On November 21, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Mary (also known as the Entrance of Mary into the Temple) , when Saints Joachim and Anna bring their three-year-old daughter, the Virgin Mary to live in the temple in Jerusalem. Mary's time in the temple serves as a preparation for her eventual role as Theotokos and Mother of God. We read from an early account of this event from an apocryphal text, the Protoevangelion of James. We also read reflections on the feast from theologians from the east and west, from ancient and modern times.
For a more in-depth look at the theological meaning of the presentation of mary, listen to this episode from Father Thomas Hopko's "Speaking the Truth in Love" podcast.
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate the feast of the presentation of Mary in the temple.
This feast is of ancient origin, but the event it commemorates is not in the Bible. It is in an early apocryphal Christian text called the Protoevangelion of James. Mary was the daughter of Joachim and Anna, concevied miraculously when her parents Saints Joachim and Anna were very old. They promised to dedicate her to the temple in Jerusalem, and when she was three years old they brought her to live there. Mary lived in the temple until she was betrothed to Joseph, and traditionally Christians believe that this time in the temple served as a preparation for her, for her calling as the Mother of God.
For more background on Mary’s early life and the presentation, I would invite you to listen to my previous podast episodes on the Virgin Mary, and on Saints Joachim and Anna
Let us read from this passage telling the story of the presentation in the protoevangelion of James.
Many months passed, but when the child reached two years of age,
Joachim said, "Let's take her up to the temple of the Lord, so that we
can keep the promise we made, or else the Lord will be angry with us
and our gift will be unacceptable."
2And Anna said, "Let's wait until she is three, so she won't miss her
father or mother."
3And Joachim agreed: "Let's wait."
4When the child turned three years of age, Joachim said, "Let's send
for the undefiled Hebrew daughters. 5Let them each take a lamp and
light it, so the child won't turn back and have her heart captivated by
things outside the Lord's temple." 6And this is what they did until the
time they ascended to the Lord's temple.
The priest welcomed her, kissed her, and blessed her: "The Lord
God has exalted your name among all generations. In you the Lord
will disclose his redemption to the people of Israel during the last
9And he sat her down on the third step of the altar, and the Lord
showered favor on her. lOAnd she danced, and the whole house of
Israel loved her.
Her parents left for home marveling and praising and glorifying
the Lord God because the child did not look back at them. 2And Mary
lived in the temple of the Lord. She was fed there like a dove, receiving
her food from the hand of a heavenly messenger.
Let us read a passage from St Alphonsus Liguori’s “Glories of Mary”. He was an 18th-century Roman Catholic archbishop much loved for his spiritual writings. The Glories of Mary is one of his most famous works, that consists on many reflections on the role of Mary. Here is a passage from his book about the feast of the presentation.
THERE never has been, and there never will be, any offering of a pure creature greater and more perfect than that which Mary made to God, being yet only a child of three years, when she presented herself in the temple to offer him, not spices, nor calves, nor talents of gold, but her whole self as a perfect holocaust, consecrating herself as a perpetual victim in his honor. Well did she understand the voice of God, which even then called her to dedicate herself wholly to his love, with these words: Arise, make haste, my love, and come: "Surge, propera, arnica mea, et veni." And therefore her Lord would have her from thenceforth forget her country, her parents, and every thing, to attend to nothing but to love arid please him: "Hearken, oh daughter, and see and incline thy ear; and forget thy people and thy father s house." And she at once obeyed promptly the divine voice. Let us consider, then, how acceptable to God was this offering which Mary made of herself, as she presented herself promptly and entirely to him; promptly without delay; entirely with out reserve;
Let us now turn to a homily by Saint Gregory Palamas, a celebrated 14th century Greek Orthodox theologian. He emphasizes here that Mary’s presence in the temples Holy of Holies as a preparation for her crucial role as Theotokos, bearer of God. We read an excerpt of this homily:
Now, when Righteous Joachim and Anna saw that they had been granted their wish, and that the divine promise to them was realized in fact, then they on their part, as true lovers of God, hastened to fulfill their vow given to God as soon as the child had been weaned from milk. They have now led this truly sanctified child of God, now the Mother of God, this Virgin into the Temple of God. And She, being filled with Divine gifts even at such a tender age, ... She, rather than others, determined what was being done over Her. In Her manner She showed that She was not so much presented into the Temple, but that She Herself entered into the service of God of her own accord, as if she had wings, striving towards this sacred and divine love. She considered it desirable and fitting that she should enter into the Temple and dwell in the Holy of Holies.
