Mary and the Temple

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Exo 25:8)

The center of Jewish life at the time of Christ was the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was presented there at forty days of age. His family traveled to the Temple when he was twelve. He taught there during His ministry and drove the money-changers out. There is a tendency in much modern thought to forget about this ever-present reality in ancient Judaism. We focus on the synagogues (since they seem so much more like our parish churches). The synagogue served as a place of teaching, but its prayers found their meaning and shape as they paralleled the offerings of the Temple (morning and evening). The loss of the Temple in 70 AD marks one the greatest crises in Judaism.

We forget the dominance of this reality primarily because it seems irrelevant to both later Jewish and Christian faiths. But this was not at all irrelevant to the early Christians. The ministries of both Peter and Paul were completed before the Temple’s destruction. The Christians in Jerusalem continued to gather on Solomon’s Porch, part of the Temple complex, during their early years. And the concept of temple continues to figure strongly in the writings of St. Paul and others.

The heart of the Temple is the scandalous understanding of God dwelling in the midst of His people. The God who cannot be contained by the heavens, who is utterly transcendent, nevertheless deigns to dwell with His people. And He does this, not in some vague “I’m really just everywhere” notion, but in the frightfully specific notion of space and time. There, in this space, in the Holy of Holies, is God. We do not say that God is only there, but that He is specifically there. This understanding would have been common to every Jew of the time of Christ (though some believed that God had abandoned the Temple).

Enter a document of the early 2nd century, the Protoevangelium of James. Its author is unknown and the work has never been treated as part of the canon of Scripture. And yet, almost everything within it has found its way into the worship life of the Church, including a good number of the major feasts. The book has a single thrust: to show that Mary is the true Temple of God.

St. Luke relates the story of the Christ Child’s presentation in the Temple at 40 days of age. The Protoevangelium of James tells of Mary’s presentation in the Temple at 3 years of age, and the beginning of her service there among the virgins. It includes a story of her entrance into the Holy of Holies (there was no longer an Ark in that place). It is her reaching the point of puberty that excludes her from the Temple and occasions her betrothal to the elderly Joseph, described in some detail. But throughout that gospel, there is the constant and abiding irony of the young maiden in the Temple. The Temple is empty (there is no story of the Shekinah glory of God settling within this Temple built in Ezra’s time and rebuilt by Herod. The irony is that this young maiden will become the New Ark, that specific place where the glory of God will take up its abode in the incarnation of Christ. However great the old Temple might have been, this one is ever so much greater.

It is therefore not incorrect to think of the Marian feasts in the Orthodox year as “Temple Feasts,” occasions that meditate on the important moments in the life and history of the New Temple. It is a direct and powerful connection between Old Covenant and New.

Among the more poignant images in the Protoevangelium surrounds the Temple curtain. Mary is depicted as spinning thread for the making of the curtain:

And there was a council of the priests, saying: Let us make a veil for the temple of the Lord. And the priest said: Call to me the undefiled virgins of the family of David. And the officers went away, and sought, and found seven virgins. And the priest remembered the child Mary, that she was of the family of David, and undefiled before God. And the officers went away and brought her. And they brought them into the temple of the Lord. And the priest said: Choose for me by lot who shall spin the gold, and the white, and the fine linen, and the silk, and the blue, and the scarlet, and the true purple. And the true purple and the scarlet fell to the lot of Mary, and she took them, and went away to her house. And at that time Zacharias was dumb, and Samuel was in his place until the time that Zacharias spoke. And Mary took the scarlet, and spun it.

Mary is engaged in this spinning during her encounter with Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation. Thus, she is outwardly spinning cloth for the Temple curtain, while she is suddenly spinning the “curtain of Christ’s flesh” within her womb (this Temple curtain will be torn in two at the time of Christ’s crucifixion as the curtain of His flesh is torn by death). Icons of Mary at the Annunciation always show her with a distaff in her hand following the account from the Protoevangelium.

