The Mystery of Sacrifice
A Sermon on the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple
Christianity is a religion of sacrifice. On this day, we commemorate one of the greatest sacrifices ever made in the history of our holy faith — a sacrifice which echoes the Patriarch Abraham’s incredible sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac, and which prefigures God the Father’s even more awesome sacrifice of His only-begotten son: our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. In fact, the sacrifice we are celebrating today is so great that the two holy saints who made it — the Holy and Righteous Ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna — are the only two saints besides the Most-Holy Mother of God herself whose intercessions are invoked at each and every great dismissal in the divine services of our Holy Orthodox Church.
We know from Holy Tradition that Sts. Joachim and Anna — despite their great righteousness and God-pleasing lives — were for fifty long years deprived of what everyone at the time knew to be the supreme sign of God’s blessing, favor, and acceptance: they had no children. Finally, after five entire decades had shown them to be bereft of divine approval, the High Priest even turned St. Joachim away when he came to Jerusalem to offer his sacrifice to the Lord. And so, seemingly spurned by God Himself as well as rejected by their own people, they departed from the Holy City in shame — and St. Joachim even fled into the wilderness rather than returning to his home.
But of course, the Lord never forsakes His faithful ones. Despite all appearances — despite what seemed so certain and so obvious to everyone involved — the wise and loving providence of God was in fact arranging all things in order to transform the suffering of His servants into a joy beyond any comprehension or compare. Though He waited fifty long years to do so, when the time that He alone foresaw to be best finally arrived, He at long last gave to Sts. Joachim and Anna the great desire of their hearts: He gave to them a daughter.
And not just any daughter — He gave to them Mary herself, the Most-Holy Mother of God, she who is “more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.” He gave to them the New Eve, the one and only human being full of enough purity and humility and obedience and grace to become the Unwedded Bride of God Himself, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the entire Christian race.
How did Sts. Joachim and Anna respond to such an overwhelming gift of the grace of God? With gratitude, of course… but with a gratitude so far beyond what would even occur to any of us that we can only bow down before such gratitude with wonder. Because as soon as God gave to them such an intensely beloved daughter, for whom they had pined away for fifty long years, they immediately gave her back to God. They did not even hold on to her childhood for themselves, nor did they spare any thought for who might care for them in their old age. No: on this great day which the Church commands us to celebrate as one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the entire year, they parted forever from their little child Mary, and watched her young feet as they danced away from them up the steps into the temple of the Lord God.
So the question we must all ask ourselves, my dear brothers and sisters, is precisely this: when Sts. Joachim and Anna gave to God that which was dearest to them in the whole world, did they lose their precious daughter by doing so? Or did they in fact gain not only their daughter (who became what she was truly meant to be), but also the Kingdom of Heaven itself, and even the divine life of the Holy Trinity besides? Because on this day the Mother of God entered into the Temple, in order to one day herself become the living Temple by which God Himself clothed Himself in our flesh, overthrew the dominion of death, lifted up our fallen nature to the very throne of God, made the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve into the brothers and sisters of Christ Himself, and transformed us wretched sinners into nothing less than gods by grace.
Truly, it was no idle saying when the Lord told His disciples:
…every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
Our Savior explains to us here the great mystery of sacrifice: any gift that we offer to our God — including and especially our very life itself — is by no means lost to us. Instead, divine grace transforms and transfigures it — not only into its own truest and highest form, but also into a means for us to enter into mystical communion with God Himself. For as Christ also said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25).
So often we think of sacrifice in terms of the beasts slain of old, their blood poured out in the temple in expiation for the peoples’ sins. And so we have come to conceive of sacrifice in exceedingly harsh and legalistic terms: as a penalty that must be exacted, or a price that must be paid in order to appease the wrath of an angry and vengeful deity.
But such an understanding overlooks the plain and obvious truth: even in the Old Testament, the essence of sacrifice was not the loss of our earthly good things, but rather our sharing of those goods with the God Who gave them. After the people made their offerings to God — after their offerings were sacrificed, sanctified, literally “made holy” — then God gave those same gifts back to His people as a meal to be partaken of together with Him. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were not about a petty God who selfishly demanded that something or someone must be put to death, but rather a supremely merciful God Who desired to share in His peoples’ life — not matter how poor and lowly and wretched that life might have become.
And so too it is with us. Last night we witnessed our brother, the newly-tonsured Monk Moses, make the most complete sacrifice to God that a human being can make in this life. Undoubtedly he has made an enormous offering to the Lord, giving up family, and freedom, and all the many possessions and pleasures which this world has to offer. But again, each of us must take this opportunity to ask ourselves: what has Fr. Moses lost by so doing? As long as he made (and continues to make) such an offering unstintingly, with his whole heart, the only possible answer can be: absolutely nothing at all.
He has forsaken an earthly family, but gained a heavenly family. Even here on earth, he has gained a brotherhood knit together by ties far closer and deeper and more meaningful than any merely earthly tie could ever possibly be — because our love for one another is nothing other than the love of Christ Himself. He has forsaken earthly pleasures and possessions — all of which will, without any doubt, have long since crumbled to dust even before Fr. Moses one day leaves this vale of tears. In return, the treasuries of Heaven itself have now been thrown open to him, and he hears the voice of the Father calling out to him in the Gospel: “Son… all that I have is thine” (Luke 15:31). Above all else, Fr. Moses has sacrificed his freedom to Christ… but so long as his freedom was merely his own, the best that he could possibly do was to say with St. Paul: “the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Rom. 7:19). Because any freedom apart from Christ is in fact only the cruelest of slaveries; in the words of one modern writer, it is merely “the freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” But now Fr. Moses hears the words of our Savior: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Truly, God has bestowed a vast multitude of precious and incomprehensible gifts on the entire race of man. And the highest thing that we can do — truly, the only good thing that any of us can possibly do — is simply to give back the gift. And once we have done so, we find that God Himself also gives back the gift, in an endless cycle of love and humility and sacrifice that begins in this life and continues throughout all eternity.
This is without any doubt a great mystery. And like all mysteries, it cannot ever really be explained — only entered into. But those of us who, like our beloved Fr. Moses, have made a beginning in our attempt to enter into this mystery, have a great and solemn obligation — not only to God, and not only to ourselves, but also to the entire world. It is up to us to make the true joy and meaning and wonder of this great mystery manifest to all those around us. Such a mystery is not only incomprehensible to the mind of mortal men, but is in fact becoming ever more anathema to the modern world with each passing day. And so if we ourselves do not truly enter into the mystery of sacrifice, if we do not truly give our hearts to Christ, then Christ will not be able to give Himself to us as He so ardently desires to do — and therefore the world around us might not have the chance to meet Christ, just as the world two thousand years ago might not have had the chance to meet Christ had it not been for the sacrifice that Sts. Joachim and Anna made in the temple of God on this day.
So let us all pray to these holy saints — and even more to the Most-Holy Mother of God Herself — that God will help both Fr. Moses and each and every one of us to deeply embrace this mystery, to offer a pure and blameless sacrifice of our hearts and our whole lives to the Lord God, and so to enter truly into the mystery of union, and communion, and incomprehensible divine love which is the heart of all true sacrifice, and the mystical purpose for which we ought all to enter with the Theotokos into the Temple of God on this day. Amen!