The Presentation of Our Lady

Updated: May 30, 2020

I. Apocryphal Reference of the Feast

The liturgical memorial of the Presentation of Our Lady raises interesting questions. It does not commemorate an event which is recorded in the Scriptures, but rather harkens back to a story recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of James, a document valuable for our understanding of some of the sentiments of the early Christian community from which it originated, but never accepted by the Church as one of the four canonical Gospels. With regard to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, states:

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up (cf. Acts 1:1-2). (1)

Concretely, then, the Church does not guarantee the historicity of the traditions recorded in the various apocryphal Gospels. This does not mean, however, that she rejects these documents as being of no value, but simply that they cannot be put on the same level as the inspired Word of God. In fact, it is precisely from the same Gospel of James that the Church has accepted the names of Mary’s parents as being Joachim and Ann. The late Father Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp., points out that, following a discovery in 1958 of a third century papyrus of the work, the Gospel of James is “from before 200 A.D. and may be decades earlier than this date.” (2) He further points out that The Presentation of Mary in the Temple and the details added to it serve not only to emphasize Mary’s holiness, but, by inspiring the feast, influenced continuous reflection and an immense homiletic literature in the eastern Church. (3)

Here, then, is the text in question:

When the child (Mary) was three years old, Joachim said: “Let us call the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews, and let each take a lamp, and let it be burning, in order that the child may not turn back and her heart be enticed away from the temple of the Lord.” And he did so until they went up to the temple of the Lord. And the priest took her and kissed her and blessed her, saying: “The Lord has magnified your name among all generations; because of you the Lord at the end of days will manifest his redemption to the children of Israel.” And he placed her on the third step of the altar, and the Lord God put grace upon the child, and she danced for joy with her feet, and the whole house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down wondering, praising and glorifying the Almighty God because the child did not turn back to them. And Mary was in the temple nurtured like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel. (4)

Most modern critics argue that there would have been no provision for lodging women and young girls within the temple precincts and, thus, that there is no historical basis for this apocryphal story. (5) I would wish to be much less apodictic. The historical sciences may yet have much more to yield up on this topic. Virtually all of the “Marian mystics” who have transmitted their penetration into this mystery in writing or dictation have left us their “visions” and intuitions of what transpired in what they saw as an historical event. (6)

II. The Liturgical Observance of the Feast

Another important factor which contributed to the establishment of this feast was the fact that the Emperor Justinian had a magnificent “New Church” erected in honor of Mary in the temple area of Jerusalem which was dedicated on 21 November, 543. Unfortunately, it was razed by the Persians within a century. (7) This church was constructed above the remains of buildings which were considered to be part of the larger temple complex where Mary had lived. (8)