Better is One Day in Thy Courts Than Thousands Elsewhere

Homily on the Feast
of the Entrance of the Theotokos
in the Temple

Priest John Boddecker
Nov. 21 / Dec. 4, 2021
Holy Trinity Monastery

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spir­it. Amen.

How beloved are Thy dwellings, O Lord of hosts; my soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the liv­ing God. For the spar­row hath found her­self a house, the tur­tle­dove a nest for her­self where she may lay her young, Even thing altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; … Bet­ter is one day in Thy courts, than thou­sands elsewhere.

These words from the famil­iar Psalm recit­ed dai­ly at the ninth hour of prayer give voice to our long­ing to be in the Tem­ple of the Lord, our nos­tal­gia for the place of His dwelling and pres­ence. That we, as men and women, should desire to be in the pres­ence of the Lord should come as no sur­prise. As St. Augus­tine put it, “Thou has made us for Thy­self, O Lord, and our heart is rest­less until it rests in Thee.” What is remark­able, as we con­tem­plate this mys­tery of the Feast we now cel­e­brate, is the real­iza­tion that our innate crea­ture­ly long­ing to dwell in the pres­ence of our Cre­ator is both matched and sur­passed by our Creator’s desire to dwell in the midst of His creatures.

In the begin­ning, God cre­at­ed the heav­ens and the earth, “not,” says St. Max­imus the Con­fes­sor, “because he had need of any­thing, but rather that His crea­tures might each, in pro­por­tion to their indi­vid­ual capac­i­ties, par­tic­i­pate in Him, share in His delight, and that He might rejoice in them, see­ing them over­joyed by their share in His inex­haustible gifts” (Four Cen­turies on Char­i­ty, III.46). So then, God set about putting the heav­ens and the earth in order. He caused the heav­en­ly lights to shine forth in the dark expanse of the heav­ens. He sep­a­rat­ed the waters above and below the heav­ens to form the skies and the seas, called forth dry land from beneath the waters, and then filled the land, seas and skies with all man­ner of fau­na and flo­ra. When he had done all this, God paused to con­sid­er his next work. Let us, said He, make man in our image, after our like­ness; and so, like the pot­ter who bends him­self atten­tive­ly over his work of clay, God con­de­scend­ed to take some of the dust of the earth, form­ing from it an earthy fig­ure from this stuff of the ground, and then, stoop­ing down fur­ther still, He breathed life into His crea­ture, the man, Adam, who there­by became a liv­ing soul. Then, hav­ing cast a sleep upon the man and hav­ing tak­en a rib from his side, He formed a com­pan­ion and help­mate for Him, Eve. So God cre­at­ed man in his own image, in the image of God cre­at­ed he him; male and female cre­at­ed he them.

Next, the Lord plant­ed a gar­den for them, Eden, a rich and boun­ti­ful place of beau­ty, not just phys­i­cal or sen­si­ble beau­ty, but spir­i­tu­al or noet­ic beau­ty. As the high­est point of Cre­ation, a mate­r­i­al icon of the heav­en­ly realms, it was like a tem­ple, a place of con­tact between the mate­r­i­al and spir­i­tu­al realms. God then placed His cre­at­ed image, the man and the woman, in the gar­den of delight and gave them a task. Our Eng­lish Bibles often ren­der the bib­li­cal phrase here with gar­den­ing ter­mi­nol­o­gy, stat­ing that our first par­ents were placed in the gar­den of Eden to till it and to keep it, but the orig­i­nal words in this text have a fuller range of mean­ing. The Hebrew word לְעָבְדָהּ (le‘ābdāh) often trans­lat­ed “work­ing” or “till­ing” could be under­stood to refer either to the strug­gle for virtue or serv­ing in litur­gi­cal rites, while the Hebrew word לְשָׁמְרָהּ (lešāmrāh) often trans­lat­ed “keep­ing” or “pro­tect­ing” can mean keep­ing the com­mand­ments or keep­ing watch over one­self. In fact, this pair of terms is used in a num­ber of places in the Book of Num­bers to describe the roles of the Levites in Taber­na­cle, who were tasked with per­form­ing the “ser­vices” of the Taber­na­cle and “keep­ing” its var­i­ous instru­ments and vest­ments in order (cf. Num­bers 8:26). So then, our first par­ents were placed in the Tem­ple of Par­adise, giv­en a priest­ly voca­tion in rela­tion to the Cre­ation, so that they might com­mune with God and enjoy His pres­ence walk­ing in their midst. But, we know how the sto­ry goes from there. Mankind failed to main­tain obe­di­ence to God and, in so doing, betrayed his priest­ly role, had to depart from par­adise, and lost the close­ness of God’s presence. 

