Whenever we encounter a reading from Scripture that is associated with a specific feast, we must understand that the Church has already interpreted it for us. We must therefore look at it from the perspective of the feast in question. Thus, the Church is calling us to see this reading from Hebrews in light of God’s Mother, our most holy Lady, the Theotokos and more specifically, her Entrance in the Temple:
Brethren, the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. — Hebrews 9:1-5
Since the story of this feast cannot be found in Scripture, we must turn to the hymnody of the Church. This, from the Kathismata of the feast, tells us the basic story:
The feeder of our Life, now an infant in body, the offspring of the just Joachim and Anna, is offered to God today in the holy Sanctuary. She was blessed therein by the priest Zacharias. Therefore let us all, with faith, proclaim she is blessed, for she is the Mother of the Lord.
However, the key to understanding today’s reading from Hebrews is found in the Lauds:
V. When they saw the Entry of the all-pure one the Angels were astonished at how the Virgin entered into the Holy of Holies.
Now let no uninitiated hand approach the living Ark of God to touch it. Rather let believers’ lips sing out in exultation the Angel’s salutation unceasingly to the Theotokos and cry out: You, O pure and virgin Maiden, are truly superior to all.
According to the Church, not only was Mary dedicated to the Temple, but she entered the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest was allowed to go once a year. When describing the Temple, St. Paul tells us “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Heb 9:5) because they no longer had access to the First Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians. The Second Temple — the temple in which the Virgin Mary was presented — no longer had “these things,” especially the Ark of the Covenant whose proper place was in the Holy of Holies.
Note how the Church not only claims that the Theotokos went into the Holy of Holies, but equates the Theotokos with the Ark of the Covenant. The metaphor calls attention to the proper function of the Ark — the place where God dwelt. The Theotokos is properly called the Ark because she is the place where God dwelt in the person of Jesus Christ. This, by the way, is one of the reasons that we see the icon of the Theotokos, called the Platytera, behind the altar in most Orthodox Churches — the place where the Ark of the Covenant would have been in the First Temple.
This calls attention to the amount of preparation that God has taken for our salvation. He chose Mary from birth and prepared her for her role in salvation history. Indeed, God’s preparation goes back generations:
Let us with faith extol in song the Virgin Mary, child of God, of whom the assembly of Prophets prophesied and of old declared to be the tablet and the rod, the mountain that was quarried not. For she is introduced today into the Holy of Holies, to be fostered by the Master. — Exaposteilarion from the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple
All of this, however, does not diminish Mary’s free will. She had the choice to reject her role. She did not have to say, Thy will be done (or more specifically, “let it be with me according to your word” — Luke 1:38).
What this demonstrates to us is that God has a place for each of us in the story of salvation. Just as he gave the Virgin Mary a means to prepare herself for her role — today’s feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple — He has given us means to prepare for our role. The key is our free will. Are we willing to prepare for our role in the story of salvation? Are we willing, as the Virgin Mary was, to say Thy will be done?
The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple takes place in context of our preparation for the Nativity of Christ. Today we do not sing the Katavasias for the Theotokos, we sing the Katavasias for Christmas. We are a week into the Nativity Fast. In other words, we have before us an opportunity to prepare — not just for Christmas, but for whatever it is that God has prepared for us. This is an opportunity for us to re-center our lives on Christ through fasting, through prayer and through alms-giving. It is an opportunity for us to enter the temple with the Virgin Mary and eagerly await for our chance to say Thy will be done.
Today the animate temple of the great King comes into the Temple, to prepare herself to become His divine dwelling. O peoples, be exultant. — Troparia after Psalm 51 from the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple