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.