This week's sermon in advance...

This Sunday marks the leave taking of the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, one of the five major days of celebration related to the Virgin Mary. The others are the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8th, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd, the Annunciation of the Birth of Christ on March 25th, and the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15th.

The feast, celebrated on November 21st, commemorates an episode in the life of the Theotokos recorded not in the Scriptures but in the Protoevangelion of James. In this story the young Mary is taken to the temple and presented to God. The tradition then records her living in the temple until such time as she was engaged to Joseph who was chosen by lot to be her husband and protector of her virginity.

The story records, as well, a procession of young girls, led by the Theotokos, into the temple where they are received by the priest Zacharias, the one day father of John the Forerunner, and her being taken to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the temple. While there God touches with her with supernatural grace.

The tale is touched with sadness as well. For even as they know they doing that which is right and holy the Virgin Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, follow behind the procession with tears in their eyes at their separation from their only child.

Like many of the pious stories of our Orthodox faith the central issue is not in the details so much as it is in the meaning. The details of this event are unique, there is no way to verify them outside of the sources themselves, and there is no need because it is the “why” that matters more than the “how”. These stories were treasured because they reflected a desire of the faithful to know more about this amazing and holy Mary , the mother of our Lord. They reflect the veneration the early Church had for her and it tells us the veneration of saints and luminaries of the Church was not some addition to the Apostolic faith but rather an expression of it.

But the veneration of the Mother of God is more than simple honor for its own sake. As is always the case the most sincere form of veneration is imitation. Our prayer states “Calling to remembrance our all holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious lady Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God”.

The story of the Presentation of the Theotokos records the child Mary coming to the temple in joy, and in a like manner we should come to this our own small temple not begrudgingly but with the desire to be in the presence of the holy. As Mary was dedicated to God throughout her life, so we should also live as people dedicated to God. Joachim and Anna knew that the greatest gift they could give their child was the gift of being in God’s presence and our children should have this gift as well.

Suffice it to say every detail of the story of the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, and indeed of all the feasts of the Church, could be unpacked with implications for own lives of faith and our call to commend ourselves and each other and our whole life unto Christ. Each one is far beyond a ritual thing rooted in centuries of habit. Each is a call to learn and grow and become what God wants us to be individually and as a parish and we do well to pay heed to them every day of our lives. When we do we begin to understand what it means to be Orthodox.

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