Modern readers (particularly the non-Orthodox) easily dismiss this apocryphal gospel as rooted in something other than history. The Church, however arguable its historical position might be, has found its imagery to be theologically correct and to the point.

We have a habit of abstracting things (particularly in our modern era). We constantly read texts about things and immediately want to leap to the ideas that they raise. Somehow, we never seem to understand that the ideas are actually embodied in the things. Notions of the two covenants are good examples. We imagine a covenant as an abstraction, an agreement, and assume that an agreement is somehow greater than that which makes it so. Oddly, Christ says, “This is my blood of the New Covenant,” and adds, “Drink you all of this.” The Covenant is to be eaten and drunk.

Something of the same understanding is present in the Protoevangelium’s instincts. The first Temple was not an abstraction – its entire point was the very opposite: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.” There is a false notion, one that I hear frequently expressed in certain circles, that the concreteness (rituals, sacrifices, etc.) of the Old Testament has been replaced by the abstraction of the New (no rituals, only spiritual sacrifices, etc.). It is an error that assumes that God once did something quite specific that He might finally do something completely general. At its root is a notion that material things are contrary to, even exclusive of, spiritual things. “If it’s physical – it must be inferior and carnal.” It’s a modern form of Gnosticism.

The movement of God has been towards ever greater particularity. He calls Abraham and allies Himself with a particular man and his generations to come. He makes His name known to Moses in a yet more definitive manner. Under Abraham, He is the God of this place or that, this action or that. God not only makes His name known to Moses but He directs a temple to be built that He might dwell among His people. In “these last days,” He chooses a woman within whose womb He becomes a man. He not only dwells among His people, He becomes one of them. He becomes a man with a particular mother (Mary is not some sort of generic woman whose womb is merely borrowed). It is for this reason that the Church uses particular language when speaking of her.

God’s movement towards increasing particularity is the movement of making Himself known, of revelation. We can know nothing in general. Our knowledge of things-in-general can never be more than vague. To study something is always a movement towards some particular knowledge.

The Scandal of Particularity has long been a concept within Christian theology. It is often meant as nothing more than the Christian claim that there is salvation in no one other than Christ. But this fails to consider the fullness of the particularity found in the self-revelation of God. In Christ, God is the transcendent particular: He reveals Himself in a definitive and final manner. In knowing Him, we come to know ourselves in our own particularity – we become uniquely who we are created to be. No generality can give such a gift.

The intuition of the Protoevangelium is worth taking to heart. Mary is indeed the New Temple. Unless we understand this and honor it, we will not fully understand the saying that we ourselves are the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



22 responses to “Mary and the Temple”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    Thank you for this post. It helps to join together many teachings in a straight forward and easy format to begin to digest.

  2. Janine Avatar

    Wow, very beautiful. There is so much food for thought here. Surely the particularity of revelation you mention here (which is a movement that continues and keeps moving) is also a revelation that our particularity is also something He will draw out over time. I am always struck by the teachings of End Times by Christ and how the destruction of the temple is inseparable from His Return, now you have given it more shape (that is, this time in which we await Him). One tiny little editorial remark: “It’s author” in 4th paragraph should be “its”. Thank you again. Over and over again we come back to Mary. On a trip to Greece this summer, I was just struck by how she embodies the traits of Christ in so many and varied icons; I took it as an icon of what we ourselves are to be in process of becoming.

  3. Ian Sutherland Avatar
    Ian Sutherland

    Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen.
    The Protoevangelium is on my reading list now…

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The reality that Mary is a particular woman, set apart as the living Temple, makes it impossible not to honor her and venerate her.
    If we do not honor Mary and call her blessed, how is it possible to honor Jesus as our Incarnate Lord and Savior?
    Yet the tendency to make Mary and after thought I find even in my own heart. I do not understand that.

    Is she not integral to the Gospel?

