November 21st is normally the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the temple (this year superseded by Christ the King, but a few thoughts may well be in order).
This feast has its origins in the Eastern Church, introduced by Emperor Justinian himself, who erected a magnificent Church dedicated to Mary within the Temple area in Jerusalem. Unfortunately this outstanding Church, dedicated on this day, November 21, in 543, was brutally destroyed by the Persians during their invasion. St Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople as well as St John Damascene, both preached beautiful homilies which portrayed Mary as being that singular plant or flower which is being cared for by God for better things. She was planted in the House of God, nourished by the Holy Spirit and kept her body and soul spotless to receive God in her bosom. He Who is all-holy rests among the holy.
The Eastern Church highly regards this feast on the same footing as we, the Western Church, regard the feast of the Immaculate Conception. In other words, the feast of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple is regarded as one of the major twelve great feasts of their liturgical year, named as Dodecaorton.
Within the Western Church it was monasticism which introduced this celebration to the ‘other lung’ of Christianity, with the first beginnings of its celebrations going back to the ninth century in the monasteries of southern Italy, which were open to the Byzantine traditions of the East. By the fourteenth century, this feast had reached England and France too, wherein it was celebrated in Avignon in the year 1373. The universal Church embraced this feast very late in the fifteenth century, in 1472, when Sixtus IV mandated its universal liturgical observance. St Pope Paul VI in his famous encyclical on the right ordering and development of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marialis cultus wrote concerning this feast that apart from [its] apocryphal content, present[s] lofty and exemplary values and carry on venerable traditions having their origin especially in the East (no.8).
St Pope Paul VI was totally right when he said that the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple is taken from the apocrypha. The content for this feast is to be found in the Protoevangelium of James. The latter has to do with an early Christian text, very much widespread at the conclusion of the second century and which became extremely prominent throughout the Middle Ages.
Already its very name, Protoevangelium, which literally means First Gospel, we encounter some intriguing stories regarding events that occurred prior to the birth of Jesus. As the structure of the Protoevangelium suggests, a particular emphasis is given regarding the birth and childhood of Mary. In addition, we also come across a lot of details encompassing Jesus’ birth not mentioned in the synoptic gospels of Luke and Matthew.
For the Protoevangelium of James, Mary was offered in the Temple to God by her aged parents Anne and Joachim when she was only three years old, to fulfill a vow which Anne made when an angel appeared to her and told her that she would conceive a child who will be spoken of throughout the entire world (Pr. James 4:1). When the time came the child Mary was appropriately presented in the Temple and received by the priest, who, while blessing her, said: The Lord has made your name great for all generations. Through you will the Lord reveal his redemption to the children of Israel at the end of time (7:2). The Protoevangelium of James narrates that when the priest put Mary on the third step of the altar, God cast his glance down upon her and the child danced on her feet, and the entire House of Israel loved her (7:3).
The images of this peculiar and uncommon story immediately of Mary brings to our minds what Psalm 45:10-15 tells us: Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house; and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will sue your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.
Since Mary, after Her Son Jesus, is the consecrated one of God, she leads you and me to God’s heart. She teaches us what it means to be totally His. On this point Henri Nouwen writes: Mary calls me back to where I most want to be: to the heart of God which, as you know, is also the heart of the world. She calls me to let the passion of Jesus become my passion and his glory to become my glory. She calls me to move beyond the dos and don’ts of the morally correct life into an intimacy with God where I can live the sadness, pain, and anguish of this world while already tasting the gladness, joy, and peace of the glorified Lord.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that on this feast we, consecrated persons, renew our vows to the Lord not simply to honour the memory of Mary’s consecration to the Lord’s service, but also to invite wholeheartedly her consecrated intercession on our behalf to live to the last drop our YES to God motivated by YES FOREVER YES to the Lord’s will. Mary’s YES withstood any hardships and trials due to her unwavering faith. That is why Mother Church presents the following sermon by St Augustine as the second reading in the Office of readings for the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Stretching out his hand over his disciples, the Lord Christ declared: “Here are my mother and my brothers; anyone who does the will of my Father who sent me is my brother and sister and my mother”. I would urge you to ponder these words. Did the Virgin Mary, who believed by faith and conceived by faith, who was the chosen one from whom our Saviour was born among men, who was created by Christ before Christ was created in her – did she not do the will of the Father? Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood. Hers was the happiness of first bearing in her womb him whom she would obey as her master.
Now listen and see if the words of Scripture do not agree with what I have said. The Lord was passing by and crowds were following him. His miracles gave proof of divine power. and a woman cried out: “Happy is the womb that bore you, blessed is that womb”! But the Lord, not wishing people to seek happiness in a purely physical relationship, replied: “More blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it”. Mary heard God’s word and kept it, and so she is blessed. She kept God’s truth in her mind, a nobler thing than carrying his body in her womb. The truth and the body were both Christ: he was kept in Mary’s mind insofar as he is truth, he was carried in her womb insofar as he is man; but what is kept in the mind is of a higher order than what is carried in the womb.
The Virgin Mary is both holy and blessed, and yet the Church is greater than she. Mary is a part of the Church, a member of the Church, a holy, an eminent – the most eminent – member, but still only a member of the entire body. The body undoubtedly is greater than she, one of its members. This body has the Lord for its head, and head and body together make up the whole Christ. In other words, our head is divine – our head is God.
Now, beloved, give me your whole attention, for you also are members of Christ; you also are the body of Christ. Consider how you yourselves can be among those of whom the Lord said: “Here are my mother and my brothers”. Do you wonder how you can be the mother of Christ? He himself said: “Whoever hears and fulfils the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and my sister and my mother”. As for our being the brothers and sisters of Christ, we can understand this because although there is only one inheritance and Christ is the only Son, his mercy would not allow him to remain alone. It was his wish that we too should be heirs of the Father, and co-heirs with himself.
Now having said that all of you are brothers of Christ, shall I not dare to call you his mother? Much less would I dare to deny his own words. Tell me how Mary became the mother of Christ, if it was not by giving birth to the members of Christ? You, to whom I am speaking, are the members of Christ. Of whom were you born? “Of Mother Church,” I hear the reply of your hearts. You became sons of this mother at your baptism, you came to birth then as members of Christ. Now you in your turn must draw to the font of baptism as many as you possibly can. You became sons when you were born there yourselves, and now by bringing others to birth in the same way, you have it in your power to become the mothers of Christ.
As we venerate the glorious memory of the most holy Virgin Mary, grant, we pray, O Lord, through her intercession, that we, too, may merit to receive from the fullness of your grace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.