the maiden to the Temple and her introduction into the Holy of Holies. What a strange event! What an astonishing thing it is that we hear! A little girl living in the fathomless and unseen depths of God. Even if she had no more than stepped into the courtyard, this alone would have shown her closeness to the Lord, because when God said He would not allow anyone to enter into His courtyard, He meant those who had created a rift with him. Even if they had no more than seen the Holy of Holies, that in itself would have been an indication of their boldness towards God. Even if the priest entered only once a year, that would still have far surpassed the humble position of a woman.

Yet now, Mary crossed the courtyard, passed beyond the second curtain and entered the Holy of Holies, appointed to remain constantly with God as a pledge of the future commitment of Divine Grace to human nature. In this, the Mother of God reveals herself to us prophetically and opens the way for the whole of the human race to ascend to and enter the heavenly and true Holy of Holies. It seems that she has abrogated the Law of Moses, which, because it was unable to justify us and cleanse us of our sins, was, in effect, an obstacle to all of us as regards participation in any form of sanctity.

Of course, it was Christ Who, with Divine Grace, would justify all of us and, “when He had, by His death on the cross torn down the wall separating us and causing hatred”, would open for all of us the gates, which had previously been shut. When He had sanctified us and cleansed us with water and the Holy Spirit, He received us into the Holy of Holies. This is why He now receives the Virgin in the Temple. And what happens today to the Mother of God is, as it were, a guarantee from God of His future reconciliation with the whole of the human race.

A little child is offered because of her uprightness and lack of guile. “For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” and “the Lord helps the innocent and looks upon the upright with goodwill”. We are speaking of woman, from whom, because of Eve, came sin, so that “where there was an excess of sin, the grace of God would be even more abundant”. And, although the woman was cast out of paradise, her nature would enter into the Holy of Holies. What did the procession symbolize? The grace of God extended throughout the world, and was not restricted to any particular place, as it would have been, according to the narrow interpretation of the Law.

What is the significance of the presence of the young girls? Members of God’s “new leaven”, who were simulating the Virgin, alongside whom they walked. Is there any symbolism in the candles they are carrying? They are the light of life, which shines so that God may be glorified; the light of knowledge, which is lit and held by strong hands, not that which seems to be held by exhausted hands from which all strength has fled, as David says: “and even the light of my eyes has abandoned me”. This is why the Holy Spirit will avoid deceit and will not dwell in a body charged with many sins.

Are you celibate? Guard your celibacy, which guides you and elevates you, so that “your foot shall not slip nor shall your light be extinguished”. Nor “will death come upon you, entering your house by the window”. Nor will you desecrate the sanctity of incorruptibility, which acknowledges no recall. For who shall reclaim their celibacy, even if they fast away their flesh and even if they refrain from sinful thoughts.

Are you bound by the ties of marriage? Make sure you do not blame marriage for any estrangement between you and God. Do not make stupid excuses. Joachim and Anna were married, but they were still close to God. And the strangest thing of all is that, even when they had a child, they still held firm to the same outlook. They offered their daughter to God, and, in doing so, became the forebears of God, as a reparation. Take note of this and act properly within your marriage: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”. Love your spouse as if he or she were your own flesh: “no-one has ever hated their own flesh”. And do not cast your eyes outside your own house. “Drink from your own well”, because the wells of others are very narrow and, according to the Law, “bring sorrow to the flesh”. “Bring your children up in a manner and with advice which are inspired by the Lord.

And so, may we always celebrate this feast, may be worthy of coming into the perfect Entry, into the Holy of Holies: celibate souls, cleansed of any evil, with our souls holding bright lights burning the oil of charity. May we enter “where Christ entered before us and for our sake”, our aid the Mother of God herself in both our intentions and actions. It is she who has made us worthy to receive her numerous favors and who now sanctifies us with her feast and enables us to sense the beauty of the All-Holy and Eternal Trinity, of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the only God, to Whom belong all glory, honor and worship, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.