God, though, desired still to make His dwelling among mankind, and so even Adam and Eve’s expul­sion from par­adise was not with­out hope. For God revealed to them, in a mys­tery, His mas­ter plan to draw mankind back to Him­self and pre­pare for His ulti­mate dwelling with mankind, the Incar­na­tion. After appear­ing many times to the Patri­archs Abra­ham, Isaac, and Jacob and after deliv­er­ing the chil­dren of Israel from their Egypt­ian slav­ery through Moses, He spoke of this great desire to that Holy Prophet, when He com­mand­ed Moses, “Let them make me a sanc­tu­ary, that I may dwell among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my peo­ple” (Exo­dus 25:8) And so, He revealed to Moses the pat­tern of the heav­en­ly tem­ple that Moses might con­struct the earth­ly taber­na­cle accord­ing to that arche­type. And so Moses set to work con­struct­ing the Holy dwelling place of the Lord, the Great Tent of Meet­ing or Taber­na­cle, and taught the peo­ple how to be holy as the Lord was Holy so that they might be able to remain in His pres­ence and pre­serve His dwelling in their midst. Once the Chil­dren of Israel were set­tled in the Promised Land and Jerusalem had been estab­lished as their cap­i­tal, King Solomon, the son of David, took it upon him­self to con­struct a more per­ma­nent dwelling for the Lord, the Tem­ple of Zion. In both cas­es, with the Taber­na­cle and the Tem­ple, as we heard in the read­ings from Exo­dus and III Kings at Vig­il last night, once the struc­tures were erect­ed and the con­se­cra­tions com­plet­ed, the cloud of the Glo­ry of the Lord descend­ed upon it, over­shad­ow­ing and fill­ing it, and nei­ther Moses nor the priests could enter imme­di­ate­ly because of the pres­ence of God’s holi­ness, the weight of His glory.

These struc­tures, both the Taber­na­cle and the lat­er Tem­ple, were sep­a­rat­ed into three divi­sions: the out­er court­yard where was found the altar for sac­ri­fice and the great laver or basin of water, the Holy Place where the altar of incense and oth­er tem­ple instru­ments were found, and the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. The aver­age Israelite could only ever enter into the out­er court­yard, and then, only if in a state of puri­ty. The priests would enter the Holy Place to per­form the dai­ly offer­ings of incense, but it was only the High Priest and only once a year, who went into that Holy of Holy to give an offer­ing of blood on the Day of Atone­ment. Here then, in the Tem­ple, God saw fit to dwell among mankind once more, the priests served the dai­ly offer­ings and sang the prais­es of God and instruct­ed the peo­ple on how to live lives in accor­dance with His holy presence. 

But once again we know that this was not how the sto­ry ends. That same ancient con­ta­gion of sin­ful­ness which had been man­i­fest­ed itself in Adam and Eve reared its ugly head once more among the Chil­dren of Israel and they gave them­selves over to a mul­ti­tude of sins. The Holy Prophet Ezekiel, liv­ing a few cen­turies after the time of Solomon, painful­ly beheld, in prophet­ic vision, the depar­ture of the Lord’s glo­ry from His tem­ple in Jerusalem on the eve of the destruc­tion of Jerusalem and the Tem­ple by the Baby­lon­ian king Neb­uchad­nez­zar. The Chil­dren of Israel went off in to exile, expelled from their own par­adise, but, like our first par­ents, they too received a mes­sage of hope from their prophets who, while remind­ing the Israelites that their sins had brought about this exile, also told of how the Lord desired to speak com­fort­ably to His peo­ple, that the day would come when they would return to Him and He would make His dwelling among them once more, and He would be their God and they would be His people.

