It is true that scholars debate the authenticity of the feast of the Presentation of Mary, which finds its origin in the apocryphal work The Protoevangelium of James. As a devotee of the Marian biographies published by Maximus the Confessor, Venerable Maria of Agreda and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, I can affirm each gives an account of Mary’s presentation in the temple at the age of 3. Rather than dwelling on the historicity of today’s event, though, let’s lend our meditation to the feast itself — more specifically: Why do we celebrate Mary’s presentation? The answer is straightforward: The life of Mary provides an example for us, especially in our own spiritual lives. Christians can appropriate spiritual insights for ourselves from the feast of Mary’s Presentation.
The importance of pilgrimage
Tradition believes that Joachim and Anne were barren, and for that reason people of the biblical era would have viewed the couple with suspicion and looked down on them. Like any other couple hoping to conceive, Joachim and Anne prayed to God, asking for the blessing of a child. God heard their prayer, and they were grateful to Him. The story of Joachim and Anne like the Old Testament account of the barren Hannah, who begged God for a child and later gave birth to Samuel. Maximus the Confessor, draws out the similarity in his The Life of the Virgin, comparing the name Hannah and Anna. The Presentation of Mary reminds us of Hannah’s willingness to offer Samuel back to God because Joachim and Anne bring the child Mary to the temple in a similar fashion at the age of 3.
Joachim, Anne and Mary lived in Nazareth, meaning if they presented Mary in the temple they had to go on a pilgrimage. Many Catholics go on pilgrimage. 2017 was a popular year for pilgrimage because of the centennial anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. There are pilgrimage sites all over the world, including the Holy Land, Marian apparition sites and shrines to saints. A person might go on pilgrimage because of their fascination with a place or story of a saint, or to ask God for a special favor. The Presentation of Mary reminds us that we can go on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving, to give thanks to God for a blessing received. In their gratitude, Joachim and Anne pledged to dedicate Mary to God and give her to His service in the temple. To carry this out, it meant they had to make sacrifice and go on pilgrimage.
Mary’s choice for God
The Presentation of Mary also highlights the fact Mary chooses God at this point in her life, even if at such a young age. On Dec. 8 the Church celebrates Mary’s preservation from Original sin, called her Immaculate Conception. We could say that God chose Mary, as he foresaw the merits of Christ’s cross and applied them to Mary. But the Presentation allows Mary to exercise her free will and choose to live her life devoted to God. Mary’s choice lends us an example to follow. Each day is an opportunity for us to renew and recommit ourselves to the Lord’s service, just as she did in the temple.
Mary’s preparation for Advent
The biographies of Mary suggest Mary remained in the temple after her Presentation. This means she dedicated herself in service to the temple and to whatever tasks she was assigned. It was a time of spiritual formation. She heard the word of God proclaimed, including the prophecies that would be fulfilled through her. Perhaps hearing the story of Hannah and Samuel resonated with her as she would later make Hannah’s prayer her own in the Magnificat. She also would have spent much time in personal prayer, living in the presence of the Holy of Holies only to receive the All Holy One within her very being at the Annunciation. Catholics can look back and see Mary’s time in the temple, from the age of 3 to 12, as a time of advent and preparation. God called her to be there, and, in turn, she chose God. Because of this, God prepared her to receive the savior of the world. The celebration of Mary’s presentation in the temple is an anticipation of the Advent we commence around the time of this feast. Throughout the holy season of Advent, with Mary we can listen to the prophecies, watch and pray for the coming of the Dawn from on high.
The historical details of Mary’s presentation should not be our primary concern in celebrating her feast. The tradition of observing it reminds us that Mary lived her life for God, and we should too. She is the model of the Church, and in her life we find the example for how to live our own.
Fr. Looney is a priest of the diocese of Green Bay.