Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Temple Enters the Temple

The following is my homily for the Feast of the Entrance (or Presentation) of the Mother of God into the Temple. It is still a solemn feast for the Byzantine Churches, though it is evidently something of an embarrassment in the West, since it has been reduced to a mere memorial after Vatican II. Such feasts, like those of St Nicholas and St George, are deemed not to have sufficient historical basis, and so are quietly relegated to the lowest ranks of liturgical observance, if they are allowed to remain on the calendar at all. Therefore:

Today I’d like to say something about history, or rather, salvation history, which is not exactly the same thing. History, at least from a kind of journalistic perspective, deals with events and the facts that constitute these events (though even the most "objective" historical accounts are seldom free from interpretive reporting). Salvation history also deals with events, but insofar as they reveal something about the intervention of God within these events, and hence the most profound meaning of these events. Divine intervention and spiritual significance are the keys to the proper understanding of salvation history.

Therefore, for example, in the account of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the event of the parting of the Red Sea (astounding as that was) and the trek to the Promised Land are not recounted merely to preserve a record of what happened in those days, but to celebrate what God had done on behalf of his people. What happened was that the Red Sea parted, Israel crossed, and the sea covered and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. But what it means is that God chose this people out from all the nations as his own and manifested Himself as their Savior by miraculously rescuing them, making a covenant with them in the desert and giving them a rich and fertile land.

Similarly, in the New Testament, we might read, for example, the account of the darkening of the sun at Jesus’ crucifixion as mere history, an interesting solar phenomenon, perhaps a total eclipse. But from the perspective of salvation history, that is not what it means. Theologians and hymnographers will tell you that it is an apocalyptic sign of the advent of the Day of the Lord, a symbol of the mourning of all creation over the death of the Son of God, etc. The meaning of the event is valued much more highly than the mere accounting of its details. I don’t think you’ll ever find a liturgical hymn that reads: “O Lord, the moon, following its established orbit, happened to pass between the earth and the sun, momentarily darkening the land, which coincidentally occurred while You were crucified, and then continued its orbit just like any other day, until the calculations of astronomers inform us that such a rare, though natural, phenomenon will happen again. Glory be to You!”

We ought to look at the mystery of today’s feast from the perspective of salvation history—the intervention of God and the spiritual significance of the event. The historical event is that of young Mary of Nazareth being brought to the Temple in Jerusalem to be offered to the Lord by her parents, a common enough occurrence in those days. But the meaning of this event, as we learn from the liturgical texts, is far deeper, and in order to liturgically explore this meaning, certain embellishments have been added to the historical event. But everything hinges on who Mary is and what it means that she was brought to the Temple to be consecrated to God.

The essence of the feast is found in these lines: “Today the living temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, Mary, the pure and blessed one, is presented to the Temple… She will become a most holy temple to our Most Holy God who, by dwelling in her, sanctified the whole creation and made our fallen nature godly.” Let us try to understand the meaning of this bit of salvation history.

In the Tent of Meeting in the desert and in the Temple at Jerusalem (as we heard in the readings at Vespers) the glory of the Lord fills the place, whether tent or temple, to signify the divine presence. “The glory of the Lord filled the temple,” and the people worship Him with reverence and awe. So Our Lady is first of all called not just the new temple of the Lord, but the “living temple of the holy glory of Christ our God.” To say that his glory is in her is to make clear the connection between her and the places God had chosen to dwell on earth before the incarnation of his Son.

For this living temple to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem signifies two related things. First, Mary is replacing the Temple of Jerusalem as God’s chosen dwelling place, and second, as the new and living temple of the living God, her very presence there prophetically declares the old Temple to be obsolete. St Paul spoke of the law of Moses becoming a dead letter with the advent of the grace of Christ, and so the glory of the Lord will soon depart the inanimate Temple of Jerusalem and fill the living temple, Mary, bringing about the incarnation of the Son of God.

According to the liturgical text I quoted earlier, the entrance of God into the temple that is Mary (which is his foreordained response to the entrance of Mary into the Temple of God) accomplishes first the Incarnation of Christ for the salvation of our souls, but then two fruits of this incarnation are mentioned: the sanctification of creation and that of fallen human nature. Both humanity and the whole universe are at least potentially sanctified by the very fact of the Incarnation. By uniting the uncreated divine nature to the created human nature, especially in the material aspect of the body, God has immeasurably ennobled creation and especially man. This intimate, inseparable union of God and man in Jesus Christ is the fountainhead of all sanctification of matter and hence is the source of grace for the sacraments, the icons, and every way that grace can be communicated through a created medium. The mystery of Christ’s transfiguration is a visible manifestation of this power of the Incarnation, for the divine glory was seen shining through the created medium of the body, the humanity of Christ.

All this, by extension, is what we celebrate today in prefigurement and prophecy. Because Mary was set aside to be the living temple of the glory of God; because God chose her to be the one through whom the eternal Son and Word of God would become man for our sanctification and salvation, the whole mystery of uncreated grace communicated through created matter would begin to unfold. It is no coincidence that Our Lady, as the living temple of God, would become the living icon of the redeemed and sanctified Church of God which, as St Peter says, is built with living stones—all those saved by the grace of the Lord.

I think that historically we can’t assume that Mary was aware all this (or perhaps any of this, for at the time of her entrance into the Temple she was but three years old), so this exhortation is given her in the liturgy: “Enter the veiled places and learn the mysteries of God. Prepare yourself to be a delightful dwelling place for Jesus…” This exhortation is given to us as well. We are called to enter the veiled places, that is, the depths of contemplation that lead us to the threshold of the presence of God, who dwells in inaccessible Light and awe-inspiring glory. There we are to learn—if we are pure of heart and filled with faith and love for the Lord—the mysteries of God. We will then not only be able to rightly interpret salvation history, but we will become dwelling places for Jesus, we will walk in the light of the glory of his face. We don’t always have to be aware of what God is doing in us—sometimes his purposes are better served if we don’t—as long as we trust that He is working all things for the good. We will, in time, discover what can be revealed only to those who believe and who love, and who are willing to be consecrated to the fulfillment of the will of God in total surrender to his mysterious—and perhaps seemingly obscure—yet all-captivating beauty and irrepressible life, which, as St Ignatius the God-bearer says, murmurs like a subterranean stream within us, saying: “Come to the Father.”

So let us, who have entered this temple to worship God and honor Our Lady, allow the incarnate God, the Son, to enter the temple of our souls and bodies in Holy Communion. And may He take us to the veiled places where we can learn the mysteries of God and thus make it the vocation of our lives to be living temples of Jesus Christ our Lord.