Living in God's Temple
Today is a feast of encounter: the encounter of littleness with Immensity, the encounter of emptiness with Fullness, the encounter of virginity with the Source of all Fecundity, the encounter of silence with the Word, the encounter of the child with Eternity, the encounter of desire with the Promise. This is the mystery of Mary's Presentation in the Temple. We hear the echo of little feet on the Temple's sacred pavement, moving with swift pace and light step, stirring up no dust but hastening to the encounter securely and joyfully. 'Draw me after you, we will run in the fragrance of your perfumes' (Ct 1:3). 0 Virgin of the Presentation, draw us after you into the feast of encounter. Teach us love's swift pace and poverty's light step!
A little girl dances in the sight of the Most High; nothing and no one can distract her from the dance because "she has believed that all those things that were said to her by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Benedictus Antiphon). "Sing, rejoice, daughter of Sion; for Lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord" (Zech 2:10). Wide-eyed, the child Virgin Mary "walks through Zion, walks all round it, counts the number of its towers, reviews all its ramparts, examine its castles" (Ps 47:13-14). Mary beholds the Temple and the Temple to Mary speaks glorious things (Ps 86:3).
The Temple is the sign, the promise and the place of the great encounter between God and man. The glorious Temple constructed in a holy silence under Solomon (1 K 6:7) is the sign of Israel's readiness for the encounter. Mary hastens to the Temple while yet a child because the Temple conceals and holds the mystery of her own destiny. Mary visibly enters the Temple, the Temple invisibly enters into Mary; that is to say that the whole mystery of the Temple as the sacrament of Israel's readiness for the Lord is assumed by the child Virgin Mary. The Temple conceals the vocation of the child Virgin Mary-, the child Virgin Mary reveals the vocation of the Temple: the preparation of a virgin bride-Israel-for the Messiah-Bridegroom whose coming was announced by the prophets and desired by all the just. 'My heart is ready, 0 God, my heart is ready" (Ps 56:8).
The Temple is also the promise of the great encounter between God and man, the visible pledge that the Lord "will again choose Jerusalem" (Zech 2:12). Those who frequent the Temple grow strong in hope; they "hold firm and take heart' (Ps 26:14). The vastness of the Temple disappears into the littleness of the child Virgin Mary. Her heart becomes the place wherein the 'mercy promised to our fathers' (Lk 1:72) is held as in a shrine. For the new Israel, Mary becomes the visible sign of the irrevocable choice of God, the living pledge of a God who is for us (Rom8:31). Those who frequent Mary grow strong in hope; they 'hold firm and take heart' (Ps 26:14). In Mary we are kept safe in the day of evil. To cling to her is to cling to the promise of a God who comes in search of man; to live in her is to be hidden by the Lord in the shelter of his tent and to be set safe on a rock (Ps 26:5). The children of Israel could not lift their eyes to the Temple without being greatly comforted and strengthened in hope. We, children of the Church, cannot lift our eyes to Mary without reading in her "eyes of mercy" (Salve Regina) 'the mercy promised to our fathers, to Abraham and his sons forever" (Lk 1:55). Those who lose sight of Mary, easily lose sight of the promise of mercy made by the Father, ratified in the Blood of Christ, and poured out in the Holy Spirit. Mary is the ever-present promise of the encounter between human misery and Divine Mercy.
The Temple was also the place of the great encounter between God and man. The Temple was the place chosen by the Eternal God for his self-manifestation in time, the place willed by the Creator for the revelation of his presence in a world, the place set aside-consecrated- by the All-Holy God for the descent of his glory. The encounter with the living God, the King, the Lord of Hosts is, if we can believe the prophet Isaiah (Is 6:1-9) a fearful and awesome thing. It is also, if we can believe the prophet Elijah, a fragile thing, something "still and small' (I K 19:12). The encounter with the living God is also a mysterious thing, dark and hidden like the wonder of new life fashioned in secret and knit together in a mother's womb (Ps 138:13-15). For Israel, the Temple was the enclosure of the awful, the mysterious and the fragile, a kind of womb surrounding and protecting the mystery of the encounter: God's descent to man and man's ascent to God.
We touch here upon the deepest meaning of enclosure: womb-like it is filled with the stirrings of a new life, something at once awesome, fragile and mysterious. Mary's presentation in the Temple has, in the past, been compared to a rite of "entrance into enclosure." It is rather, I think, Mary becoming enclosure, an enclosure of virginal space for the Incarnation of the Word and a revelation to all generations of the potential of the human heart. This did not escape the feminine perceptions of Holy Mother Clare: "May you cling to Ms most sweet Mother who gave birth to a Son whom the heavens could not contain, and yet she carried Him in the little enclosure of her holy womb" (Third Letter to Agnes of Prague). Saint Clare exhorts Agnes of Prague to imitate the pregnant Virgin Mother by becoming, like Mary, 'enclosure" of the mystery, by following in her footprints of poverty and humility. These are the virtues by which we are freed to be sign and promise and place of a ceaseless feast of encounter; this is the obedience to the Father by which a soul becomes not only sister and brother, but even mother of Christ (Mt 12:50).
What we see first in the Temple of Jerusalem and recognize even more clearly in the Virgin Mother, we discover day after day in the Eucharist of the Church and in the Church of the Eucharist: a feast of encounter and a mystery of presentation. At the heart of the world is the Church-sign, promise and place of God's encounter with man-and at the heart of the Church is the altar, sign, promise and place of God's descent to man and of man's ascent to God. It is somehow fitting that the altar should be made ready by a woman, fitting that a woman should prepare the fair linens, light the candles and bring forward the bread and the wine. In her pre-Eucharistic tasks -the preparation and enclosure of a virginal space and of spiritual offspring for the celebration of the sacred mysteries, the woman (and especially the virgin consecrated to Christ), experiences the mystery of presentation by which she signifies, promises and opens herself to the feast of encounter. In that experience she discovers her own truest identity, her Eucharistic identity as sign, promise and place of the mystery that inhabits her because she, like the child Virgin Mary, "believes that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord' (Lk 1:45).
The child Virgin Mary did not remain in the Temple because in her obedience to the Father, the vocation of the Temple was subsumed. Nor can we remain in the Temple, close to the altar. By our reception of the sacred Body and precious Blood of Christ, the signs of the sacred liturgy are subsumed into our lives. Like the child Virgin Mary we will leave the Temple to advance into the Nazareth, Bethlehem, Egypt, Cana and Calvary of daily life, offering to each other as brothers and sisters and mothers of Christ (Mt 12:50) a sign and a promise and a place for the encounter with God.
© Dom Marc-Daniel Kirby, O.Cist.