  5. Byron Avatar

    Mary is indeed the New Temple. Unless we understand this and honor it, we will not fully understand the saying that we ourselves are the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

    I am so hoping that there is a series in the works along this theme! Many thanks for this, Father!

  6. Margaret Avatar

    Thanks be to God for all of this and especially the end here:
    “In Christ, God is the transcendent particular: He reveals Himself in a definitive and final manner. In knowing Him, we come to know ourselves in our own particularity – we become uniquely who we are created to be. No generality can give such a gift.

    The intuition of the Protoevangelium is worth taking to heart. Mary is indeed the New Temple. Unless we understand this and honor it, we will not fully understand the saying that we ourselves are the Temple of the Holy Spirit.”
    Thank you, Fr. Stephen Freeman! God bless you and yours in all ways!

  7. Aric Avatar

    I’ve always wondered: If knowing God comes through knowing a particular Christ, why are bereft of so much particular knowledge of his physical form, personality, sound of his voice etc? Although we do consume him (a form of intimacy I admit I struggle to fully understand), we cannot experience a conversation with him, a physical vision of his human form, the sound of his human voice: All these things that reveal to us the particularity of a human are hidden from those who did not live with him in a particular point in history.

  8. Byron Avatar

    A very interesting question, Aric. I think some consideration may be given to the image of God we encounter in each person. Perhaps the particular in this case is left in mystery to deny our own tendencies to distort it in our daily lives with other people? Just thinking out loud here.

  9. John Avatar

    Father. In the wake of your
    rich reflection I find myself wondering what you think of Margaret Barker’s ” Temple Theology”. As you may remember, she gave the Schmemann Lecture at St Vladimir’s some years ago

  10. Katy Avatar

    Thank you Father. I needed to understand these concepts, but before this post, they were so nebulous and out of my reach. Fundamental, crucial, now I understand! Thank you!

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I had a conversation with my Archbishop, Alexander Golitsyn, who is an outstanding scholar and has done a great deal of serious work on both Judaism and Christian overlapping stuff. Quite good. He confirmed my opinion that Barker can be quite interesting and her information worth noting. However, her conjectures are off-the-wall sometimes. Her re-construction of 1st Temple Worship is, I think, little more than a puff of wind – that is – an idle fancy.

    When I first heard discussions about her stuff, I bought a book and read most of it. It made the conjectures of some of the worst historical-critical scholars seem tame and ultra-conservative. You cannot make one supposition, and then another based on that, and another based on that. As far as I can see, she has supposition on top of supposition on top of supposition. Why she gave the Schmemann lecture is beyond me. Perhaps there is much that I do not know in this regard. I would gladly be corrected.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That’s a very encouraging comment! Thanks ever so much.

  13. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen et al,
    In my flamingly anti-Marian Protestant days I was doing a thesis on the Temple as a foreshadowing of Christ. I specifically focused on the Gospel of John’s (he was possibly a Temple priest, after all) identifications of Christ. On this particular day, I was specifically working on the Temple furnishings. It suddenly hit me that I was missing something rather obvious (which explained why folks were missing John’s Temple references): Christ is presented in John as the stuff CONTAINED WITHIN the temple furniture, NOT the furniture itself: He is the Lamb slain for the sin of the world, NOT the Altar; He is the Water of Life, NOT the Laver; He is the Bread of Life, NOT the Table of Showbread; He is the Light of the World, NOT the Lampstand; etc. The New Testament gives plenty of references to Christ being the stuff IN the Ark of the Covenant, but not the Ark itself [He is the “Bread from Heaven” (Manna), the Word of God become clay (Tablets of the Law), Aaron’s rod that resurrected to life and bore much fruit in it’s resurrection].
    Well, this left me with quite the quandry – WHAT exactly was the Temple furniture, which contained all the “Christ” stuff, supposed to represent? More rapidly than my rational mind could subvert it, I asked myself the most dangerous question that could have occurred to me at the time – it practically intruded itself into my consciousness – “Well, what contained Christ when He became incarnate?”
    And then I realized I wasn’t dealing with “what”, but rather WHO…

  14. Justin Avatar

    PS – the Temple Feasts are still celebrated today as Orthodox Feasts, we just call them by different names expressing their fulfillment in Christ – for example, we don’t say the feast of “tabernacles,” but Transfiguration. We say “Holy Week” instead of “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” But we still say PASCHA!

