Throughout the month of November, the Catholic Church remembers all those faithful departed, saints and sinners alike. No where among them is there a greater disciple of the Lord than our own Blessed Mother Mary, who sometimes is given recognition on November 21 annually for an action early in Jesus’ life that continues to show the Holy Family as law abiding citizens of both religion and the land, and yet has nothing to do with this feast day.
If one relies strictly on the information in the Bible, we really know next to nothing about Jesus’ Mother. Only two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, deliver any kind of infancy narrative, and they tell what went on before Jesus was born from two different perspectives. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, and one of the underlying themes of his Gospel was to assure the new ‘Jewish Christians’ that Jesus was one of them; he proves it by beginning his story with the lineage of Jesus’ ancestors.
Luke 2:22 begins the story of the Presentation. According to Jewish Law, forty days following childbirth was a period of purification of the mother. At the end of the forty days she was presented in the temple for the final ritual cleansing. Also according to the Law of Moses, this was the time when a male child was presented to God.
In Jerusalem, there was an old religious, perhaps a prophet, but some scholars assume a role more closely associated with the temple itself. The man’s name was Simeon, and he was known for his piety. The old man had been visited by an image of the Holy Spirit who informed him that he would not die before seeing the arrival of the Christ. On the day the Holy Family went to the temple, Simeon was summoned by the same Spirit, and arrived in time to declare that God had been true to his word; his eyes were on the Savior of the world, and he could now go in peace. He warned Mary that she would feel pain like a sword through the heart, as her Son fulfilled his mission.
Another old person, a widow known as Anna, was a rare female prophetess residing in the temple such as ancients before her, like Miriam, the sister of Moses (Exodus 15:20-21), and Deborah, a judge, prophetess, and warrior (Judges 4) during the early days of the Canaan conquest. Anna confirmed Simeon’s proclamation, and as a spokesperson in the temple, she spread the word to everyone who would listen.
But that story isn’t even the one we are celebrating; The Presentation of the Lord is not celebrated on the Church Calendar until February 2. As often happens with our misunderstanding of the Immaculate Conception, what happened to Mary is often confused with Jesus’ related experiences. The Immaculate Conception is not about Jesus at all, but rather the concept that Mary was born free of original sin, and the Presentation of Mary is quite a different incident than that of our Lord.
The Presentation of Mary in the temple took place when she was three years old and is only told in the Protevangelion. This book, while not rejected by the Catholic Church, is not considered part of the Biblical Canon, but is a conclusive part of the documents of the Coptic Christians based in Egypt, and generally stands the test of Christian tradition..
Mary’s father Joachim was restless to push his daughter forward, already aware that she had been born a special child, and at two years of age, he told her mother that they should take her to the temple, as they had sworn to God they’d do. Mary’s mother Anne insisted they wait one more year so that she would come to know the Father better.
When the time came, Joachim arranged a procession of young virgins carrying lamps from the most respected Hebrew families to escort Mary and prevent her from turning away. She was presented to the high priest who blessed her and told the child that her name was magnified to all generations until the end of time, and through her, the Lord would show salvation to Israel. (See Mary’s similar declaration, known as ‘The Magnificat,’ Luke 1:46-56.) According to the Protevangelion, Mary remained at the temple from that day on, was given grace and wisdom by God, and danced before the people, becoming quite popular among them. Although there is no canon substantiation of this event, it is a part of the Church tradition that links the celebrations of the Mother of our Lord from August 15 (The Assumption) through December 8 (Immaculate Conception), and supports Mary’s lifelong connection to God.
As early as the sixth century, this event was celebrated enthusiastically by Eastern Christians, who dedicated a new church to it. The tradition spread throughout the West over the next few hundred years. It was accepted as a memorial of the Church by Pope Sixtus V (1585) and made a permanent part of the calendar twelve years later under Pope Clement VIII.
The Catholic Church represents Mary as the truest disciple of the Lord, and the succession of feast days in her honor continue to show her exemplary behavior throughout her life, from her birth to her Assumption into heaven. The hows and whys not only confuse other Christian faiths, but often times do the same for Catholics. During this month when we honor all saints and all souls, end the confusion; it’s a good time to get to know the Queen of them all: Presenting our Blessed Mother.