by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Our Church’s Tradition teaches us to enter every major feast day through the eyes and the perspective of the Theotokos, Mary. It’s an awesome thing to stand with Mary, also treasuring up and pondering all these things in our hearts (Luke 2:19).
Last Thursday, November 15th, we began the Nativity Fast…our own journey toward that cave in Bethlehem—the Holy Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. This period of 40 days has been prescribed by the Church as a necessary preparation for truly celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior. However, strangely set within that Nativity Fast, this Wednesday, November 21st, we celebrate an event where the 3-year-old toddler named Mary was brought by her parents to live in the temple. As chronologically incongruent as these two events seem, they’re actually closely related. Why? Because, at her entry into the temple, it was there that little Mary began her journey of learning what it will eventually mean for her to become the temple of God, to hold Him within her body for 9 months. Within this context, we enter in, to participate with the Holy Theotokos in learning to become the temple of our Lord, in becoming “with child,” in going into the travail of spiritual labor, and in bearing forth her Son into each other’s hearts and into the world. Mary is the archetype for all human beings, who are are created by God and redeemed by God in Christ and sanctified by God through Christ by the Holy Spirit to become living temples of God Himself.
And this gives us context for each Orthodox Christian’s personal journey within the Nativity Fast. Like Lent and Pascha (as the Nativity Fast is often referred to as the winter Pascha), this is another rite of passage each year, where we identify and confess, to ourselves, to Christ and to each other, the ways in which we need to be brought to the temple to learn what it means to become the living temple of God. It’s a chance for us to wonder on the wondrous mystery of how Christ, Jesus Himself, relates to the Temple in Jerusalem as, both, the Great High Priest and the Lamb who was slain, and that it’s by His blood that we’re taken into the true Temple of God which is above the heavens…into the true Holy of Holies where God Himself dwells. This fast is a place where we can ponder upon how Christians who accept Jesus as God’s Anointed relate to the Jerusalem Temple? How do Christians worship? How does sacrifice take place in our lives? How do we enter into the presence of God’s glory? What about the priesthood—that priesthood of all believers that St Peter talks about (1 Peter 2:9)? How does this priesthood in each of us function now that Christ is here and has been crucified and glorified? How do Christians relate to all of this? By our participation in Mary’s journey—because Mary is the prototype of all Christians? It gives us a rite of passage in our becoming ever more integrated into the mission that the Mother of our God—the Theotokos—fulfilled so beautifully…becoming the temple of God and then bearing Him forth into the world. As we look to her among the saints as, “The First Among Equals,” ultimately, we are called each year to mature into what she models for us…becoming what all human beings are called to become. She shows us what it looks like when we allow Christ to work in us to bring about our own salvation, and through us, the salvation of the world.
When a woman is with child, there’s a season of preparation. Pregnancy is a time when the woman undergoes drastic changes, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Of course, the Theotokos, no less human than anyone else, carried her Child experiencing those same things…but at a more elevated level. Why? Because she was carrying God Himself. She was what the Burning Bush foreshadowed on Mount Sinai some 2000 years earlier in whose presence Moses stood barefoot—containing the fiery presence of God, yet never consumed by it. Reflecting on this, it’s difficult to comprehend that Mary, the Theotokos, a mere teenage girl could hold and carry the very Body of God within her own body. Thus, when we look closely at our Holy Mother the Theotokos in this context, we can’t help but experience a sense of astonishment for her role as—the Temple that holds God within, and the even greater mystery, that God intends the same miracle to happen in each one of us. As she, with great awe, received the message of the Archangel and his invocation of the Holy Spirit upon her, and she humbly accepted her frightening role in giving human flesh to the Son of God—she inspires us and provides us with the example to fervently contemplate what it means to be His Temple—a temple from which He is to be born forth into the world. She allowed God into her life in a real, tangible way, as we are also now encouraged to allow God tangibly into our busy human lives.
So, during this season of the Advent—this preparation for the Nativity (as John the Baptist preached that we must 'prepare the way' for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ through repentance - Mark 1:2-3) —the Church gives us tangible ways to refocus our attention back again onto our spiritual growth. It asks us to make another yearly rite of passage further into the wholeness of having Christ within…bearing Him forth into the world. It asks us, in preparation for the Birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to struggle together in our spiritual journey—to confess our shortcomings and devote ourselves anew to fulfilling His will—to renew our focus on prayer—on mindfulness toward what we can offer to those in need—on fasting from things that entangle & weigh-down our lives—on a renewed emphasis of devotion to the Church’s sacramental and liturgical life—and on efforts to become better educated in the foundations of Orthodox Christian belief. Why is it so important for us to prepare in this way?
In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus even says that those who believe in Him and who receive the gift of the Holy Spirit from Him, He says, “I and my Father will come to that person and we will make that person our temple. We will dwell in that person” (John 14:23). The dwelling place of God will be the human being. The physical Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, because human beings are intended to become His physical temple. Through the prayers of the Theotokos may we also be filled with the very presence of God Himself, that we too may learn to bear Him forth into the world.