  15. Paula Avatar

    An awesome article, thank you! I spend a better part of yesterday reading about the scandal of particularity, as that phrase is new to me. Now to understand this concept, how God deals in the particulars, really brings clarity to the whole picture.
    Here’s one of the articles I read. It speaks of the change in philosophical thought during the Enlightenment, using the concept of particularity. I found it quite helpful.
    Love the story of your studies on the temple! Amazing how even in the midst of your “anti-Marian Protestant days” your eyes were opened, so to speak. God is good! You must’ve been ready somehow to receive…

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a very good question – and I obviously need to clarify. Meaning is important, and, of course, we look for the meaning in a text. The subtle point, often lost in our culture, is that the meaning is frequently embodied in a thing and not just in an idea. Thus – the point of Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist – is to eat it and drink it in union with Him. The point of Baptism is to actually be Baptized into Christ.

    There are many modern Christians for whom Baptism and Eucharist are made to be about something else – such that they say Baptism is “only” an outward sign, but the real thing is this abstracted meaning.

    Even with other “meanings,” the point of every meaning is not an abstraction but rather that we should embody and live it. Knowledge that is not embodied and lived is often quite harmful spiritually, cf. 1 Cor. 13 “Knowledge puffs up.” I think of this as a different way of reading. We read to understand – and, more than that, to ourselves become the understanding. Until we become the understanding, we do not yet understand.

    It is possible, to use your example, to think “Christ ascended into heaven,” simply means that He was taken from their sight, and is now at the right hand of power – exalted to the throne of the Father, etc. I would say that Christ must also be “ascended in you” before you fully grasp (such as we can) what we are saying. St. Gregory the Theologian, in one of his Paschal homilies says, “If He is ascended, go with him…”

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The paper is a good read. It underlines many of the things that I labor to point out (Enlightenment problems – i.e. modernity, etc.)

  18. Santosh Samuel Avatar
    Santosh Samuel

    And Mary’s time in the temple and her constant hearing of the Old Testament enabled the Word to become flesh in her.
    Thank you Fr.

  19. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks for another great article, Fr. Stephen. It has only been in recent years that I have come to have an understanding of why Mary is so important to the Church. You have been a help to developing that understanding.

    Today, in the RC Church, we celebrate the feast of our Lady of Sorrows (or Our Mother of Sorrows, a title I prefer). Although it is one of the minor Marian feasts, it has long been one of my favorites. It is a reminder of how Mary’s heart was indeed “pierced” as foretold by Simeon – she shared in the passion of her Son in a way no one else could. It is also a feast that consoles us as we realize that she joins us in our troubles as one who has entered sorrow profoundly and been brought into glory by her Son.

  20. jacksson Avatar

    He does speak to us, in the Holy Spirit. Speaking is not always a voice.

  21. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Tonight, we were blessed by a visit of the miraculous myrrh streaming Icon of Saint Anna from Saint Tikhon Monastery. It was a perfect cap to this blog post as the Exaltation of the Cross, the Nativity of the Theotokos, the New Ark and the miraculous Icon of her mother all came together in a perfect Trinity of Icons to frame this post. As we closed out Great Vespers we stood around the Icon and sang the Akathist to Saint Anna and the imagery in the Akathist exemplified everything that you said Father about how the hymnography of the Church teaches us in Allegory about Truth. It was a very blessed night and one I will remember.

  22. RVW Avatar

    Justin’s comment got me thinking, so I expanded my thoughts into a blog post.


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