Saturday 1 December 2018

Explanation of the Entry of the Theotokos Icon

On 21st November we celebrate the Great Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple as a three-year-old child. This feast is the closing and fulfillment of the Old Testament and the heralding of our salvation which would be wrought through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Saint Gregory Palamas explains this below:

We keep festival this day because we have seen the prize won for the good of us all by her unrivalled patient endurance there: God’s marvelous descent to earth through her and our own glorious ascent to heaven through Him. [1]

To understand the icon of this Feast we need to learn a little about the structure of the Old Testament Temple. The Temple building referred to in the New Testament replaced the portable Tabernacle or tent that the Hebrews used for worship during the forty years in the wilderness. We hear about this Tabernacle in the epistle reading of the Feast (Heb. 9:1-7)

Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people.

To summarize, the Jewish Temple building was divided into three main sections:

·The courtyard where animals were offered in sacrifice.
·The sanctuary separated from the courtyard by a curtain.
·The rearmost part of the sanctuary called the Holy of Holies separated from the former by a curtain. 

The first Temple building was started by Solomon after the Hebrews reached the Promised Land and was completed about 950 years before Christ. The Holy of Holies of this Temple contained the Ark of the Covenant which held the Tablets of the Law together with other objects such as Aaron’s rod that budded and the pot of manna. King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed this Temple in 586 BC and took the Hebrews into captivity in Babylon.

The Prophet Ezekiel foretold the restoration of Israel and rebuilding of the Temple, but when the temple was finally rebuilt by Zerubbabel it matched neither the splendour of Solomon’s Temple nor did it correspond to the Temple in Prophet Ezekiel’s vision. An even larger Temple was built by King Herod in around 20 BC. This Temple was the one into which the Virgin Mary entered and was later destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 AD.

Everything that was done in the Old Testament Temple was a prophecy of what would be fulfilled by Christ which is why the Vespers readings for the Feast of the Entry all end with the verse: ‘And the glory of the Lord filled the House of the Lord’. The first two readings concern the establishment of the earthly Tabernacle and Temple. The third reading is from the prophecy of Ezekiel in which he speaks of the Theotokos as the living Temple of God.

In the icon of the Feast of the Entry, the living Temple of God is depicted being received into the earthly Temple by the High Priest Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist. Saint Zacharias is shown vested as a priest and the Virgin Mary is accompanied by her parents Saints Joachim and Anna and by virgins carrying candles. She holds both her hands outstretched as a symbol of her self-offering and her parents hold their left hands outstretched ushering her forward and indicating their willing participation in this mystery.

The virgins are depicted realistically, but the Theotokos is depicted as a child in stature but with an adult’s features. She has her head covered, but the virgins are bareheaded. We hear this explained in the canon of the matins: ‘She who in body is but three years old, and yet in the spirit is full of years’.

The red cloth draped across the rooftops on the right-hand side of the icon signifies that this event is taking place inside the Temple even though it appears to be outside. This device is seen in other icons too, such as the Nativity of the Theotokos icon.

The red curtain in the centre of the icon signifies the veil that was in front of the Holy of Holies. The curtain is shown drawn back to signify the opening of the Holy of Holies to the true tabernacle that was to hold God in her womb.

The highest point of the Temple was the Holy of Holies which is why the Mother of God is depicted in a tower. The archangel Gabriel is shown offering heavenly bread with which the Virgin will be nourished during her time in the Temple.

In this sixteenth century Russian icon (right) the priest Zacharias is shown standing in front of Russian style Royal Doors. This is done to show that the Jewish Temple prefigured the incarnation of the Great High Priest Christ from the Virgin Mary the new Ark of the Covenant made, as Saint Hippolytus of Rome teaches, of 'incorruptible wood’. Saint Gregory Palamas explains further:

She who was chosen from the elect of all ages, who was declared the Holy of Holies, whose body was purer and more divine than spirits cleansed by virtue, to such an extent that she was able to receive not just the form of the divine words but the person of the only-begotten Word of the Father without beginning, was today justly consigned to the innermost hallowed sanctuary like God’s treasure. When the time came, this treasure was to be used to enrich and adorn both heaven and earth, as indeed came to pass. Thus and on this account the Lord glorified His Mother before she gave birth, as well as afterwards. [2]

This icon depicts the entry of the Virgin into the Temple as she prepares to become the House of God, the King of all. Later, through the seedless conception announced to her by the Archangel Gabriel, she will become the Temple of the Holy Spirit as we hear in the Vespers service of the Feast:

Today the Theotokos, the Temple that is to hold God, is led into the temple of the Lord, and Zacharias receiveth her. Today the Holy of Holies greatly rejoiceth, and the choir of angels mystically keepeth feast. With them let us also celebrate the festival and cry aloud with Gabriel: Rejoice, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee, He who hath great mercy.

[1] C. Veniamin (trans.) Saint Gregory Palamas The Homilies (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 418
[2] Saint Gregory Palamas The Homilies p.412

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