By blossoming forth the only Ever-virgin as fruit, today holy Anna betroths us all to joy, instead of our former grief; on this day she fulfills her vows to the Most High, leading her with joy into the Lord’s holy temple, who truly is the temple and pure Mother of God the Word. — Apolytikion of the Forefeast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple
I am going to pause today from St. Gregory Palamas to speak about an oft neglected part of our preparation for Christmas — the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. Today is the Forefeast of this celebration where we commemorate, as declared in the Apolytikion, Anna fulfilling her promise to God to dedicate her daughter Mary as a Temple Virgin. This act itself prefigures Mary’s own role in the history of salvation as the temple of God the Word — a reality without which Christmas doesn’t happen.
Of course, one of the first questions our Protestant friends might ask (if we are not asking it ourselves) is where does this story come from? The answer, in part, is the Protoevangelium of James. I say in part, because this text bubbles up out of Tradition (more on that in later). We find the Church acknowledging aspects of this text in its services (including the Conception of the Theotokos on Dec. 9, the Nativity of the Theotokos on Sept. 8 and the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on Nov. 21). We can therefore accept these elements that show up in the services with confidence.
The Protoevangelium of James is not part of the NT canon for one simple reason — it does not deal with the apostolic kerygma of Christ crucified and risen. Yet, the Church still recognizes the book as significant by celebrating the Mariological feasts recorded in it. In other words, the term Apocrypha (meaning hidden or spurious) is a misnomer in the case of the Protoevangelium of James.
This means that the formation of the Biblical canon as we have received it today is not as simplistic as one might be led to believe (though it is rather simple). Christians have been writing about their faith since beginnings of the Church. It took almost three centuries for there to be a consensus as to what belonged in the NT Canon and what was simply good for reading.
Please Note: there were a number of texts also written by the heterodox which were rightly rejected by the Church (the Church has every right to determine what is and isn’t Christian). An example of one of these rejected works is the Gospel of Judas, which the Orthodox Church had known about for over a millennium through the writings (and righteous rejection) of St. Ireneaus when the book was recently “discovered.”
Some examples of the books that the Church sees as good for reading include the Epistles of Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, both of which were popular enough to be read in the services of the early Church.
In other words, the formation of the NT canon was a process — something that came out of the Tradition of the Church, where Tradition is understood to be the collective experience of the Church. We should not be ashamed of this reality. In fact, we should embrace it. The issue of whether or not the Gentiles should be circumcised was dealt with in a very similar manner. Please note how the Council of Jerusalem declares their decision:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us — Acts 15:28
The Bible vs. Tradition is a false dichotomy. We celebrate the Forefeast of the Entry of the Theotokos today to remind us that through the Theotokos — the temple of God the Word — and the child that she bore, we, too, have been made into the temple of God. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit Himself, and it is He that has guided us from the beginning. Amen.