November and December 2018 Faith Community Reflection
On the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, as a Girl, in the Temple
Fr Mark Higgins
Of all the feasts of Our Blessed Mother in the liturgical year, the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin is probably the least well known and its presence in the church’s calendar has flickered over the centuries. Presently it sits proudly as a ‘memoria’ on the 21st November, the traditional date also maintained by a number of the national churches of the East not in communion with Rome.
The feast is unusual in one sense because it finds its principal historic record in the non-canonical Protoevangelium of James, a document, certainly not heretical in its content, but written much later than the true Gospels, in the mid second century, and certainly not by the Apostle whose title it bears. Occasionally the existence of Virgins in the Jewish Temple is labelled as apocryphal or ahistorical but this can hardly be substantiated, and in fact, the presence of Jewish maidens in the temple is evidenced both in scripture, particularly 2 Macc 3:19-20, but also Jewish sources like the Mishna Shekalim, the Babylonian Talmud and the Pesikta Rabbati.
The more unusual characteristic of this feast however is that it seems to be solely remembering an event in the life of the Virgin Mary, which, at least initially, appears to be unrelated to great Christological, anthropological, or soteriological truths, something of a contrast to the feast days of, for example, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and Mother of God. Why do we celebrate this feast? Why does Holy Mother Church present it before us as an obligatory memorial? Are there deeper theological truths in the teaching that the Blessed Virgin was presented into the temple when she was 3 years old and stayed there until shortly before her espousals to St. Joseph?
One approach is to ponder upon the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to put forward this date as a special day of prayer for all cloistered religious communities. In the presentation of Mary in the temple, we not only see Mary, the model of the Church, as exemplifying the universal call to personal and solitary intimacy with the Lord, but also the higher calling of remaining in this state, something the Blessed Mother herself had wished for (according to revelations of both Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich and Ven. Mary of Agreda), but was unable to do so due to herself receiving an even higher calling as Theotokos. Adam and Eve, having been created in grace, possessed a communion with Almighty God, who would walk with them in the garden in the cool of the evening. In the Blessed Virgin, living her hidden life of contemplation in the temple, we see that intimacy restored, an intimacy we were always meant to have, an intimacy which fulfils us.
The presentation of Mary is also truly a distinctly feminine feast day. It exemplifies the Marian profile of the Church; it embodies the rich feminine qualities of service, of affectivity, and above all, of receptivity to the voice of the Lord; and, at least in our post-lapsarian world, it exemplifies what seems to be a greater pre-disposition towards divine intimacy. We don’t see the Virgin Mary as competing with the priests of the temple, but as complementing and assisting their roles. Perhaps on deeper reflection, we may find material in this feast day to further embellish the teaching of Fr Holloway on the distinctive roles and vocations of the sexes.
Finally, this feast also serves to reflect dramatically the transition between Old and New Testaments, the era of Law and the era of Grace, as the Immaculately conceived Jewish girl, filled with the Holy Spirit, offers in her simple prayers, in the heart of the temple, an offering more pleasing to the Almighty than the thousands of animals sacrificed every week in its courts. The Old Religion of Israel is reaching its fulfilment, as the girl Mary, according to the Protoevangelium at least, finds her way into the Holy of Holies, she who is already holier than that sacred place, and would in the fullness of time become His physical tabernacle, the New Ark of the Covenant (Rev 11:19).