The Chil­dren of Israel did return to their land and rebuilt their cher­ished Jerusalem and its Tem­ple. But it was clear from the start that things were still not quite what they had been or were meant to be. There is no record of the glo­ry descend­ing upon this “sec­ond” tem­ple as it had in the times of Moses or Solomon. Also, there was no Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, for it had dis­ap­peared before the destruc­tion of Solomon’s tem­ple. The prophet Hag­gai, liv­ing among those who returned to rebuild the tem­ple in Jerusalem said: “Who is there of you that saw this house in her for­mer glo­ry? How do you see it now? Is it not in your eyes noth­ing in com­par­i­son?” Yet, the peo­ple, heed­ing the words of the prophets like the read­ing we heard at Vig­il from Ezekiel, hoped for the Lord’s return to His temple.

Dur­ing these years of long­ing and wait­ing, a con­stant refrain is found across the pages of the Old Tes­ta­ment: “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heav­ens, that thou wouldest come down, that the moun­tains might flow down at thy pres­ence” (Isa­iah 63:19). This desire of man was matched again by the desire of God, “for,” says St. Gre­go­ry Pala­mas in his homi­ly for today’s feast, “it was God’s good plea­sure to assume our nature from us, unit­ing it mys­te­ri­ous­ly with His Per­son. … Only this was impos­si­ble for God: to be joined with some­thing impure before it has been cleansed.” If God’s dwelling was to be restored in the midst of His crea­tures, “a com­plete­ly unde­filed and most pure vir­gin was need­ed to car­ry in her womb and give birth to the Lover and Giv­er of puri­ty” (Homi­ly on the Entry of the Theotokos I).

We fast for­ward, then, a few hun­dred years to the events we cel­e­brate on this glo­ri­ous feast of the Entrance of the Moth­er of God into the Tem­ple.  This sacred event in the life of the Theotokos, while not record­ed in Holy Scrip­ture – for the sim­ple rea­son that the Gospels are devot­ed to the life of Christ and His teach­ings – has been cher­ished and pon­dered on by the Church through­out all Her his­to­ry. As we have sung in the hymns for this feast and have seen depict­ed in the sacred icons, we know that Joachim and Anna, who had promised to ded­i­cate their child to the ser­vice of God before her birth, brought the three-year old Mary to the Holy Tem­ple in Jerusalem to ful­fill their oath. The lit­tle girl, led by the pious maid­ens who went before her, left behind her par­ents and turned her face towards that sacred place, the dwelling of the Lord whom she great­ly loved. As she came to the steps of that holy place, she ascend­ed them in the pres­ence of the High Priest Zacharias and danced at the top, like David who whirled and danced with all his might before the Lord. Then Zacharias, in prophet­ic ecsta­sy did what was unthink­able, unbe­liev­able, unimag­in­able: he led the lit­tle girl into Tem­ple, through the court of priests, through the Holy Place and, mar­vel beyond mar­vels, he drew back the cur­tain and ush­ered her into the Holy of Holies.

The author of the Synaxar­i­on for this feast describes St. Zacharias as saying: 

Enter into the Holy of Holies, for thou art much pur­er than myself. I, O Mis­tress, once a year enter there­in, but thou, sit and abide for­ev­er. For thou art the Tem­ple of God, there­fore, remain in the tem­ple. Thou art the ves­sel of the Holy Spir­it, enter thou into the elect place. Wait there­in until thou art vouch­safed to be the wor­thy ves­sel of the All-Holy Spir­it. Rejoice and dance, for angels desire to min­is­ter unto thee!

