According to the venerable tradition of the Byzantine Rite Church, which was confirmed by St. John Damascene (+ 749), the Blessed Virgin Mary as a child was brought by her parents, SS. Joachim and Anne, to the temple as an offering to God, and she “grew up in the house of God, nourished by the Holy Spirit … Thus she sought holiness and was shown to be a holy and wondrous temple worthy of the Most High.” (cf. The Orthodox Faith, IV, 14) This mystery from the early life of the Blessed Mother in our Byzantine Rite is commemorated on November 21, with the feast of the Entrance of the Most Holy Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary Into the Temple. In Church-Slavonic the feast is called, in a shortened form, – Vovedenije.
1. The story of the entrance of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the first time is presented to us with some legendary details by the so called – Pro-evan ge/ ium of St. James, compiled by an unknown author in the middle of the second century, hiding under the name of the Apostle St. James the Less, the first bishop of Jerusalem. The story is based on the popular belief that the pious parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, SS. Joachim and Anne, were childless and then Anne’s sterility was remedied by a special intervention of God, just as in the case of Sarah, who conceived Isaac in her old age (Gen. 17:16).
God, in His blessings in the Old Testament, always included a promise of numerous offspring . Therefore children were considered as a proof of divine blessing (Ps. 127:3), while childlessness was regarded as a sign of God’s rejection, exposing married couples to public disgrace. Such was the case of SS. Joachim and Anne, since they were not blessed with any children. According to the story, Joachim was even publicly reproached for being rejected by God.
After forty days of prayer and fasting , we are told, an Angel of the Lord appeared to Anne and said : “The Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive and bear a child, and your seed will be spoken of in the entire world.” In her great joy Anne promised: “As the Lord my God lives if I will beget a child, I will offer it as a gift to the Lord and it shall serve Him in the holy place for all the days of its life.” Then, on the following day both, Joachim and Anne, hurried to the temple and offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving, saying : ” Now we know that the Lord our God has been gracious to us and has forgiven us all our sins.”
2. Tracing the early patristic tradition, handed down by such great Fathers of the Church as St. Gregory of Nyssa (+ 394), St. Epiphanius of Salamis (+ 403), St. Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444), and others, we learn that the righteous parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, SS. Joachim and Anne, did make a solemn promise that if they would be blessed with a ch ild, they would offer the child to the service of God in the temple. The Lord heard their humble and persistent prayer, and blessed them with a little girl, named Mary.
When the child was three years old her parents, in fulfillment of their promise, brought Mary in a procession of maidens into the temple, offering her to the service of God. They placed her under the tender care of priest Zechariah, the father of St. John the Bapti st, who was their relative, as described by one of Vespers stichera, saying:
” Receive, 0 Zechariah , the one whom the prophets of God have foretold in the Spirit, and escort her into the holy temple, that she may be brought up in holiness and become the divine throne of the Almighty.”
We are told that Zechariah joyfully received little Mary under his protection, saying: “Hear, 0 daughter, and see, turn your ear to me; forget your people and your father’s house, for the King has desired your beauty. He is your Lord, and you must worship Him!” (Psalm 45: 11-12)
Thus the prophecy of David, foretelling Mary’s entrance into the temple and her consecration of God, was fulfilled (Ps. 45:15-16). From that time on the Blessed Virgin remained in the temple serving God until the time she was betrothed to St. Joseph.
The entrance of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the temple is vividly described by the Patriarch of Constantinople, St. Tarasius ( + 806), in his famous homily on the same feast (cf. Migne, Greek Patrology, vol. 98, col. 1487 ft.).
3. The feast of the Entrance is one of the twelve Major Feastdays in our Byzantine Rite. Its origin can be traced to the end of the seventh century. The festivity originated in Jerusalem, from where at the beginning of the eighth century it eventually reached Constantinople, as the homilies of Patriarch St. Germanus of Constantinople ( + 730) seem to indicate. From the same period of time we also have homilies of St. Andrew of Crete (+ 740) that attest to this. The homily of St. Tarasius, mentioned before, was delivered at the end of the eighth century and it proves with all certainty that the feast was already solemnly celebrated by the Church of Constantinople. The Gospel of Sinai, donated to St. Catherine Monastery by Emperor Theodosius III (+ 717), clearly indicates that the feast of the Entrance was already included among the twelve Major Feastdays of the Byzantine Church.
