In the 13th episode of the “Orthodox Icons Explained” series, Fr. John explains the icon of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. The Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God into the Temple is celebrated on November 21 each year.
Fr. Ioan Bizau is a senior lecturer of Iconography and Christian Art at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Location: Diocesan Museum of the Orthodox Metropolis of Cluj (Muzeul Mitropoliei Clujului)
Camera: Darius Echim
Fr. Ioan Bizau:
The event that Eastern Christianity celebrates on November 21, one week after the Fast of the Nativity begins, is called “The Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God into the Temple”. It is, of course, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin from Nazareth, in the temple of Jerusalem, that is, in the sanctuary of the Old Testament, the entry of the child of the righteous Joachim and Anna into the sacred precincts of the temple in Jerusalem. The Feast is not very old in relation to the other Marian feasts, or to the other Great Feasts. However, Saint Andrew of Crete notices it and celebrates it himself in the 7th century in Jerusalem. A century later, therefore, in the 8th century, it was also introduced in Constantinople and it became generalized in the Eastern Christian world.
In the West, this feast, or rather, this event, is celebrated in the time of Pope Gregory XI. According to documents, Gregory XI first celebrated the Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the temple in 1374, when, as we know, he was isolated in Avignon, a special episode in the history of Western Christianity. Of course, the feast, the event that Eastern Christianity celebrates, as I said, on November 21, a week after entering the Nativity Fast, has no precise references in the Holy Gospels. It is the same with the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, which does not have such references. But the whole dynamic of the services, or rather the hymnographic content of the holy services related to the Virgin of Nazareth, which is presented at the temple in Jerusalem, opens new directions of theological nature, spiritual nature, in full agreement with what is said about the Virgin Mary in the Holy Gospels, especially in the Holy Gospel of Luke, in the episode of the Annunciation, in particular.
According to tradition, the event took place when the child of the righteous Joachim and Ana turned three years old. Her parents, the righteous Joachim and Anna, took her to the temple in Jerusalem in order to fulfill a promise. We remember that they had her when they were already old, and she came into the world as the fruit of prayers, as the fruit of messianic hopes, as the fruit of the divine promise, and because of this, her parents, the righteous Joachim and Anna, dedicated her to God, they consecrated her to heaven, that is, to a special ministry. Thus, when she was three years old, this was a precise procedure in the ancient Jewish tradition, they took her to Jerusalem to the temple in order to fulfill with her the promise they had made to God before she was born. And the hymns of the Feast, the Troparion, the other hymns from the Vespers, from the Matins, describe this very beautiful and impressive moment. When she was taken from Nazareth to Jerusalem on a road that lasted three days of walking, the distance of about 150 km, a procession of young women and virgins was formed, who according to the hymns were holding lit candles and were singing hymns. Also, according to the hymnography of the Feast, the hymns from the Vespers, from the Matins, this ceremony, this procession that resembles, in a way, what happens when we go to monasteries or to a famous church and we make processions, processional groups, this procession was done, as the righteous Joachim says, so that the child may not feel sorry for what she leaves behind and her heart may not cling to something foreign to the temple of the Lord, the house of the Lord. This thought that Joachim had about his child is very significant.
We all remember that when we take our children to kindergarten, for example, we do all kinds of scenarios, games, processions, why? So that the child can detach himself from the atmosphere of the house, from the parental warmth, from that place where he feels protected and where he feels close to his parents, especially his mother. As I said, the distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem of about 150 km was covered by groups of pilgrims in three good days of walking. At that time, people walked much faster, and this is something we, older people, know from our childhood. Finally, when they arrived in Jerusalem, they went to the temple, in this small procession, and there the righteous Joachim and Anna, together with their child, were greeted by the priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, who at that time fulfilled both a priestly and a prophetic function. He receives the Virgin, the child from Nazareth, greets her on the great platform of the entrance to the sacred precinct on the summit of Zion. This entrance consisting of 15 steps or ascents was very important in everything that meant the liturgical life of ancient Israel. The 15 steps correspond to the Fifteen Psalms of Ascents. Perhaps some of you remember that in the book of Psalms, when we reach the 18th Kathisma, at the beginning of each psalm we have the label, “A Song of the Steps,” “Another Song of the Steps,” and so we come to the number 15. That is, each step corresponded to one of the psalms of the steps. In some cases, I read this, the Levites or priests who were scheduled to celebrate the services at the temple, they stopped at each step and sang one of the psalms of the steps.
