As most of you know, I have a four-year old granddaughter, who is one of the most precious things in my life. Every day she comes up with a new saying, funny action, or some random thoughts that only a young child could think up. She is a delight to her Mom, and family,and for most people who meet her. I cannot think what it would be like if she suddenly went away for several years. The loss would be too much to bear. Yet we learn this is exactly what Mary did. I can only imagine how her parents felt, even if what they were doing was in service to the Lord.
Today the Church celebrates the memorial of the Presentation of Mary. Many of the celebrations in honor of Mary are squarely based on Gospel texts. St. Luke tells of her acceptance of God’s invitation to be the mother of the Savior at the Annunciation. We know of her maternity and of her faithfulness to her son, Jesus, even, as St. John reports, standing at the side of His cross. But the Evangelists tells us nothing about Mary’s early life. The inspired Word makes no mention of the event celebrated each year on November 21st, her Presentation in the Temple. This devotion is testified by a tradition that comes from a century after her life. The Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple is told in the Apocryphal text, the Protoevangelium of James, which may be dated around the year 200 AD.
This book offers a colorful account of many aspects of Mary’s early life. Her father, Joachim, tells Anna his wife that he wishes to bring their child to serve in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Anna gets him to wait until the child is three years old, before having her live away from her parents. When the day arrived, a group of chaste Hebrew girls accompany Mary to the Temple, with their lamps burning. There the priest receives her, blesses her, and kisses her in welcome. He proclaims, “The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the children of Israel.” Mary was placed on the third step of the Temple, where she “danced with joy and all the house of Israel loved her.” The story goes on to describe how she continued in the Temple, living in the service of the Lord, while her parents returned home, glorifying God. The focus of the book is clear: from her earliest childhood Mary was completely dedicated and given over to God. It is to this beautiful apocryphal account that we owe the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady.
Here is a young child, who at the tender age of 3, welcomed the chance to live in service to the Lord, away from her parents. How many children do you know today who would do this? I almost know my granddaughter wouldn’t, especially if she learned there were no TV. But Mary was no ordinary child, as evidenced by the first thing she did upon entering the Temple. She “danced with joy”, knowing she was in the presence of our blessed Father.
In the 6th century the Emperor Justinian built a splendid church dedicated to Mary in the Temple area in Jerusalem. This basilica was dedicated in 543 but was destroyed by the Persians within a century. Several church Fathers such as Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople (+730) and his contemporary John Damascene, preached homilies on this feast, referring to Mary as God’s special flower which was being nurtured for better things. “She was planted in the House of God, nourished by the Holy Spirit and kept her body and soul spotless to receive God in her bosom. He who is all-holy rests among the holy.”
In the Eastern Church the Presentation is one of the twelve great feasts of the liturgical year, as it celebrates the same belief that we in the West have focused on through the feast of the Immaculate Conception: Mary’s unique holiness. It appears that by the ninth century at least, the Presentation was treasured in the monasteries of southern Italy influenced by the Byzantine tradition. For this reason the day is dedicated to those who belong to contemplative religious orders, and the Pope said in a prior speech, “It’s a good opportunity to thank the Lord for the gift of so many people who, in monasteries and hermitages, dedicate themselves to God in prayer and silent work”. It is recorded that it was celebrated in Avignon, France in 1373. Its wider acceptance in the West was slow and only in the year 1472 did Pope Sixtus IV extend its celebration to the universal Church.
Prayer for the Presentation of Mary:
Almighty and ever living God,Today we honor the memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose hidden life brings light and warmth to the Church in every place. Her presentation in the temple at Jerusalem reveals her as a temple where God truly lives among us. May Mary’s example give us the strength to radiate that light and warmth to the Church, and help us to be dwelling places of God’s joyful presence on earth. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.