“Today she who will receive the Holy of Holies, that is the Christ, through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, is through an even greater sanctification, placed in the Holy of Holies with holiness and majesty.” – St. Germanus of Constantinople, First Homily on the Presentation.
On this Great Feast, The Holy Church proclaims the coming of the dawn of Christ The True Light and His Kingdom. This feast marks the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of the Divine. The Mother of God will now soon become the Lord’s living temple and sanctuary. As we the faithful encounter this mystery, we recall that all of us are called to become living temples of The Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
After entering the temple, The Theotokos lived in the innermost chamber for 9 years. This not only signifies Her total dedication to God, but is also a model for us as we strive for the same “intimacy of The Holy of Holies,” as St. Germanus writes. In The Theotokos, we are shown that we must attain to purity in order for us to enter into intimacy with God. “Blessed are The Pure in Heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). Our minds must be clear and our hearts lightened from any offence in order to be present to The One Who gives us His life. As we sing in the Cherubic Hymn, we must “lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive The King of All, who comes invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts.” This is the beginning of prayer and the prerequisite to receive sanctification. But how can we, who live in a world of unending distractions and concerns, begin to cultivate this most precious of virtues?
We are all most fortunate that through the ancient tradition of The Church, The Holy Spirit has given us a special gift which is both the means for cultivating prayer as well as our sanctification: the divine services. In the daily cycle of the eight divine services, The Church sanctifies time. The rhythm of the day is inspired with the breath of the chanting of psalms and hymns corresponding to the cycles of the day, the seasons, our lives, and of Christ’s work. When we follow this rhythm, even incompletely or partially, the hymns and prayers of The Church begin to take on a life of their own within us. They come to live and work in us. They inspire further prayer, good works, and abstinence from evil. This calms the stormy sea of our thoughts as we become present to Him Who Is everywhere present. The prayers of The Church teach us to pray and we become still. When we are still, our minds are further opened to receive God’s presence which enlivens us all the more.
In the early Church up to the modern era, it was the common practice of the faithful to attend matins (the sunrise service) and vespers (the sun down service) as they could (usually daily). The Holy Fathers considered the cycle of services to be a prerequisite in order to acquire the prayer of the heart. We see even in the life of St. Mary of Egypt, that Father Zosimas would still chant by memory the daily cycle of services while in the desert away from his monastery. The prayers of the Church are our foundation in the spiritual life and one never truly reaches a point where he or she “graduates” from them. The best place for us to begin is to attend Saturday Vigil.
Just like how the Theotokos prepares to receive Christ within her by staying in The Temple, so too do we prepare for the sanctification of The Eucharist by presenting ourselves into the temple on the eve of liturgy. For this reason, many churches consider vigil attendance before liturgy as the norm and standard. However, it is true that many of us struggle with busy lives and young children. Fortunately for us, we are still able to reap a portion of these fruits, even if we attend as frequently as once a month and stay for as much as an hour.
As we continue in the beginning of this liturgical year looking forward, let us, like The Theotokos, present the whole of ourselves -- body, mind, and soul to God by entering His Holy House as often as we can. Hopefully, we will gradually grow to discover the fruits that this great treasure can yield in our spiritual lives.
With love in Christ, Fr. Peter