Therefore, the High Priest, seeing that this child, more than anyone else, had divine grace within Her, wished to set Her within the Holy of Holies. He convinced everyone present to welcome this, since God had advanced it and approved it. Through His angel, God assisted the Virgin and sent Her mystical food, with which She was strengthened in nature, while in body She was brought to maturity and was made purer and more exalted than the angels, having the Heavenly spirits as servants. She was led into the Holy of Holies not just once, but was accepted by God to dwell there with Him during Her youth, so that through Her, the Heavenly Abodes might be opened and given for an eternal habitation to those who believe in Her miraculous birthgiving.
So it is, and this is why She, from the beginning of time, was chosen from among the chosen. She Who is manifest as the Holy of Holies, Who has a body even purer than the spirits purified by virtue, is capable of receiving ... the Hypostatic Word of the Unoriginate Father (9:01).Today the Ever-Virgin Mary, like a Treasure of God, is stored in the Holy of Holies, so that in due time, (as it later came to pass) She would serve for the enrichment of, and an ornament for, all the world. Therefore, Christ God also glorifies His Mother, both before birth, and also after birth.
Now for a perspective from mordern times: let us read an excerpt of a homily of the presentation from the Roman Catholic Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who presents the Presentation as a joyous event
This morning we celebrate a beautiful feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary namely, the Feast of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple. It is an event which illumines our Christian imagination: that wonderful and grace-filled moment when Saints Joachim and Anne presented their daughter, Mary, in the Temple. Let us remind ourselves why Mary’s Presentation is exceptional and what this event in salvation history has to do with us and our ministry.
Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, were part of a remnant of God’s People who looked forward with eager anticipation to the coming of the Messiah. Their hope and trust in God’s promises of deliverance were undimmed by the catastrophes that befell the people of Israel – whether it was exile, or the desecration of the Temple, or suppression and conquest by foreign powers. Through it all, the faith of this holy remnant—far from fading— grew ever more vibrant and ever more expectant.
So, while every faithful parent sees the hope and joy of God’s love shining on the faces of their precious children, I would wager that, when Joachim and Anne beheld the pure and beautiful face of their daughter Mary, they experienced a wonder and awe they could neither describe nor explain. What deep thoughts and emotions must have filled their hearts as they entrusted her completely to the Lord, the God of Israel! Could they have sensed deep-down that their daughter was already “full of grace”? Could they have sensed she would play a special role in salvation history? (11:45)
Like other children, Mary was presented in the Temple when she was about three years old but hers was no ordinary Presentation. To echo the Prophet Zechariah, Mary entered as the Daughter of Zion and her coming to the Temple signaled that the time was at hand for God to ‘stir from his heavenly dwelling’ and to be present to humanity in a new and unimaginable way: the Eternal Son would take upon himself our human nature in Mary’s womb. The Word would become flesh and dwell among us. He would come to preach, heal, suffer, die and rise – for us and for our salvation. And so, in God’s providential design, Mary arrived at the Temple as the blessed and chosen daughter who would herself become a temple, a sinless dwelling place, a tabernacle prepared for the Lord of Hosts.