Now, as we said before, there was at that time no Ark of the Covenant in the Tem­ple at that time. This is why the Vir­gin was placed in the Holy of Holies, so that she might be pre­pared to be the real­i­ty towards which the Ark of the Covenant had point­ed. In the Old Tes­ta­ment, the Ark is described as a wood­en box plat­ed over with gold – the Most-Holy Vir­gin would be cov­ered over with the grace of God. Moses had placed in the ark the tablets of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Com­mand­ments – the Holy Vir­gin, by her con­stant con­ver­sa­tion in the Tem­ple of God would inter­nal­ize the Law of God and become radi­ant with every virtue. In the ark was kept the Rod of Aaron which bud­ded forth though it was only dried up wood – the holy Vir­gin was the child who had bud­ded forth from the bar­ren womb of Anna and though a vir­gin would bud forth a Son, Christ our God. Also includ­ed in the ark was the jar con­tain­ing man­na, the bread of heav­en which God had sent down on the Chil­dren of Israel in the wilder­ness – and so she was to con­tain with­in her­self the One who would call Him­self the Bread of God which cometh down from Heav­en and giveth life unto the world. The Ark of the Covenant was flanked by the images of the Cheru­bim – she, the Theotokos, is praised as being greater in hon­or than the cheru­bim. Final­ly, it was above the Ark of the Covenant, also referred to as the Mer­cy Seat, that the Glo­ry of the Lord would descend, rest­ing and dwelling in the Taber­na­cle and the Tem­ple – it was to the Theotokos that the Archangel Gabriel would say, at the event of the Annun­ci­a­tion, The Holy Spir­it shall come upon thee and the pow­er of the Most High shall over­shad­ow thee. So, the Most-Holy Theotokos entered the Tem­ple that she might inter­nal­ize the Tem­ple, become a Tem­ple her­self, and ful­fill what the Tem­ple was always meant to be, for it was through her that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Now, while we mar­vel before the great mys­tery which this feast cel­e­brates and acknowl­edge the sin­gu­lar­i­ty of what was accom­plished in the Theotokos – for no oth­er will ever enter into the Holy of Holies as she did nor be the Birth-Giv­er of God as she was – we must real­ize that this feast points out to us our true voca­tion as men and women, bear­ers of the image of God, poten­tial dwellings of His divine glo­ry and pres­ence. We enter reg­u­lar­ly into this Holy Tem­ple and we do so that we might offer our rea­son­able wor­ship and blood­less sac­ri­fice to the Lord, so that we might hear not just the Old Tes­ta­ment Law but the life and com­mand­ments of Christ, so that we might be Holy as the Lord is Holy and He might dwell with­in us. So we must gath­er here, in this holy place, reg­u­lar­ly, every Sun­day or Lord’s Day, on the Feast Days, and when­ev­er we can. When we are present, we must be do as our First Par­ents were sup­posed to do in Par­adise, that is be wor­ship­ful and watch­ful, for the Church and its litur­gi­cal rites will not mag­i­cal­ly trans­form us with­out our atten­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion. As G. K. Chester­ton said: Just going to Church doesn’t make you a Chris­t­ian any more than stand­ing in your garage makes you a car. 

So broth­ers and sis­ters, on this blessed day as we cel­e­brate the Feast of the Entrance of the Moth­er of God into the Tem­ple, let us enter with her, phys­i­cal­ly attend­ing this holy tem­ple, but also enter­ing into the inner tem­ple that God has con­se­crat­ed in our hearts and which He wish­es to make his abode. Let us imi­tate her, strug­gling to be Holy as the Lord as Holy, keep­ing His life-giv­ing com­mand­ments and shin­ing forth with every virtue. Let us offer our­selves as liv­ing sac­ri­fices unto the Lord and let us receive the Heav­en­ly Bread which came down from Heav­en and gives life to all the world. In this way, we will ful­fill, not only our deep long­ing dwell in the pres­ence of the Lord, but the eter­nal wish of God that He might be our God and we might be our peo­ple. Then, we can look for­ward to that day, fore­told by the Holy Evan­ge­list John in the Book of Rev­e­la­tions, when the pro­nounce­ment will be made, “Behold, now the dwelling of God is with men,” and so we will join that innu­mer­able choir, ever prais­ing and glo­ri­fy­ing the uno­rig­i­nat­ed Father, with His only-begot­ten Son, and the all-holy, good and life-cre­at­ing Spir­it, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

About the author

Priest John Bod­deck­er is Instruc­tor of Bib­li­cal Stud­ies at Holy Trin­i­ty Ortho­dox Sem­i­nary in Jor­danville, NY.