November 21 commemorates the first time the young girl destined to be the Mother of God entered into the Temple at Jerusalem. Though now long gone, the Temple must have presented an awe-inspiring sight to the young child, with its white stone glistening in the Judean sun, its vested priests, its blowing trumpets, its smell of incense, the crowds of fervent praying worshippers, and the smoke arising from its altar of sacrifice. There is no historical record of her thoughts and feelings at that first visit, but if she did ask the question, “What is all this about?”, the Christian answer (later learned after the Annunciation coming about a decade later) would have been, “Actually, it’s all about you.”
The Temple was a house for God so that He might dwell among His people and that they might enjoy access to His saving presence. It was also a pledge and a prophecy, a silent promise in stone of the time when God would come and dwell among them in the flesh. As the great and glorious Temple contained the covenantal presence of the heavenly God, so the flesh of the young and humble adolescent virgin of Nazareth would also contain that presence. She would become the living temple for the incarnate deity, and He whom the heaven of heavens could not contain (1 Kings 8:27) would dwell in the tiny space of her young womb. Though she would continue to live in the humble obscurity of her hometown, her womb would become more spacious than the heavens.
The simple narrative of her entry as a toddler into the Temple has been adorned by Christian writers. In works such as the Proto-evangelium of James (i.e. a story containing a kind of prequel to the Gospel) Mary is portrayed as someone who was well-known to all Israel. At the age of three she is escorted into the Temple courts by “the daughters of the Hebrews” each one carrying a lighted lamp so that the child will feel happy entering the Temple as her new home. “And Mary was in the Temple of the Lord as a dove that is nurtured, and she received food from from the hand of an angel”. In this story, Zachariah the high-priest leads her into the Holy of Holies, and she remains in the Temple until she turns twelve years old, when she goes to live with Joseph, who was chosen by lot to guard her as her husband.
Reading the entirety of the Proto-evangelium makes the discerning reader aware of the poetic and legendary nature of much of the writing. In this wonderful story one encounters devotion and love, not sober history, as is apparent from the fact that Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, was not in fact the high-priest, but simply a priest. (In the Lukan narrative, he is among those who draw lots to burn incense in the Temple—something the high-priest never did.) But no matter: truth comes in many forms, poetry as well as history. And by telling us that Mary dwelt in the Holy of Holies, the story tells us something fundamental and abidingly true about her.
The Holy of Holies was the inner heart of the Temple, the place where the Ark of the Covenant once rested (it was lost and destroyed when the Babylonians sacked the Temple centuries earlier; the Temple later built after the return from exile and still later enlarged by Herod remained empty of the Ark.) As the inner shrine, it was the place where God’s earthly presence resided, the epicenter of divine holiness in the world. No one was pure and holy enough to enter there—even the high-priest himself could only enter there once a year on the Day of Atonement, and even then he must bring with him the blood of sacrifice (Hebrews 9:7). But according to the tale, Mary could enter there—the lesson being that Mary, as the one destined to become the Mother of God, was holier than all the other children of men. God Himself would dwell within her flesh even as He dwelt in the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies, like the rest of the Temple, was all about her.
Why should all of this matter to us today? Just this: her holiness could not only protect her in the Holy of Holies, it now protects us too. Holiness is what adds power to prayer, and effectiveness to intercession. God does not listen to sinners, to those who defy and reject Him, but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does His will, God listens to him (John 9:31). Mary is pre-eminently the best worshipper of God and the one who truly did His will. Accordingly, God listens to her. All Christians live within a network of mutual intercession: you pray for me and I pray for you and we all pray for each other. This network includes the saints, so that we also ask for the prayers of Saints Peter and Paul and Nicholas and Athanasius and Herman of Alaska. And standing at the head of this mighty heavenly army of intercessors is the holy Theotokos, she who is more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim. Her holiness is our shield and buckler, and we can take refuge in her matchless intercession. She no longer stands within the courts of an earthly Temple, however splendid. She now stands within the courts of the heavenly Temple, next to the very throne of God, sharing that splendour as our heavenly Sovereign and Queen. The Feast of the Entrance into the Temple is something more than a mere historical recollection. It is a call to prayer, and to our confident reliance upon her love and intercession for us and for all the world.