The following brief reflection was written in October 2013 for a course on iconography at Regis College in Toronto. In sharing it with our readers we greet you in the blessed joy of the feast.
Today is the prelude of the good will of God,
of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the temple of God,
in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
In this brief study I intend to show two things: first, how the symbolic language of a festal icon cannot be “read” apart from the liturgical and scriptural texts of the feast; and second, how ingeniously the Church’s iconography and hymnography have wrought, from the naïvely legendary material of the Protoevangelion of James, a celebration of astonishing christological and soteriological depth.
According to the Protoevangelion, the elderly Joachim and Anna pray to the Lord to remove from them the reproach of childlessness. At the visit of an angel announcing that their prayer has been heard, Anna makes a solemn vow:
As the Lord my God lives, if I bear a child, whether male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it shall serve Him all the days of its life.
They name the daughter born to them Mary, and take her to the temple in accordance with their promise when she reaches her third birthday. There the priest places her on the steps leading to the Holy of Holies. She remains in the temple until the age of twelve, “nurtured like a dove and receiv[ing] food from the hand of an angel” (Protoevangelion). The liturgical poetry of the All-Night Vigil in particular fleshes out the details of the story in a theological meditation on the meaning of these events and on the role of the Theotokos in Christ’s work of redemption.
Our icon portrays Joachim and Anna presenting the Theotokos to the high priest, identified in the liturgical texts as Zechariah. I do not say “future” Theotokos because every icon of the feast depicts her as a miniature adult, with the insignia of her ever-virginity already upon her shoulders and forehead, the blue garment of her humanity already partly hidden beneath the red cloak of divinity in which she participates by grace. Her election from before the ages as the Virgin Mother of God manifests itself in this signal event of her childhood. The work of her theosis and ours is already inaugurated.
The child and her parents arrive at the temple accompanied by “the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews…each one tak[ing] a lamp” (Protoevangelion), as foretold by the Psalmist:
Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house; and the King will desire your beauty…. [I]n many-coloured robes she is led to the King, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the King. (Ps 45:10-11, 14-15)
Hebrews 9:1-7, read during the Divine Liturgy of the feast, speaks of the Holy of Holies, “where only the high priest goes, and he but once a year.” Yet our icon shows the gates that bar entry to the Holy of Holies waiting wide open at the arrival of the Theotokos, allowing the child to mount the steps that lead to the dwelling place of God and there take her seat; for in the incarnation of the Son of God which is to come—by means of which every barrier, gate, curtain, veil, or wall separating man from God is abolished—her very body is foreordained to become the Holy of Holies, the Ark, the Temple, the Throne, the dwelling place of the uncontainable God:
Today, let us dance…honouring His sanctified Temple, the living Ark that contained the Word that cannot be contained, for…Zechariah, the great high priest, joyfully receives her as the dwelling place of God.
Led by the Holy Spirit, the holy Maiden without blemish is brought to dwell in the Holy of Holies, where she is fed by an angel. She is truly the most holy Temple of our holy God, who has made all things holy by dwelling in her, and has made Godlike the fallen nature of mortals. (Vespers of the Feast)
God has sanctified all things, deified all of fallen humanity, by dwelling in the Theotokos and taking flesh from her, not only becoming man but entering into—indeed becoming part of—the very fabric of the material creation. In this resides the joy of the icon, the joy of the feast: the Virgin’s story is not hers alone, but ours also; the gates separating man from God are thrown wide open not for her alone, but for all of us; she ascends the stairway to the Holy of Holies not alone, but with all of us in her train, each and every time we mount the ambo to partake of the Holy Mysteries of our Saviour’s Body and Blood; she is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit not alone, and receives the God-man into her body not alone, but with each of us following in her footsteps in the mystical-sacramental life of the Church.
She who is “more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim” opens the door, through her later Fiat to the Archangel Gabriel, for each of us to share in her stature surpassing that of the angels.
See also The Ever-Virginity of the Theotokos, Lamentation, Exultation, and Unsleeping Sleep.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and former priest.