Today we celebrate the feast that is known in the Byzantine tradition as the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple. Many saints of the Old Testament, and a few of the New, have entered the Temple in Jerusalem, but we don’t have feast days for any of their entrances into the Temple. What is it about Our Lady’s entrance that makes it special enough to merit a solemn feast day?
I think we have first to understand what “entrance” means in her case. It’s not simply a matter of stepping over the threshold into the building. Thousands of people, both good and bad, have done that in past centuries, with no special effect or fruit of it, outside of what God might have done in a hidden manner in their souls. But Mary’s entrance has a deeper meaning. Let us look at the word “entrance” not so much as a simple moving from one physical place into another, but rather in the sense that one would, for example, enter a monastery.
When someone says, “I’m going to enter a monastery,” he doesn’t mean: “I’m going to pass through the gates, attend a few services and then leave.” He means: “I have discerned a divine calling and so the monastery will henceforth be my home, the place where I make my lifelong commitment to the Lord. I am becoming a member of the monastic community.”
Tradition has it that the child Mary did stay in the Temple for an extended period of time, though she did not make it her permanent home. But for her to enter the Temple still carries with it a similar meaning to one who is entering a monastery. This was a response to a divine calling, her unique election as the one who would be the indispensable instrument of God in the incarnation of his Son. At the age of three, she would not have understood this, but her parents were moved by the Holy Spirit to consecrate her to God from the very beginning, and so God took over. This entrance was a declaration, a hidden manifestation—how’s that for a paradox?—of a divine mystery. It is hidden because no one really knew at that time what was happening on the mystical plane as that little girl was ushered into God’s holy place. But for us who have the hindsight of faith and tradition, we see a girl manifestly entering the Temple—a girl who was chosen from all eternity to be the Mother of God. Her presence in the Temple declares this truth.
So this was the beginning of a commitment, a life of service to God. From this moment on she can truly be considered the Handmaid of the Lord, something she grew to understand more deeply until she was finally ready to offer her unhesitating “yes” to the Father when the moment came for the Son of God to become the Son of Man. Perhaps when the Angel was with her she reflected briefly on her past: her study of the word of God, her humble service, her prayer and worship, and yes, maybe even that day of her entrance into the Temple, which was perhaps the first time she had begun to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the things of God. In any case, conscious of her total commitment to God, her membership in his chosen people, and her faith in Him whom her heart loved, she was able to completely surrender to his will.
But at the moment of the Annunciation, she most likely did not know all that his will would demand of her. She did know she was taking a serious risk in allowing God to impregnate her without the aid of a husband. She knew very well that she could be stoned to death, being suspected of adultery. But she couldn’t have known what she would suffer as she would stand by the Cross of this Son whom she was now welcoming into the world with such tenderness and love.
So there’s something else that we can say about the entrance of Mary into the Temple. It was kind of a “Great Entrance,” as we have in the Divine Liturgy when the prepared gifts are brought to the altar to be consecrated. The bread and wine are placed on the altar, and the deacon says to the priest: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” These are the words that Mary would hear from the Angel. Perhaps as Mary entered the Temple and was received by the priest to be consecrated to God, the Angels were already singing prophecies in Heaven: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the Child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
It is not Mary, however, but Christ who would actually be sacrificed on the altar of the Cross. He is both the High Priest and the Sacrificial Victim of our redemption. But Mary’s entrance into the Temple is like her bringing the gifts to the altar. She herself is consecrated as a sacred vessel for the Holy Mysteries, and she would provide the bread and wine, that is, the flesh and blood of Christ, by giving birth to Him, and this flesh and blood would be the Sacrifice that would save the world.
A priest cannot celebrate the Holy Eucharist without bread and wine. The Son of God could not die for our sins without the Incarnation, without a human body and blood to offer in sacrifice. So Our Lady’s “Great Entrance” into the Temple is the moment in the long Liturgy of Salvation History that points directly toward the Incarnation, which in turn points to the offering, the sacrifice. Before Mary was present in the world, the mystery of the Incarnation was still something remote, something that could only be hinted at in prophecy. But once she is here, it is clear that the plans of God will soon be concretely realized, that the time of fulfillment is at hand—it is only a matter of a few years before our Redeemer would Himself appear in the flesh, visible to the eyes of all.
We should consider all this as we celebrate the feast. The provisional revelations of the past were about to give way to the definitive and eternal revelations. The Temple in Jerusalem would soon be destroyed (and to this day it has not been rebuilt), but God had prepared a holy and living Temple for the Incarnation of his Son—Mary, the Maiden of Nazareth, the Handmaid of the Lord, full of grace from her conception but publicly consecrated to God from the age of three, from the time of her entrance into the Temple. In turn, the body of her Son would become the indestructible and eternal Temple. When Jesus spoke of raising up the Temple in three days, St John comments that He was speaking of the temple of his body. So even though He sacrificed his body on the Cross, since the time of the resurrection He is forever in immortal glory, and He calls us to join Him—in the mystery of his sacrifice as well as that of his resurrection, for one cannot expect the glory of the resurrection without first enduring the pain of the cross.
At every Divine Liturgy we perform the Great Entrance: the gifts are brought to the altar to be offered to God, to be transformed into the sacrificed Body and Blood of Jesus. Let us also enter the Holy of Holies, at least in spirit, and let us offer ourselves as gifts prepared for sacrifice, ready to be united to the Lord in the mystery of his death and resurrection. We eat his sacrificed body and drink his shed blood, so let us not shrink from the cost of discipleship, the cross that the lovers of Jesus must carry.
Let us ask the Mother of God to enter with us, to strengthen and encourage us as we make our offering to the Lord, as we strive to live out the consecration we have already made and should renew in some way at every Holy Eucharist. The Holy Spirit will come upon us and the power of the Most High will overshadow us, as we come with Our Lady to the altar of God, the God of our joy. And we too shall become, as St Paul reminds us, temples of the living God.