The liturgical compositions and hymns for the feast can be found already in the ninth century Greek Menaion. It would indicate that during the ninth century the feast became generally observed by the Christian East. The majority of the names of the authors of these hymns are unknown to us, but some of them bear the name of their composer, mostly from the ninth century. The oldest of them seems to be – Sergius Hagiopofites, a melodist of Jerusalem (+ about 830), to whom the two concluding sticheras of Great Vespers are ascribed.
The greatest part of the liturgical hymns for the feast were composed toward 870 A.D. by St. George of Nicomedia, who was the main promoter of the feast. He also left behind three inspiring homilies for the feast, published by Migne (ct. G. p., vol. 100, col. 1401 ft.).
Another known composer of the ninth century is Joseph Hymnographer ( + 886). The famous musician of the imperial court, Leo the Master (end of the 9th century), composed the concluding hymns for the Vespers and Matins of the feast. Although a layman, he delivered a festive homily in the presence of Emperor Leo the Wise (+912).
4. The liturgical compositions and hymns of the feast are very rich in poetical expressions, allegory and allusions. They vividly present to us the great sacrifice of SS. Joachim and Anne, as well as the solemn entrance of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the temple, being escorted by the “maidens, carrying burning lamps.” These hymns have a profound theological meaning, and are concerned not only with the mystery of the feast, but also they beautifully extol Mary’s holiness, virginity and divine maternity, alluding to the coming of Christ:
“Today, 0 most holy one, you are offered in the temple of the Lord to be prepared as a divine dwelling-place for Him” (Matins, Canon f).
Being celebrated at the time of Advent, the feast is also considered as a preparation for the Nativity of our Lord. For this reason, at the Matins of the feast, we already begin to sing the Canon of Christmas, starting with the words: “Christ is born, glorify Him … ” Then the Canon of the feast is concluded with the ninth heirmos of Christmas, already envisioning the birth of Christ: “I contemplate a strange and most wonderful mystery.
The cave has become heaven, the Virgin – the throne of the Cherubim, The manger – a place, wherein lies Christ, the incomprehensible God.
Let us magnify Him and praise Him forever!” For this reason, on the feast of the Entrance of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the Temple the young people in the Old Country began practicing Christmas carols, in preparation for carolling at Christmas time. As we can see, all the customs of our people have some deep religious significance behind them.
5. What is the spiritual meaning of the feast? Before all it tells us about the readiness and cheerful disposition of Mary’s parents, SS. Joachim and Anne, with which they offered their little daughter to the service of God. In one of the hymns we are told that Anne, after bringing little Mary into the temple, encouraged her with these words : “Go, my child, go to Him who gave you to me, and become an offering to Him, as a sweet smelling sacrifice.” But not only did the pious parents offer their child to God with gladness, but the child also willingly obeyed them, being convinced that such was the will of God.
Unfortunately, today we have fewer and fewer young people offering themselves to the service of God in the holy priesthood or religious life. Neither are there many willing parents among our people who are ready to say to God with St. Anne: “Lord, I offer to Your service my child, since it is Your gift to me!” On the contrary, there are many parents that oppose the divine vocation of their children. No wonder that there is a great shortage of priests and religious in our eparchies.
We must remember that priestly and religious vocations are nurtured and mature in good Christian families. A good Christian home is the cradle of a vocation, that it to say, it is the first spiritual seminary. We are told that the greater part of priestly and religious vocations bud in the innocent hearts of children between the ages of six and fourteen, the time when the child is still under the strong influence of its parents. That is why the parents must be convinced that their child is a precious gift of God to them and that by offering their child to the service of God is the “better part” (Lk. 10:42) they choose for their children.
Let the feast of the Entrance of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the Temple become for us a special day of an earnest prayer for priestly and religious vocations from among our youth. Let us also pray for parents that they, following the inspiring example of 55. Joachim and Anne, would gladly offer their children to the service of God when they are called. Let us most of all pray for our young people that they, following the noble example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, would gratefully follow the voice of their divine calling and willingly offer themselves to the service of God. Let us make this Feast of the Entrance, a solemn and prayerful Day of Vocations.