Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2013
The feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Memorial today, is not attested in the Scriptures, where Mary is first acknowledged at the Annunciation by Gabriel. Nor is it in any of the authentic Church Fathers. The apocryphal Book of James, which may date from the second century, invents a whole early history of Mary. Her presentation in the Temple near her third birthday is part of that story, along with her continued service until about the age of 14 she was given to her protector-spouse, Joseph, a widower. The eastern Church began celebrating the feast in the 8th century and the Western in the middle ages. It’s now a memorial rather than a feast.
So what do we make of the story. Is it pure legend? There were women who served in the Temple. Mary may have been one of them. We know from Luke’s Gospel that she had made some kind of vow to God of virginity, even though she was married. So the story is not incredible. It can, in fact, inform our faith, even if it was a legend of the second century.
How? It shows that the early Church saw Mary as entirely devoted to the service and praise of God even from an early age. St. Augustine is quoted in the Breviary on this feast: “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 Savior 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.” So we, who cannot give physical birth to Jesus, can by our faith and obedience carry Him in our heart, and by our evangelical prayer and donations and work bring Him forth in other human beings.
We know that Mary is the virgin prophesied by Isaiah to the evil king Ahaz. The popes pick up on that story as they reflect on the action of faith in our hearts:
“Unless you believe, you will not understand (cf. Is 7:9). The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint translation produced in Alexandria, gives the above rendering of the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz. In this way, the issue of the knowledge of truth became central to faith. The Hebrew text, though, reads differently; the prophet says to the king: “If you will not believe, you shall not be established”. Here there is a play on words, based on two forms of the verb ’amān: “you will believe” (ta’amînû) and “you shall be established” (tē’āmēnû). Terrified by the might of his enemies, the king seeks the security that an alliance with the great Assyrian empire can offer. The prophet tells him instead to trust completely in the solid and steadfast rock which is the God of Israel. Because God is trustworthy, it is reasonable to have faith in him, to stand fast on his word. He is the same God that Isaiah will later call, twice in one verse, the God who is Amen, “the God of truth” (cf. Is 65:16), the enduring foundation of covenant fidelity. It might seem that the Greek version of the Bible, by translating “be established” as “understand”, profoundly altered the meaning of the text by moving away from the biblical notion of trust in God towards a Greek notion of intellectual understanding. Yet this translation, while certainly reflecting a dialogue with Hellenistic culture, is not alien to the underlying spirit of the Hebrew text. The firm foundation that Isaiah promises to the king is indeed grounded in an understanding of God’s activity and the unity which he gives to human life and to the history of his people. The prophet challenges the king, and us, to understand the Lord’s ways, seeing in God’s faithfulness the wise plan which governs the ages. Saint Augustine took up this synthesis of the ideas of “understanding” and “being established” in his Confessions when he spoke of the truth on which one may rely in order to stand fast: “Then I shall be cast and set firm in the mould of your truth”.17 From the context we know that Augustine was concerned to show that this trustworthy truth of God is, as the Bible makes clear, his own faithful presence throughout history, his ability to hold together times and ages, and to gather into one the scattered strands of our lives.” Let’s remember that: this trustworthy truth of God is, as the Bible makes clear, his own faithful presence throughout history, his ability to hold together times and ages, and to gather into one the scattered strands of our lives.