Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Presentation of the Theotokos

I cannot believe that I have never written anything about this particular great feast.  There are a number of reasons that is the case.  First, it always seems to fall right smack in the midst of the preparations or actual festivities of the Thanksgiving Holiday here in America so it is put on the back-burner.  But, I think more accurate, the reason I probably have never written about this feast is simply because I just don't really even begin to understand the theological underpinnings of this feast.

Mary's Nativity and Dormition are, in my mind, no-brainers.  The birth of the very temple of God goes hand in hand with the incarnation of the Lord Himself.  Her death shows that even the living temple of God was in need of Christ's death and triumph over death through His Resurrection.  Her taking up into heaven is an example, an icon, if you will, of the very same fate that will await all Christians at the hour of death.  But, what are we to make of her Presentation to the Temple?

Protestants will naturally insist that the reason for my confusion is simply to be found in the absence of the event (including Mary's birth and death) in the Canon of the Scriptures.  That's outright bunk.  Our theology is not simply contained in an infallible book but in the living tradition of the Holy Church through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  You may not like that answer, but our theology is not dependent upon "your" rules.

Mary's presentation into the temple indicates that Sts. Joachim and Anna were obedient to the law and the Prophets.  Just as Mary, years later, would present her son, the Incarnate Logos, 40 days after his birth to the temple, so Mary's parents did with her.  This shows that God's salvation was not a deviation or a breaking from a law, but the law's fulfillment. 

According to the tradition of the church, after her presentation, Mary then spent her life in the temple's courts until she was in her teens where she was nourished by angels both mentally and physically. She grew up learning the Law and the Prophets from the priests in the temple.  Afterwards, she was betrothed to Joseph and you get the Christmas story.  So, even if we do not/cannot/ will not accept the story as fact, what truth does it communicate?

As Mary is regarded as the icon of human existence, maybe this feast is another reminder of what it means to have a life in Christ.  Mary spent a great many years in the temple learning from the Scriptures entirely unaware that she was to be the very " who would conceive and bear a Son, Emmanuel."  She grew mentally to love the Lord who gave her life which was needed before she could literally bear God Himself in her body.  Perhaps it was that training in the temple that made it very easy to say "yes" to Gabriel's message that she would give birth to Christ.

Christians today want Christ in them at all times, but they are unwilling to put in the work to achieve that.  Yes, God gives of Himself freely, but gifts may be rejected or, as is the custom of today, to regift them to someone more willing.   Christians go to church, expecting even demanding to be uplifted to the heights of heaven only to come away with great disappointment when they are not "magically" transported to some blissful state where all their cares melt away.  Such, though, is not the Christian life.  Christ never said "Follow me and you'll always have me in you and you'll be happy and prosperous."  Even if you don't take prosperous in material terms, this is still a dangerous thought.  The Christian life is not easy as we are always under attack by the evil one.

There is an inevitable struggle. I am positive that the Theotokos, during her earthly life, was besieged by the temptations  of the evil one.  If she had given in, who knows how the history of salvation may have changed?  Struggle, though, is the essence of Christianity.  "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling."  These words of St. Paul cannot mean anything else besides that not only is work required but that such work will be in the presence of what chills us to the bone even to the point where we would give up.

If we want Christ in us, we must prepare.  Too many people simply hope to walk into church and be transformed.  If you came to church from a party with your friends, do you think you are more or less likely to feel that transformation than someone who has entered the church after a morning of solitude and contemplation?  I suppose it can happen, but my point is that there can be no living the Christian life with Christ in us without some preparation.  Mary worked and lived in the temple, the Holy of Holies to physically carry within her the very Temple of God in the flesh.  Even if we can carry Christ mystically within our bodies, shouldn't that require some sacrifice and preparation on our parts?

I'm sure that this feast has broader theological implications than what I have considered here and I'm happy to leave that at the feet of more learned theologians than I.  But, as we Orthodox Christians (at least those on the Revised Julian Calendar) are now on the road to Bethlehem and the cave to behold the Incarnation of the Saviour, we cannot get to our destination without preparation and the actual journey.  This especially holds true for the big picture.

Happy feast!

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