The Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple
“Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11, 27 – 28)
This is the conclusion of this morning’s gospel reading. When you first hear this exclamation and Jesus’ answer, you think, how rude! Is Jesus belittling the Theotokos? One must truly read closely what Our Lord has said. The unknown woman praises Jesus’ mother for having borne and raised such a son. Christ further praises the Virgin not for her biological contribution, as significant as it was; but more importantly for the faith that she exemplified in doing God’s will. Mary’s obedience in faith allowed God’s Holy Spirit to overshadow her and to bring forth the Incarnate Lord. Mary contributes our humanity to be perfected by Christ and to join with His divinity to Incarnate the Second Person of the Godhead. Fully God and Fully Man, but as we know God respected Mary’s free-will and did not impose His will on the Virgin. She heard God’s will and kept it. The journey to Bethlehem takes a big step today in the tiny footsteps of a precious little girl. Up the steps of the temple comes the preparation of God. As we chant in the Canon of the Akathistos “Hail! O Blameless one, the Palace of the only King. Hail! O fiery Throne of the Almighty.”
Sts. Joachim and Anna with the Theotokos
Today is the Forefeast of the Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple. I am constantly amazed by how the Church gets ready for a celebration and then “unwinds” after a feast. Today in the Apolytikion of this day we hear:
By blossoming forth the only Ever-virgin as fruit, today holy Anna doth betroth us all unto joy, instead of our former grief; on this day she doth fulfil her vows to the Most High, leading her with joy into the Lord’s holy temple, who truly is the temple and pure Mother of God the Word.
We hymn speaks to us about St. Anna. How her pledge to God was to be fulfilled She was preparing to take her little girl to the Temple. Yes, had promised God; but it must have been very hard. After all she was only three. What faith and trust in God. For a mom to know that her little girl was going to be cared for and nurtured. The hymn says that She is “betrothing us to joy.” We are joined to the Theotokos even at such a young age. Joy is how she is described. Sts. Joachim and Anna had been enlightened by God’s Holy Spirit to realise that something special was going to happen to their little girl, but they didn’t know what was in her future. They had promised God and their focus was to fulfil their pledge. They thought that the temple was a holy place for their child, little did they understand she was to be the Temple herself. St. Gregory Palamas describes this event in this way: ”in a strange manner the Mother of God changes her dwelling from the house of her father to the house of God while still an infant.” She who is the Holy one enters the Holy of Holies.
Feast of the Prophet Obadiah – Obi..who? This might well be the reaction to this Old Testament prophet. Obadiah was a post exilic prophet, that is a prophet who spoke to the Israelites after the Babylonian Captivity. You might also hear of Obadiah being one of the “Twelve Minor” prophets. Minor? This needs an explanation. These prophets include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi as well as Obadiah. Why are they “minor”? The are grouped in this way because their writings are short in length. Actually, The Vision of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament – only one chapter. Why should we care?
To find the answer to this question we need to look in one of the Eothina (Dawn) Gospels. It is a familiar scene after the Resurrection, which is related by St. Luke in chapter 24, 13 – 53. The resurrected Christ encounters some of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Here we read: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (v. 27); not all the major prophets but all the prophets. This is the what the Orthodox teaching tells us about the road to Bethlehem. God prepared the world and most especially his people, the people of Israel. This is the significance of Obadiah, he is one of the voices God chose to prepare for the Coming of Christ. Obadiah tells of the coming of a King to save his people. The King is coming…are you preparing?
St. Gregory Thaumaturgos
Today, the “star” that the Church holds up is a saint of the early third century. This early father of the Church is known by quite a few names. Gregory of Pontus, Gregory the Miracle-Worker, Gregory Thaumarturgos and Gregory, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea. Gregory studied with Origen of Alexandria, who later baptised him. An early vision was granted to St. Gregory. He saw the Theotokos shining like the Sun; she was accompanied by St. John the Theologian. St John was dressed as a Bishop and at the instruction of the Holy Mother of God St John gave Gregory the text of what was to be his most remembered work, the Creed of Faith. This was a very early exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Listen to the words of Bishop Gregory as he declares who Jesus is:
“There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom
comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son
of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal
and Eternal of Eternal.”
This is the mystical teaching that Gregory received and passed on to us. This is one of the steps the Church reached on its way to our Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The road of salvation history, which began with creation, travels through the Old Testament, to the cave of Bethlehem. That road continues, as the revelation of Christ as the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity and the Redeemer and Saviour of creation unfolds in time. For us, this revelation has a dawn in a manger in Bethlehem, the same manger that we travel towards over the next forty days.
It is a strange feeling blogging again. I got fairly used to the idea of “blowing it off.” The sad thing is that when you get out of the habit, part of you turns off the creative juices. The issue is not writing, but figuring out what to write. That is where I was – then I looked on the calendar to see if there were any saints on which I could reflect. The week of November 8th – 15th looks like who’s who of “saintdom.” If you wished, you could pick just about any Church era and talk about a saint who’s memory was commemorated in the last week. The question arises, which of these saints should I choose to blog about, but maybe that is the wrong question. What is the thread that all these saints, from the bodiless powers to a modern bishop, have in common? The Holy Archangels, St. Nectarios, St. Menas, St. John Chrysostomos, St. John the Merciful, St Phillip the Apostle all in one week, can they all have something in common? It seems to me that this is the only valid question.
Today is the beginning of the Nativity fast. Again, we begin to centre our thinking the miracle of the Incarnation. Superficially, this should be helped by the nonstop barrage of Christmas decorations and reminders that are everywhere around us. Reflecting on the real essential message of Christmas gets more difficult each year as the commercial hype gets louder and more shrill. Over the next forty days, that is what this blog will focus its attention, the essential message.
Returning to the question of the day, what do these saints have in common? They allowed Christ to be born in their lives. They welcomed Him and allowed Him to live in them, so that the people of their time could see Christ alive. It is fitting to start our journey to Bethlehem guided by not one star, but a galaxy of bright stars. Saints point the way even when the fog of our everyday life clouds the road. Hopefully over the next forty days, we will help to point the way. Please join in the journey; visit often and comment. Thank you.