Finally, the Virgin was greeted here according to the hymns of Vespers and Matins by the righteous Zacharias, who at that time was fulfilling the service of priest and the service of prophet, who takes her in his arms and carries her in the most sacred precinct of the temple. Let us remember the following fact: the icons and the liturgical images of the Feast describe this very well, when the procession arrived in front of the 15-step ascent, it stopped. I was saying, the accompanying virgins were holding lit candles in their hands, we will see in the images. They were dressed in the most beautiful clothes, they were, in fact, trained, engaged in a ceremonial of a liturgical nature, as described in Psalm 45 (LLX. Ps. 44), which can be called a royal epithalamium. Epithalamium means a song celebrating a marriage. And I would like to read you some verses from Psalm 45 (44), a messianic psalm, but its images are especially applied to the feast or rather to the event we celebrate on November 21, namely the The Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple.
I start with verse 10 (12): “Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear;” – that is, listen – “forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house;” – that is, detach yourself from everything you have lived so far in order to dedicate yourself to another form of life, when you become consecrated to God – “So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him. And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift; even the rich among the people shall intreat thy favour. The king’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold.” And now, the passage that prophetically describes, centuries before, the procession: “She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee. With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought: they shall enter into the king’s palace.” So, this is how beautifully, how carefully, the psalmist David prophetically describes this procession, as I said, in Psalm 45 (44).
Sometimes our fathers in faith apply to the procession that took place from Nazareth to Jerusalem and especially the time of the entry of the Blessed Virgin into the temple of the Old Testament, an episode that we find in the second book of Kings in chapter 6 (2 Samuel), the beginning part, it is about the moment when the Ark of the Old Testament which until then was kept in the house of a believer, as the temple was not yet built, the capital was not yet structured in its architecture, in its order… At a certain moment the works of building the capital are completed, during the reign of King David and then the Ark of the Covenant is brought to the capital with an impressive procession. This procession, I said, is described in the 2nd book of the Kings in chapter 6 (2 Samuel). And our fathers in faith, but also the hymns of the vespers and the matins of the Feast, apply the memorable, impressive image of the relocation of the Ark from the house of Abinadab, that Israelite where the Ark was kept for a while, in Jerusalem, to the new capital. They apply this image to the pilgrimage, the procession by which the Virgin, the child Mary, at the age of 3 was brought into the temple in Jerusalem. And that moment is impressive and in some icons it is very well visualized. The child detaches herself from the group of companions and climbs alone the 15 steps in a rush, the hymns say: “like a dove”, to reach in front of the priest Zacharias, whom we see with his outstretched hands waiting for her. This is not a totally unexpected thing. We see, for example, in these wedding processions, small children, 3 years old, 4 years old, 2 years old and they often make impressive gestures that they never make at home. That is, they enter a ceremonial state. This state of mind in which those children enter helps them to make amazing gestures that we have not seen them making before.