Joachim and Anne could indeed only wonder what lay in store for their daughter, but we can draw two insights from today’s feast: first is that Mary would find her vocation within the loving home, the domestic church, if you will, that Joachim and Anne prepared for her. And second, is that our faith in Christ helps us understand Mary’s unique vocation; conversely, turn Mary’s unwavering faith and dedication to God’s saving will illuminates our faith in Christ
Finally, let us read from this contemplation from the contemporary Eastern Orthodox Theologian Thomas Hopko. We read only an excerpt here, this is the transcript from a podcast episode on the Presentation, from his “Speaking the Truth in Love Podcast”, published by ancient faith radio. I strongly recommend listening to the full episode, and I will provide a link in the episode description. Father Hopko has some wonderful thoughts on the Presentation, relating how Mary herself is for Christians like the temple was for the Jews.
Here we could ask the question: What truth? What is really being celebrated here? What is it? And I would say that if you read the service and if you read the three Old Testamental readings at the Vigil, at Vespers, you read all the canons and pray all the canons and sing all the hymns and hear what is said and listen to the Scripture readings, what is being said here and what is being contemplated in the person of Mary as the central character in the story is that human beings are created by God and redeemed by God in Christ and sanctified by God through Christ by the Holy Spirit to become living temples of God himself.
And it seems kind of likely—I can’t prove this in any way, but it seems to me plausible, very plausible that the Protoevangelium of James was written as a kind of parallel to the Letter to the Hebrews that you actually find in canonical Scripture: which is in the Bible. Because in the Letter to the Hebrews you have this teaching there, a very clear teaching, about how Christ, Jesus himself, relates to the Jerusalem Temple, how he is the Great High Priest, how he is the Victim, the Lamb who was slain, that it’s by his blood that we’re taken into the true Temple of God which is above the heavens, into the true Holy of Holies where God himself dwells.
And probably—I think it’s probable—that that was all written and especially had to be written for two reasons, at least two reasons. One is: how do Christians who accept Jesus as the Messiah relate to the Jerusalem Temple? How do Christians worship? How does sacrifice take place? How do we enter into the presence of the glory of God? What about the priesthood? How does the priesthood function now that Christ is here and has been crucified and glorified? And the answers to those questions are given in the Letter to the Hebrews, that Christ is the Great High Priest. There’s no more sacrificing of [oxen] and bulls and calves and lambs. He is the Lamb of God. He offers himself. It’s by his blood that we are healed. He takes us into the true sanctuary, to the true Holy of Holies.
And in order to enter—and this was already very ancient Christianity; you find it already in Origen in the second century—how even the Temple itself is likened to the stages of the spiritual life. The narthex, the outer court, is kind of the purification, the keeping of the commandments. Then you enter into the inner court which is knowledge and knowledge of Logos, the knowledge of the contemplation of the meaning of creation. Then you enter into the Holy of Holies which is contemplation, theologia. After mystikē theoria, you have mystikē theologia. You enter in from natural contemplation into the contemplation of the transcendent realities and the truths of God which are likened to the inner part of the Temple itself.
You have that shown through the person of Christ, our Savior and Lord, in the Letter to the Hebrews, so it is plausible to kind of conclude or at least to propose that the Protoevangelium of James is doing exactly the same thing, but contemplating it in terms of Mary, not in terms of Jesus, but in terms of Mary, which is to say: how do the Christians relate to the Temple? How do the Christians, in the person of Mary—because Mary’s the quintessential Christian; she’s like the paradigmatic believer; she’s sort of like the prototype of all believers, of all Christians, and then, of course, Christians being as all human beings ought to be—how does all that relate to us? You might put it that way.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells how it relates to us through Jesus, but when you contemplate Mary, that means you’re directly contemplating: what is it that we are called to, and what particularly is Mary in the whole oikonomia, the whole dispensation of salvation? In other words, what is her place, and then, by extension, what is our place? How do we also live by faith and grace?
Now, of course, very important: none of us is the Theotokos! None of us is the Mother of God incarnate. None of us is the Virgin Mary. That’s for sure! She alone has that great honor and dignity and ministry and calling, to be the Mother of Christ, the very Theotokos, the Mother of God in human flesh.
