If you are a lover of Holy Scripture, specifically of the Old Testament stories surrounding the Ark of the Covenant and the Jewish Temple, you celebrate a Feast Day today that changes your entire perception of what the ark is, where the true temple is, and (most importantly for us) what true holiness looks like.
For those that need a small morning refresher on what happened on this feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos, we remember how Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna were childless throughout all of their lives, but made a promise to God that if they were granted a child, they would dedicate them in complete service to God. A short time later, Mary was born. After living out her first few years being guided by her parents, the day had finally come for Joachim and Anna to fulfill their vow to God. They brought the three year old girl to the temple, where she was to live out the remainder of her childhood in service to the Lord.
She was greeted by the High Priest Zacharias, who led her into the nave of the temple, but it was there that something unthinkable happened. Instead of going where she was supposed to go, Mary was led by the Holy Spirit to begin climbing the steps that led to a sacred place that absolutely no one, not even the priest except for one day a year, was permitted to enter: The Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept before it was lost.
No one dared go back there! We see stories in the Old Testament of what happened to people who tried to defy God’s law in regards to holy things and holy places! One of my favorite stories is one that we read in 3rd Maccabees, just a few hundred years before Christ. King Ptolemy, after he had made peace with the Jews, wanted to visit the temple of their God. When he walked into the sacred space, like most people when they walk into an Orthodox Church for the first time, he was astonished by its beauty.
In King Ptolemy’s arrogance, he wanted to go see the Holy of Holiness, but the Jewish Priests begged him not to, telling him that not even their own people were permitted to go in there! King Ptolemy ignored the cries of the priests and continued to walk towards the Holy Place, before he went into severe seizures, being shaken so much he couldn’t even cry out. His servants had to come drag him out of the temple, which set up the rest of what happened in that book. (Spoiler alert: It involves God delivering His people from drunken elephants in the arena!)
We saw and learned for centuries in the Old Testament of what happened to unworthy people who tried to approach the presence of God, and here Zacharias is watching as the Holy Spirit is leading this little girl into the Holy of Holies, taking the place of the Ark of the Covenant as the New Ark…that would soon bear the Word of God within herself.
What made Mary unique? What made her stand out from all of the men in history who had disregarded the Power of God in their lives? Holiness. She was unblemished by sin and lived a life of complete holiness.
Mary living a holy life didn’t happen by accident. All of this was made possible by the two wonderful models that she had in her parents Joachim and Anna, who taught their daughter by their own example of what it meant to live a life of holiness. This is perhaps the most important lesson that we can pass on to our children, and even if you do not have children, we are reminded today (especially in this Church) that it takes a village to raise this new generation. It isn’t done by books, lectures, or finger pointing, it is done by example. We show our children how to become holy by putting GOD FIRST in all things.
Our children learn from us by watching what we do, not what we say. If we devour our food before offering thanks to God, the fact that the food came from Him is lost, and we teach our children that thanksgiving is meaningless.
If we put other things in life before Church, either staying in bed on Sunday Morning, or attending a concert or a sporting event (anything where we put the Church second) we teach our children that our faith isn’t important.
We teach and pass on holiness not by the words that come out of our mouth, but by the way that we live our life. We might ask, why is this important? Because in a few moments, all of us, our children included, will be approaching the Holy Altar in what is our own personal “entrance into the temple” feast day. All of us will be approaching God Himself in the chalice…in a very real sense, approach the Holy of Holies.
Do we exude holiness like the Theotokos today? When we are making those steps towards the altar, can we truly say that we draw near without stain or blemish? Or do we echo the words of St. John Chrysostom by saying: “O Lord my God, I know…oh how I know…that I am not worthy or sufficient that you should ender under my roof, into the habitation of my soul…for it is deserted and in ruins, and you have no fitting place in me to lay your head.”
Holiness…Purity…and an “awe” of God. This feast shows us all why these things are important and offers us the pathway which we are called to follow so that our Lord to descend down from heaven above, and to find a place to lay His head in our hearts, while lifting us all up into His presence…Amen