Finally, she is received, she is greeted, she is taken inside, she is placed in a certain place. We should note that at that time the temple in Jerusalem had around it a whole complex of buildings, arranged on three levels. At the bottom were the widows dedicated to the temple, as was the prophetess Ana, for example, we do remember. In the middle were the Nazirites, a kind of Old Testament monks. And on the upper level, the third floor, on the highest, were the virgins dedicated to the temple, that is, devoted to God. There, the Virgin Mary spent 12 years. Of course, she was initiated into reading the Holy Scriptures like the other Virgins, of course, she was initiated into the order of liturgical services. The psalms often evoke virgins singing during the Old Testament services. She was also initiated into manual work. Tradition says, and our father in the faith immediately noticed this and developed it, she had great skills, talent, as we say today. During the time she spent there, towards its end, the council of priests led by the high priest decided to change the old veil, the big curtain that separated the holy (the room where the priests were celebrating the services), from the holy of holies (where no one ever entered except the high priest, once a year, when he uttered the name of God, only then). According to the ancient tradition, 300 talented priests worked on that veil. Impressive embroidery… Then it was decided that seven virgins of the seed of David should be chosen. Among them was Mary. She was assigned to work on the most significant details of the great veil, which foreshadowed the Body of Christ, as the Holy Apostle Paul tells us. The veil of the Old Testament foreshadowed, it was an icon of the body of Christ. She used gold and purple thread, two elements of a very strong symbolism. Perhaps some of us remember that when Christ was on the Cross, when He gave up His spirit, an event of cosmic proportions took place, a multiple event. Among which is the fact that the veil of the Old Testament was torn in two, from top to bottom, which meant the body of Christ, as the apostle Paul tells us, His body was torn.
Finally, she stayed there until she was 15 years old. In the end, when this time was fulfilled and the virgins had to either go out into the world and get married or stay in this state of continual virginity, as it happens even today, in all the parts of the world, there are men and women who do not marry and they live in a state of virginity, of purity until their death, silent, discreet, unknown, the great unknown people of the world who by their purity, men and women alike, keep the world in its order.
They drew lots in order to choose whom to entrust her, because there were several men to whom she had to be entrusted. Zacharias, according to tradition, prayed for that and it was revealed to him that he had to entrust her to Joseph in order to protect her socially, economically, to give her a status. We have to contextualize, we are in an era in which women needed social protection, family protection, the presence of men in order to be able to assert their personal presence in that community.
What I would like us to remember, and then we move on to the images, is that, and the hymns insist a lot on this, while she was in the temple, the Virgin was filled with the Spirit of God, she was watching and praying during the night, she was resting a little in the morning and during the day she was dedicated, as the the documents of the tradition say, completely to the tasks entrusted to her: scripture readings, singing, the work of the hands, cleaning the temple, that is, that architectural complex that received thousands and thousands of people every day and where everything had to be in good order. Also, the hymns insist a lot on this fact and the icon shows us well, throughout her stay at the temple in Jerusalem, she, the Most Pure, the true Temple, the living Temple of the Divine, holier than the material temple, was nourished with a special food, a heavenly food, like the manna in the desert, by the Archangel Gabriel. This is why, at the Annunciation, the two recognize each other, they notice each other, they know what it is about, that is, the Angel, the Archangel, the messenger of God, fed her and feeding her, he informed her, introduced her to the mystery kept secret since the world began (Romans 16:25) of the coming of the Messiah.
We have in front of us a traditional icon of Radu Zugravu, around the year 1760. It arrived in the Museum of our diocese, the metropolitan museum, from a famous parish, a famous village, Săliștea de Sus, Maramureș, there are two wooden churches, old, very beautiful, and this icon comes from the church from Săliștea de Sus – Buleni, meaning the sector or as we say today, the neighborhood, to make it easier for us to understand, that’s where it comes from. Obviously it is a traditional icon, we see priest Zacharias sitting on a chair. We see that it is a temple, but it was made with a roof like a (wooden) church in Maramureș. And we see only her parents, the righteous Joachim and Anna. The icon is small, simple. It is very beautiful, it has a poetic air in its archaic way of visualizing the event. We see the Virgin, of course, she is small in stature, to remind us of her 3 years, but we see that the painter Radu Zugravul from 1760 also noticed that it is not about an infantile being, it is about a fulfilled being, this is very important.
