The feast of the Presentation of the Virgin in the temple (November 21st) was first celebrated in Syria towards the end of the 6th century, inspired by the even-then-ancient stories that told of how the parents of the Virgin Mary took her to the Temple when she was three years old, and how she remained there until she was betrothed to Joseph.
While there have long been questions as to how closely the Presentation story reflects what actually happened, the Church continues to celebrate the feast for its profound eternal significance. By entering the Temple so that she might become ‘the living temple’ in which Jesus comes to dwell, the Theotokos embodies a profound shift from the way of old temple to the way of the new.
In the ancient world, a temple was a physical place in which a deity was said to live. People did not actually worship inside ancient temples; rather, a statue of the god or goddess occupied most of the space, while the worshippers gathered outside, and the consecrated religious professionals brought and offered sacrifices within. Thus the human and the divine did not interact directly in the ancient temple; a permanent wall of separation divided them. Human beings came to the temple not so much to relate to their deity in any personal sense as to perform public rituals that affirmed their sense of community. What they believed in private was irrelevant as long as they continued to practice their ‘beliefs’ for the sake of the public good.
This brings us to Judaism. Like the ancient people who surrounded them, the Jews did not enter inside their temple to encounter God; they worshiped in the outer courts, while the consecrated priests offered animal sacrifices and burned incense within. Thus Judaism continued to uphold the wall of separation between an inaccessible divinity and the human race.
There was, however, one fundamantally important difference between the Jewish temple and the temples of other ancient religions: the Jewish deity did not actually live in that building. Even as he dedicated the temple for the first time, King Solomon asked, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)
In the Jewish understanding, God could not be limited to a place; as the God of all, He was everywhere present and filled all things. Instead of placing a statue of Yahweh in their temple, they invoked His presence by enshrining tokens of His mighty works: the inscriptions on the tablets of stone He gave to Moses, Aaron’s rod that He made to flower, the manna with which He fed Israel in the wilderness, all contained in the Ark He had commissioned. In this way, the Jewish people proclaimed that their God, unlike all the other gods, was transcendent and all-powerful and could not be subjected to the human will, ‘the work of men’s hands.’
Additionally, the Jewish temple arrangement expressed their hope that this all-powerful, omipresent God would one day come to dwell, not in an isolated, distinct building made of stone and wood, but in the midst of His people, inseparable from them and united to them forever. As the prophet Jeremiah himself said, speaking for God, “In those days, says the LORD, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD.” It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again.” (Jeremiah 3:16)
The Feast of the Presentation is nothing less than the fulfilment of this prophecy. By entering the temple, the Virgin shows that the time in which human beings dwelt outside of the divine presence, separate and isolated, is past. She has expanded and softened those walls of impenetrable, immovable stone, so that through her womb God might be born in each and every human person, and make every human body His dwelling place. In essence, the Presentation commemorates the consecration of a new arena in the divine-human conversation—no longer merely external, public and formal, but intimate, personal and inwardly transformative.
The implications of this Feast for us are life-changing and revolutionary. Like the religious men and women of old, we may be tempted to restrict our encounter with God to the physical walls of a building. The phrase “go to church” connotates for us a place called “the church” where we go to meet God. Within the Church temple, we can suppose that the area of the altar—which we call the “sanctuary” or even “the holy of holies”—is a place where God makes His presence more clearly, if not exclusively. Those who accomplish liturgical tasks within the altar area—the ordained clergy—we can easily come to regard as religious professionals akin to the Levitical priests, people who are of a different caste from ordinary folk. In short, we are too easily inclined to apply the ways of the old temples to our experience of Christian worship.
The Presentation challenges us to see otherwise. It reminds us that the Church is less a place where Christians go than a reality that we become by gathering in the Name of Christ. St. Paul says, “When you assemble as Church” (1 Cor. 11:18) not “when you go to Church.” The Presentation reminds us that the building where we gather is not an end in itself, a discrete geographical entity where God exists apart from His people; rather, the ‘Church temple’ is an iconographic mirror of the temple that we—the people of God—are called to embody (see 2 Cor. 6:16). By extension, everything that happens within the Church temple—the hierarchy and ritual and order—exists solely to build up the real dwelling place of God: the human person in the image and likeness of Christ. To put it simply, the Presentation tells us that Church temple itself is not a dwelling place for God; it is the temple for the people of God and they are the living temple of God.
If this is indeed the case, then the Mother of God calls us through her feast to expand the walls of the new temple in our daily lives. Our Eucharistic assemblies on Sundays and feast days such as this one renew our sacred calling to bear God continually, as the Virgin did. Our challenge then is to carry that vision beyond the physical place where we received the revelation. Whatever our tasks and responsibilities in this world, whatever the architecture of our routines and responsibilities, the Virgin calls us to annex those spaces and make them extensions of the living temple that we are, to make them as beautiful and well-adorned and graceful as any man-made building, as replete with peace and joy and dignity as any Divine Liturgy.
In this task we do not require great wealth or abundance of fine materials and skills. All we need is a humble human heart that says, “Be it to me according to Your word.” Then, however small and ordinary our lives may be, God Himself, the great Craftsman, will come to build a temple that Solomon himself would wonder at, a place more spacious than the heavens, where God in the flesh has come to dwell in all the glory of His love for us.
Fr. Richard René
We will be celebrating the Presentation of the Theotokos with a Vesperal Liturgy on the eve of the feast (Tuesday, November 20th) at 6:30pm.