She who is the Holy of Holies

by Father Yves

God is everywhere. As every second of time unfolds, God creates everything, gives existence to everything. Yet everything does not manifest the presence of God, the whole creation manifests an alienation from God. So God comes into that exile from himself. In Judaism, God’s presence in our world is called the Shechinah, the presence of God at the heart of a world alienated from God by sin and death. God descends into our desolation. As Christ takes on his own shoulders his whole alienated creation, he longs to be reunited with his Father together with that whole creation. As Christians, we see this in the two Comings of Christ celebrated by the season of Advent. God shares our condition at Bethlehem. In Gethsemane he experiences the devastation of the absence of God brought about by human sin. On the Cross, he undergoes the consequences of the sin of fallen angels and of the human race to the point that he says, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? He experiences torture, death, burial, in a context of rejection by society, by every form of power. The political and religious powerful ones are allied to bring about his death. God enters the absence of God to free us from all forms of death, physical and spiritual.

At the beginning of Advent, in this Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Holy of Holies, we enter into this Mystery of our salvation, we become more conscious of the contents of our faith.

The Jerusalem Temple was the Holy Place for the Holy People, and it was built so as to contain the Holy of Holies, the place inaccessible, and hidden by a curtain of many colours with embroidered cherubim. The curtain was understood to represent our flesh and our physical world both of which prevent us from entering into that place where the angels celebrate the heavenly liturgy around the throne of God.

The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant over which resided the Glory of the Lord. It was in the whole world the one channel through which God broke into a created world that had made itself incapable of seeing the heavenly throne and the glory of the Lord. There is a very close connection between the Jerusalem Temple and its Holy of Holies and the Incarnate God, the Redeemer of the world. Jesus throughout his life came to the Temple as the House of his Father. After his Resurrection, the earliest Church met daily in the Temple. To this day, synagogues and churches make the Holy of Holies present with the curtain of the Temple: in synagogues in front of the Ark, in churches in front of the altar space. The Holy of Holies with its curtain are an essential, and not a secondary aspect of worship.

Every year during the Christmas Fast, we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of God from the Mother of God. The Virgin Mother of God is present in the Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ. There is the text in Isaiah 7: 14, Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Look, the Virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. We are familiar with the whole text announcing the Incarnation of the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, as we sing it at Great compline. There are a number of passages in the Prophets about a mysterious Woman, the Virgin Daughter of Zion, the Daughter of Jerusalem. Like her Son, the Suffering Servant of the Servant Songs in Isaiah, she stands for the whole People of Israel, but she is at the same time a real individual person.

We read in Zechariah 2: 10, Sing and rejoice, O Daughter of Zion, for lo, I will come in your midst (lit. in your womb), says the Lord. And in Zephaniah 3: 14-15, Sing aloud, O Daughter of Zion, shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst (lit. your womb); you shall fear disaster no more.

The Temple, and more specifically the Holy of Holies containing the Ark of the Covenant, is the place where the Glory of the Lord resides in the midst of God’s people. At the same time, the place of God’s presence is the womb of a woman, and more specifically of the mysterious virgin of the Prophecy of Isaiah. The emergence in the second century of an apocryphal Gospel bringing together the Holy of Holies and the Mother of God from the beginning of her life is not the gratuitous fantasy of an over-pious mind, but what one may be justified in calling the conclusion at which the Church arrived, out of her deep biblical culture. The Feast we celebrate today originates in the apocryphal Protevangelion of James.

In the Old Testament, the Psalter gives us the clear prophecies about the Messiah as Incarnate God and Suffering Servant. Those psalms were written to be used at the enthronement of Davidic Kings, and subsequently used in Temple worship generally. In Psalm 2: 7, we see that the king is seen as the Son of God, I will tell the decree of the Lord: He said to me, You are my Son, today I have begotten you. In Psalm 45: 6-7 (NRSV translation), we see that the King is treated as divine, Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever. Your royal sceptre is a sceptre of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. In the same psalm, we find the verses used by the Church to speak of the Mother of God at the Proskomidia, at thy right hand stood the Queen, clothed in golden robes adorned with many colours (Psalm 45: 13). We can see from the texts just quoted how our liturgical life and the form of our places of worship came about. We see that they are not in any sense a departure from the Biblical perspective, but on the contrary they assert the continuity between the two Testaments of the Bible.

The Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Holy of Holies is allegorical rather than historical, and yet it describes important aspects of our faith: the close association of the Mother of God with the Holy of Holies. In his Introduction to the Festal Menaion, Metropolitan Kallistos wrote, what matters is not the historical exactness of the story but its inner meaning. This account of Mary’s Entry into the temple and her dwelling there signifies her total dedication to God, in readiness for her future vocation as Mother of the Incarnate Lord. Because historically she carried in her womb the Second Person of the Trinity, the Church rightly identifies her in a number of hymns as the Ark of the Covenant, God’s residence on earth. At the same time, it is important to distinguish this feast from the Virgin Birth, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, which must be held to be historical. Otherwise there would be no Christian faith left.

The historical birth of the incarnate God from the Virgin Mary is the foundation stone of Christianity. A Saviour without a Mother would not be a human being. In our piety, there can be no separation between the Son and his Mother. There is no question of a veneration of Mary at the expense of our worship of Jesus. And there can be no question that devotion to her could obscure the Gospel of her Son. At Cana, she said, Do whatever he tells you. (John 2: 5). When Saint Seraphim founded the convent at Diveevo, and chose the Mother of God as its Abbess, he insisted that in admitting women to the community or in settling details about the buildings, he was following not his own ideas, but the wishes of the Mother of God. This was the same Saint Seraphim who read daily one whole Gospel and spent his life praying, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. God the Trinity, Mary higher than the Angelic Powers, John the Baptist their equal, the Angels, the Saints, the human race, the planet on which we live with everything on it, and the whole creation all have their important place as we make our pilgrimage from this world to the Kingdom of God. Amen.