The presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Matthew 12:46-50
Many of the celebrations in honour of Mary are squarely based on Gospel texts. But the Evangelists tells us nothing about Mary’s early life. The scriptures make 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 a delightful Apocryphal text, the Protoevangelium of James, which may be dated around the year 200 AD.
This book offers a colourful 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. 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.
At that time, there were two ways of consecrating children: one was ordained by the law, which required every male child to be offered to God, forty days, and every female child, eighty days after its birth. This ceremony was called the consecration of the child and the purification of the mother. The second kind of consecration was a voluntary self-oblation by which some persons devoted themselves to the Almighty. There were also many parents who either before, or immediately after their child’s birth, consecrated it to the service of the Lord, sometimes for a few years, sometimes for life.
As part of their duties, they would devote themselves to decorating the temple and making the garments which the priests and Levites wore during their sacred functions. Thus we read in the first book of Kings, that Anne the spouse of Elkana, made a vow that if she gave birth to a male child, she would consecrate it to the Lord. The Lord blessed her and she brought forth a son, whom she named Samuel, and afterwards consecrated to the Most High, through the hands of the High Priest, Heli.
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 have preached homilies on this feast, referring to Mary as God’s special flower which was being nurtured for better things.
In the Eastern Church the Presentation is one of the twelve great feasts of the liturgical year. They celebrate the same belief that we in the West have focused even more sharply 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. 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.
Today’s feast celebrates an important truth about Mary. From the beginning of her life, she was dedicated to God, given over to God’s purposes. She is the prime example of the group that Jesus refers to in today’s gospel as those “who do the will of my Father in heaven.” Today’s feast celebrates the fact that from her childhood Mary did the will of God, and was therefore ready to become the temple of God’s Son at the time of God’s choosing.
Perhaps today, it is a good and holy thing for Christian parents to proactively dedicate their children to God, or even to invite them to consider a life consecrated to God as priests or religious. While some may consider it an imposition for parents to so explicitly encourage their children to take steps down that holy path, all parents, in fact, are energetic in promoting some aspects of secular pursuits in their child for which they make no apology.
To present a child to God, either in a formal ritual or in a private dedication, is to lay that child on a symbolic altar and to say to God, “do with this child as You will.” Such a humble submission to the will of God is not an abdication of the duty to form a child in human and religious virtue. It is just to be realistic. Children are gifts, not metaphorically but actually. A child is not a piece of property or an object a parent has a right to possess. No one understands this like the infertile couple. When parents consecrate a child to God, whether at baptism or otherwise, even informally, they are manifesting a willingness to return a gift to its remote source, to please the Maker by giving Him what He already possesses, life itself and all who share in it.
– Various sources