Today is a Great Feast of Orthodox Christianity, the Presentation of the Theotokos. We Roman Catholics celebrate it too as the Presentation of Mary, and it commemorates the day Joachim and Anne brought their three-year-old daughter to the temple in Jerusalem to be consecrated to God.
In the East the feast has been observed since the sixth century, but in the West “only” since the eleventh. Part of what makes this tradition fascinating – aside, that is, from the story itself – is that it arose extra-Biblically: we know nothing from Scripture of Our Lady’s life until the first chapters of Matthew and Luke: of Gabriel and the Annunciation. We don’t know where she was born or who her parents were or how she spent her early years. But apocryphal sources and tradition vividly tell the tale.
According to the Protoevangelium Jacobi (more commonly known as the Gospel of James, but clearly not written by James, the “brother” of the Lord), Mary was taken to Jerusalem to become the Jewish equivalent of a Vestal Virgin. The Vestals tended a sacred fire that Romans believed helped ensure the security of their empire. Pius XII began his encyclical Sacra Virginitas (1954) by writing of the confidence of the Fathers of the Church that:
perpetual virginity is a very noble gift which the Christian religion has bestowed on the world. They rightly noted that the pagans of antiquity imposed this way of life on the Vestals only for a certain time; and that, although in the Old Testament virginity is ordered to be kept and preserved, it is only a previous requisite for marriage; and furthermore, as Ambrose writes, “We read that also in the temple of Jerusalem there were virgins.”
The Holy Father cited St. Ambrose, but the historian Flavius Josephus also wrote of the temple virgins that “there were many living quarters around the Temple, where dwelt those [virgins] dedicated to the service of God.” Mary was a reverent Jewish girl, and when she was fifteen the temple priests decided the holy child should now be wed. They knew she was special, and so they did an extraordinary thing.
But how did they know she was exceptional? Well, Orthodox tradition states that on that day of her Presentation, when little Mary reached the twelfth and top step of the temple – the priests all singing the Psalms of Ascent (129-134) – the high priest had an inspiration and did the unthinkable: he took the child with him into the Holy of Holies, behind the temple veil. Nobody was allowed there except the high priest, and he only on Yom Kippur. To bring a female into the presence of the Eternal Flame must have seemed a sacrilege. We may assume that in her piety and obedience Mary never disappointed the high priest’s expectations and that this reassured the other priests.
Symbolically, God’s dwelling was now no longer to be the Holy of Holies but Mary’s womb, and the Voice from Sinai would become man and one day preach a Sermon on the Mount.
But that other extraordinary thing the high priest did – and we presume it was the same priest who had received Mary a dozen years earlier, who just happened to be Zechariah, soon to be father of John the Baptist – was cause to be gathered in the temple courtyard all the unmarried men: young and single, old and widowed, and among this second group was the carpenter, Joseph. All these men have come to see whom God will choose to be the Virgin’s husband, although to them she is just a teenage girl – ethereally lovely but just a girl.
When a dove lands on Joseph’s staff, he is proclaimed the one, but according to the Protoevangelium, he is none too pleased about the honor. In fact, he refuses:
“I have children [James among them], and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel.” And the priest said to Joseph: “Fear the Lord thy God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in thy house.”
Joachim and Anne and Zechariah and Elizabeth were relatives not only to one another but also in spirit to Abraham and Sarah, Hannah and Elkanah (mother and father of Samuel), and to all would-be parents past their childbearing years who long for the greatest earthly gift God gives: new life, a child. Like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice Isaac if that was God’s will, Joachim and Anne prayed for a child and swore to give her to the Lord, and so they did.
How glorious a moment it must have been when the Theotokos (literally, God-bearer) was presented to Yahweh, and yet, watching her ascend those steps, it must also have been heartbreaking for the parents, as it would be years later for their daughter when in that same temple another high priest, Simeon, would say: “A sword will pierce your heart.” (Luke 2:35)
But the whole story of salvation is about paradox and astonishment. Those barren parents wanted children; they got more than expected. Israel pleaded with Yahweh to send a messiah; it got so much more than anyone had ever dreamed: Yahweh in the flesh.
And so the Orthodox pray:
Today the universe is filled with joyAt the glorious feast of the Theotokos, and cries out:“She is the heavenly tabernacle.”