Here we have three reproductions of beautiful icons. The one above, the Macedonian school 14th century, this one 15th century Russian school, and also 15th century Greek school, from the glorious era of Christian East iconography. We can look at any of them, we see virgins in the back, the processional group is formed sometimes by seven virgins, as is the case with the icon from the Macedonian school, sometimes by eight. Both numbers are very strong in biblical and of course liturgical symbolism. We see the virgins holding candles, they are dressed in wedding attire, so to speak, Psalm 45 (44) is an imperial, royal, royal epithalamium, I said, the epithalamium means a wedding song, a processional song. In front of the processional group we see the righteous Joachim and Anna, with haloes of course. It is impressive the way parents lead their child, as we do when we take them to kindergarten. We see the priest Zacharias, we recognize that he is in office, that he serves, because he has a sign on his head, as priests have since the world began, certain objects, certain signs, by which they differ, by which they are put in a processional state.
We see the steps here. Of course, in the icon, in both cases, it is about two instances of the Blessed Virgin: first when she is greeted by Zacharias and the second, on the highest step, fed by the angel. We see the angel coming to serve her, that is, to inform her. In the kindergarten, the teacher serves us, not in the sense that she is our servant, but in a sense that she informs us, feeds us with teaching, guides us, helps us grow, to evolve, helps us to ennoble ourselves, so does the Angel. The three levels or the three states of the temple correspond to the three states of the spiritual life. It was the courtyard where the faithful were present, but also the priests and Levites who did not serve, then the “Holy” where the services were celebrated, and the “Holy of Holies” where no one enters except the high priest once a year. We see the Virgin on the last step. If the first step means purification or, to make it easy for us to understand, the renunciation of passions, a kind of exercise, the first exercise, the second stage means an even greater approach to the mystery, to the sacred fire, and the last is the knowledge of God by word, through Logos, if the middle one is knowledge through the things of the surrounding nature. Behold, the Virgin is on the last step.
Of course we realize an important fact. The event takes place inside, but not in a closed space. In the iconography of the Christian East the space is always open and the fact that it is inside is suggested by this veil we see above. Of course here the temple is painted in a different manner than Radu Zugrav’s little church. Obviously, we realize that this is a Russian architecture, here we have the dome, an architecture from the East, the Greek parts. Here are the three reproductions of famous icons, I said the Macedonian school 14th century, Russian school 15th century, Greek school 15th century, and the one from the beginning of 1760 of Radu Zugravu, the wooden church of Maramures, one of the many churches in Maramures where we see this illustration of the event celebrated on November 21, a beautiful illustration of a poetic style. Of course, here everything is concentrated, in the middle is the Virgin, her parents and the righteous Zacharias and the temple is behind.
Look how many beautiful things we can learn and discover if we are attentive and we focus on the liturgical texts, as I said, and on the images. And I conclude with the Troparion of the Feast. The Troparion is the concentrated definition of either the person we celebrate, like Saint Nicholas, or of the event, in this case the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple or the Presentation at the Temple. I’m reading the Troparion from the Menaion, the service book from November. The Troparion says: “Today” – you see, it is written in the present tense, all the services, all the feasts are written in the present tense – “Today is the prelude of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: ‘Rejoice, O Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.’” And another hymn related to how it is illustrated in the hymns, in the hymnography, the procession of the young maidens holding candles and dressed in wedding garments: “The young maidens, rejoicing now with processional lamps in hand, go before the Virgin, the spiritual lamp” – do you see what metaphor was found for the Blessed Virgin, the virgins, holding candles in their hands, having in front of them the living lamp – “go before the Virgin, the spiritual lamp. Singing with gladness they bring her to the Temple of God today, sacredly foretokening the ineffable radiance that in coming years will shine forth from her womb and will enlighten in the Spirit all the people sitting in darkness of ignorance.”
Thank you from the bottom of my heart and I hope that these few points that I have mentioned will be useful to you and will bring you at least as much joy as they have brought me.