The preparation for Christmas begins with the nativity fast on November 15. Then, six days after that, there is a great feast that really brings us into the season. On November 21 we celebrate the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. On that day we begin singing the katavasiae of Christmas during Orthros. The first one says:
Christ is born; glorify Him! * Christ is come from heaven; go and meet Him. * Christ is on earth; arise to Him. * Sing to the Lord, all you who dwell on the earth; * and in merry spirits, O you peoples, praise His birth. * For He is glorified.
This beautiful hymn begins to enchant our hearts to get them ready for the coming of the Christ child. But there is more in the feast of the Entry that leads us into the Christmas season. It celebrates Ss. Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos, taking the three-year-old Mary to the temple for her to live there for the next roughly ten years of her life. By the time Mary was born, both Joachim and Anna had been praying for many years that God grant them a child. We hear this in the Orthros for the feast, as well:
Mary who bore a divine Son * was born herself to the holy * and righteous Joachim and Anne * as the fruit of a promise. * Now as an infant in the flesh * they offer her as incense acceptable * for to dwell in the holies * of the holy Temple as a holy Maid
When the child was born, they were full of joy and thankfulness the gift they had received. And they transformed that joy and thankfulness into an offering that has prophetic echoes.
So many times in the Old Testament events prefigure things to happen in the New: the story of Jonah, the Passover, and Moses stretching his arms out in the form of a cross to lead Israel to victory in battle are just a few examples. In a similar manner, the action of Ss. Joachim and Anna prefigures what is yet to happen. Out of love, they freely offer their only child, born in a miraculous manner (for the tradition of the Church tells us they had been married for fifty years when she was born), to God. Soon we will be celebrating the freely given offering - out of love for humanity - by God of His only Son, who was born in a mannet past understanding. So, while we sing of Mary's birth as being the fruit of a promise, we sing of the birth of Christ saying
He whom nothing can contain has been contained in a womb. * He is in the Father's bosom and His Mother's embrace. * How can this be, but as He knows and willed and was well pleased. * Fleshless as He was, He willingly took flesh. * And He Who Is became what He was not, for us. * And while departing not from His own nature, * He shared in our nature's substance. * So Christ was born with dual natures, * wishing to replenish the world on high.
The final parallel that I want to look at is the idea of the entry itself. Mary enters the temple and in doing so, she begins the preparation to become the temple;
Having been nourished, O Virgin, in faith on heavenly bread * within the Master's Temple, * for the world you have brought forth * the bread of life, the Logos. And as His own * chosen temple immaculate, * in the Spirit you were mystically betrothed * to God the Father and became His Bride.[
The two events illustrate the circle of spiritual life: we receive a blessing from God and, in order for it to bear fruit, we offer it back to him, with no strings attached. God, in turn, offers it back to us, transformed by His grace. This happened with the Theotokos, who, after being offered back to God at the temple, was prepared to become the most pure temple of God. It happens when the bread and wine are offered to become the holy Body and Blood of Christ. And it can happen in our lives with those things which we offer to God, up to and including "ourselves and one another and our whole lives."
It is easy to miss a lot of what I wrote above, because so much of the theology of our church is found in the hymns from Vespers and Orthros. I hope that, this Nativity fast, we can find (or, perhaps, make) the time to come and listen to these hymns, especially on the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple and the two Sunday preceding Christmas.
With love in Christ,