“And she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her”. Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, the all-holy Mother, in the Temple of God in Jerusalem. The words of Liturgy of Our Lady, which we sing today, are full of images of Divine Wisdom basking, playing, even dancing, in the presence of the eternal God.
The Church, inspired by the Holy Ghost, places Lady Wisdom’s words in the mouth of the Infant Mary as she contemplates the God of Israel in the splendour of his holy Temple: “In the holy dwelling place I have ministered before him … my abode is in the full assembly of saints.” (Ecclus. 24).
Thus, hidden deep within the precincts of the Temple, in which was the secret of creation and of all existence, little Mary could say: “I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times” (Prov. 8).
This feast, coming as it does as we look forward to the Advent season, is a little preview, a foretaste, of the salvation which will be fully given in Christ, the Son of the Virgin. Thus the Greek Church sings today: “Today is the prelude of the good will of God and the prophecy of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears openly in the Temple of God, foretelling Christ to all. So let us cry to her with loud voices: Rejoice, O thou Fulfillment of the Creator’s Providence!”
Today, the Immaculately Conceived One, who was never, not for one instant of her existence, separated from the will of God by sin, is offered, made over completely, by her holy parents as the purest possible sacrifice to the Thrice Holy God.
Today, she who was to become the Temple of the eternal Word-made-flesh, goes to abide in the House of God, to become intimately familiar with the Temple, its priesthood, its sacrifices, its liturgy, and its sacred furnishings: those mysterious types and shadows which spoke of the Incarnation which would be accomplished in her virginal womb.
Today, she is offered as an infant, who, at the end of her earthly life, will be presented in the heavenly Temple in the presence of the One whom she bore in her own body: she who became herself the spotless Temple, the Tabernacle of the Most High, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant.
The Feast of Our Lady’s Presentation is based on an ancient tradition coming from the Apostolic age. It has been the firm belief of Orthodox Catholic Christians in all ages that the Blessed Virgin Mary was, in her infancy, dedicated to God alone and that this dedication took place in terms of a formal presentation to God in his Temple.
The earliest historical witness to this event is narrated, not in the canonical Gospels, but in an early Christian document entitled the Protoevangelium of Saint James, which has been dated conservatively to the year 200, and may be as old as the year 130.
As such, it comes only a generation or two after the Apostles themselves, and constitutes a kind of “family tradition” of the early Christian Church — something like, “the Apostle James, Bishop of Jerusalem, brother of the Lord, told my uncle this story, and it goes something like this …”.
Though this belief is not Catholic dogma, nevertheless, it is not something to be cast aside lightly, as some have done. The Liturgy of both East and West, which is the primary and privileged source for our Catholic Tradition, witnesses to the truth of this very ancient historical tradition. Lex orandi, lex credendi: what we pray is what we believe; is this not the true Catholic way?
And so, while this is not an infallible dogma of the Church, nevertheless it would be wrong and injurious to the Catholic Faith to rashly deny or cast doubt on the fittingness of this pious and laudable belief, well established in the Church’s Tradition as evidenced by the earliest records and cemented in the Church’s Liturgy, her Lex Orandi.
I would like to read to you the pertinent passages from the Protoevangelium of James, which speak very beautifully of the Presentation of the little girl Mary in the Temple. The account, found beginning in the middle of the fifth chapter, begins with Anne, the wife of Joachim, preparing to give birth to their first and only Child, after enduring for many years the stigma of barrenness.
… And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anne brought forth. And she said to the midwife: “What have I brought forth?” and she said: “A girl.” And Anne said: “My soul has been magnified this day.” And she laid her down. And the days having been fulfilled, Anne was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary.
And the child grew strong day by day; and when she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground to try whether she could stand, and she walked seven steps and came into her bosom; and she snatched her up, saying: “As the Lord my God lives, you shall not walk on this earth until I bring you into the temple of the Lord.” And she made a sanctuary in her bed-chamber, and allowed nothing common or unclean to pass through to her. And she called the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews, and they carried her here and there.
And when she was a year old, Joachim made a great feast, and invited the priests, and the scribes, and the elders, and all the people of Israel. And Joachim brought the child to the priests; and they blessed her, saying: “O God of our fathers, bless this child, and give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations.” And all the people said: “So be it, so be it, amen!” And he brought her to the chief priests; and they blessed her, saying: “O God most high, look upon this child, and bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be for ever.”
And her mother snatched her up, and took her into the sanctuary of her bed-chamber, and gave her the breast. And Anne made a song to the Lord God, saying: “I will sing a song to the Lord my God, for He has looked upon me, and has taken away the reproach of my enemies; and the Lord has given the the fruit of His righteousness, singular in its kind, and richly endowed before Him. Who will declare to the sons of Reuben that a child feeds from Anne’s breast? Hear, hear, you twelve tribes of Israel, that a child feeds from Anne’s breast!” And she laid her to rest in the bed-chamber of her sanctuary, and went out and ministered unto them. And when the supper was ended, they went down rejoicing, and glorifying the God of Israel.
And months were added to the child. And the child was two years old, and Joachim said: Let us take her up to the temple of the Lord, that we may pay the vow that we have vowed, lest perchance the Lord send to us, and our offering become unacceptable. And Anne said: “Let us wait for the third year, in order that the child may not long after her father or mother.” And Joachim said: “So let us wait.”
And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: “Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord.” And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord.
And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: “The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.” And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down marvelling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back.
The account ends by saying: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.” The all-pure Mother of God was nourished with a mystical bread coming from above. What is this food, this heavenly manna, if not a prefiguration of that true Bread coming down from heaven, the Corpus verum, true Body, born of her pure and virginal body?
Is not Mary, in the mystery of her Presentation, in her the type and symbol of the Christian soul: called to be pure, called to be offered wholly and completely to the Lord, invited to the daily banquet of the holy Bread of eternal life, and the Chalice of everlasting salvation?
“And her parents went down marvelling, and praising the Lord God, because the Child had not turned back.” She refused to turn back to her parents, as Jesus refused not his Father’s will and gave himself up for the salvation of the world.
She offered herself without reserve, holding back nothing, from the will of God: so shall we, by the grace of God, following her example, keep nothing back from her Son who gave himself up, wholly and entirely, to his Father for us.
Therefore, let us not go back, or shrink from offering ourselves, like Mary, making ourselves over daily, souls and body, as pure victims, holy victims, spotless victims. And in doing so, we will become God-bearers, and conceive mystically within the sanctuary of our souls the divine Word, the Son of Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anne, presented this day in the Temple.
This sermon was preached in 2015 at Holy Mass by Dom Benedict.