So in this festival, we contemplate her, specifically, particularly, in what she herself is and cannot be denied. And then we also contemplate, by extension, what we believe should also be our situation. In other words, what should happen to us? What has happened to us in Christ?
It’s interesting here, of course, that the Temple is the main instrument in this story, because if the Letter to the Hebrews in the Bible is about how Jesus relates to the Temple, then you could say the main point in the Protoevangelium of James is how Mary relates to the Temple, and therefore how we also ought to relate to the Temple.
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Let ue end with a poem on the presentation, by the 19th century Roman Catholic priest and poet Abram Joseph Ryan
The priests stood waiting in the holy place,
Impatient of delay
(Isaiah had been read),
When sudden up the aisle there came a face
Like a lost sun's ray;
And the child was led
By Joachim and Anna. Rays of grace
Shone all about the child;
Simeon looked on, and bowed his aged head --
Looked on the child, and smiled.
Low were the words of Joachim. He spake
In a tremulous way,
As if he were afraid,
Or as if his heart were just about to break,
And knew not what to say;
And low he bowed his head --
While Anna wept the while -- he, sobbing, said:
'Priests of the holy temple, will you take
Into your care our child?'
And Simeon, listening, prayed, and strangely smiled.
A silence for a moment fell on all;
They gazed in mute surprise,
Not knowing what to say,
Till Simeon spake: 'Child, hast thou heaven's call?'
And the child's wondrous eyes
(Each look a lost sun's ray)
Turned toward the far mysterious wall.
(Did the veil of the temple sway?)
They looked from the curtain to the little child --
Simeon seemed to pray, and strangely smiled.
'Yes; heaven sent me here. Priests, let me in!'
(And the voice was sweet and low.)
'Was it a dream by night?
A voice did call me from this world of sin --
A spirit-voice I know,
An angel pure and bright.
`Leave father, mother,' said the voice, `and win';
(I see my angel now)
`The crown of a virgin's vow.'
I am three summers old -- a little child.'
And Simeon seemed to pray the while he smiled.
'Yes, holy priests, our father's God is great,
And all His mercies sweet!
His angel bade me come --
Come thro' the temple's beautiful gate;
He led my heart and feet
To this, my holy home.
He said to me: `Three years your God will wait
Your heart to greet and meet.'
I am three summers old --
I see my angel now --
Brighter his wings than gold --
He knoweth of my vow.'
The priests, in awe, came closer to the child --
She wore an angel's look -- and Simeon smiled.
As if she were the very holy ark,
Simeon placed his hand
On the fair, pure head.
The sun had set, and it was growing dark;
The robed priests did stand
Around the child. He said:
'Unto me, priests, and all ye Levites, hark!
This child is God's own gift --
Let us our voices lift
In holy praise.' They gazed upon the child
In wonderment -- and Simeon prayed and smiled.
And Joachim and Anna went their way --
The little child, she shed
The tenderest human tears.
The priests and Levites lingered still to pray;
And Simeon said:
'We teach the latter years
The night is passing 'fore the coming day
(Isaiah had been read)
Of our redemption' -- and some way the child
Won all their hearts. Simeon prayed and smiled.
That night the temple's child knelt down to pray
In the shadows of the aisle --
She prayed for you and me.
Why did the temple's mystic curtain sway?
Why did the shadows smile?
The child of Love's decree
Had come at last; and 'neath the night-stars' gleam
The aged Simeon did see in dream
The mystery of the child,
And in his sleep he murmured prayer -- and smiled.
And twelve years after, up the very aisle
Where Simeon had smiled
Upon her fair, pure face,
She came again, with a mother's smile,
And in her arms a Child,
The very God of grace.
And Simeon took the Infant from her breast,
And, in glad tones and strong,
He sang his glorious song
Of faith, and hope, and everlasting rest.