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)
The first explicit references to the celebration of the Feast of “Mary’s Entrance into the Temple” of which we are presently aware come from homilies preached by Saint Germanus of Constantinople (c. 635-733) which clearly borrow from the Gospel of James and are rich in doctrinal content. (9) Following him there was a rich homiletic production for this feast in the Eastern Church (10) where it came to be accepted as one of the twelve major feasts (Dodecaorton) of the year. (11) The feast was first celebrated in the West by eastern monks living in southern Italy in the ninth century and passed into England in the eleventh century. In 1373 it was introduced into the Papal court at Avignon and was extended by Sixtus IV to the entire church in 1472. It was abolished by Saint Pius V in 1568, but restored by Sixtus V in 1585. (12)
In more recent years, even before the liturgical reforms inaugurated after the Second Vatican Council, the name of the feast, which had been called the “Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple,” came to be referred to simply as the “Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” In the last typical edition of the Roman Missal to be published before the Council (1962), however, there was still a graceful reference in the opening prayer to Mary’s presentation in the temple:
O God, who were pleased that on this day Blessed Mary ever Virgin, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, should be presented in the temple; grant, we beseech Thee, that through her prayers we may be found worthy to be presented in the temple of Thy glory.
From what seems to me an undue fear of making reference to an event which cannot be historically verified (similar to those for the suppression of the feast under Saint Pius V), the opening prayer in the present Roman Missal makes no reference to Our Lady’s presentation in the temple or even to her self-offering to God. This caution was also echoed by Pope Paul VI who, without explicitly naming the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, made allusion in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus to Marian liturgical commemorations “which, apart from their apocryphal content, present lofty and exemplary values and carry on venerable traditions having their origin especially in the East.” (13)
III. The Theological Kernel
Now comes the inevitable question: “What are we celebrating on the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary? What is the object of the Feast?” I think Father Francis Fernandez puts it quite well:
The essential basis of today’s feast is firm—the personal oblation that the Blessed Mother made to the Lord during her early youth. She was moved by the Holy Spirit to consecrate her life to God, who filled her with grace from the first moment of her conception. Mary’s complete dedication was efficacious, and continued to grow as her life went on. (14)
Father Fernandez then goes on to propose that Our Lady was moved by a special grace of the Holy Spirit to commit her entire life to God. Perhaps she made the decision just as she reached the age of reason, a milestone in any life, and a moment that must have been particularly significant for a person as full of grace as Mary was. Maybe the Blessed Virgin never made a formal declaration of her commitment to God, but was simply accustomed from the beginning of her life to living her dedication in a natural way. (15)
I believe that Father Fernandez is profoundly right about the object of the feast being Mary’s self-oblation to God, the total offering of herself to him. Father Corrado Maggione effectively says the same thing in stating that behind the imaginative apocryphal account one can already perceive the clear message, which is that of the Feast of the Presentation: the heart of Mary was ever and totally dedicated to God alone. (16)
I also believe that Father Fernandez is right to underscore the influence of the Holy Spirit on Mary by virtue of her Immaculate Conception.
While I am not prepared at the moment to enter into further theological arguments on this matter, I will simply state that I believe that he does not deduce enough from the extraordinary grace of Mary’s Immaculate Conception from the first moment of her existence. In the company of many saints and theologians, I believe that it is possible to sustain Mary’s explicit total self-oblation to God from the dawn of her consciousness. This is a long tradition in the Church and the celebration of her presentation in the temple at the age of three is a striking way of visualizing this.
IV. Application For Us
Father Giacomo Pesce, C.P., in his Mariale points out that a further dimension of this feast was underscored by the Venerable Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657), the founder of the Society of Saint Sulpice, who, wishing Our Lady to be the principal patron of his seminary, chose the feast of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple as the seminary’s principal feast in order to emphasize the importance of imitating Mary’s total dedication to God. Since his time many other religious institutes, male and female, have also adopted this feast as a time for renewing their commitment to the Lord following Mary’s example and under her patronage. (17)
In our own days Pope John Paul II has made this beautiful Marian feast the specific occasion on which the whole Church observes the day “Pro Orantibus,” that is a day of thanksgiving, solidarity and support for cloistered religious who spend their contemplative lives in total dedication to God in union with Jesus and interceding for the salvation of all, after Mary’s example.
It would be wrong, of course, not to draw out also the fact that this Marian feast has implications not only for seminarians, priests and religious, but for all of us—whatever our state of life. Mary’s total self-dedication to God prepared her for her mission as Mother of God and collaborator in the great work of our redemption. The more we abandon ourselves to God through Mary, the more we too will become worthy instruments in her hands for bringing about his reign in our midst.
Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins is an official of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” in Rome, a contributing member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy and the author of Totus Tuus. He is internationally known for his numerous articles on Our Lady and for his scholarly work in the fields of dogmatic and spiritual theology.
(1) Dei Verbum #19.
(2) Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp. Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmi