On November 21, the Church celebrates the memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Didn’t we celebrate that earlier in the year?” We did indeed celebrate a presentation feast day earlier in the year – on February 2, as a matter of fact – but that was the Presentation of the Lord.
What’s the difference?
The feast of the Presentation of the Lord celebrated on February 2 marks the day that Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to the Temple in order to consecrate Jesus to God and purify Mary according to the Jewish custom.
“And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’” (Lu 2:21-24)
That’s the Presentation of the Lord according to Scripture, but where in Scripture do we read about the Presentation of Mary?
It’s not in Scripture. Rather, we learn about Mary’s presentation from accounts that have come to us from apostolic times. What we know is found in the Apocrypha, principally in chapter seven of the Protoevangelium of James, which has been dated by historians prior to the year 200 AD. The Apocrypha is a set of books that is authoritative but has not been included in the canon of the Bible.
The Protoevangelium of James, presumably written by the apostle of the same name, relates a detailed account in which Mary’s father, Joachim, tells his wife, Anna, that he wishes to bring their daughter to the Temple. Anna’s response is that they should wait until Mary is three years old so that she wouldn’t need her parents as much. On the day designated for Mary to be taken to the Temple, Hebrew virgins accompanied the family with burning lamps. The Temple priest received Mary, kissed her, and blessed her. According to James’ writing, the priest then proclaimed, “The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, the Lord will manifest his redemption to the sons of Israel.” After that, Mary was placed on the third step of the Temple and danced with joy. All the house of Israel loved Mary, and she was nurtured from then on in the Temple while her parents returned to their Nazareth home, glorifying God.
The celebration of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary grew slowly over the years. On November 21, 543, Emperor Justinian dedicated a church to Mary in the Temple area of Jerusalem. Many of the early church Fathers celebrated this feast day, such as St. Germanus and St. John Damascene. The Byzantine Church considers this one of the twelve great feasts of the liturgical year but was not celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church until the ninth century. It was formally celebrated in Avignon, France in 1373 and in 1472, Pope Sixtus IV extended it to the universal church.
In 1974, Pope Paul VI wrote about this feast in his encyclical Marialis Cultus, “despite its apocryphal content, it presents lofty and exemplary values and carries on the venerable traditions having their origins in the Eastern churches.”
Part legend and part tradition, the memorial of the Presentation of Mary has been noted in the Church since its early years and yet is easily forgotten or misunderstood. Since it’s classified as a memorial and not a solemnity or holy day of obligation, it doesn’t draw much attention to itself other than a special opening prayer. On this day, we celebrate the fact that God chose to dwell in Mary in a unique way. In response, she placed her whole self at his service. By our Baptism, God invites us, too, into his service.
We don’t have to let the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary pass us by simply because it’s not a Holy Day of Obligation. Mary is truly our Mother, given to us by Christ as he hung dying on the Cross. Because we are part of her Son’s own Body, she loves us with as much devotion and tenderness as the loves Jesus. Therefore, all of her feast days should be important to us.
Here are four simple ways to observe the Presentation of Mary:
- Attend Holy Mass or visit our Lord in Eucharistic Adoration. Where Jesus is, so is Mary. The two are inseparable.
- Pray the Rosary with real focus and love, offering it in thanksgiving for Mary as your Mother.
- Joyfully extend an act of kindness to someone else. We are all Mary’s children, and when we show care and respect for one another she is especially pleased.
- Give her flowers on her special day. Place a bouquet of fresh flowers in your prayer corner (you do have a prayer corner, don’t you?) and offer them to your Blessed Mother. Even a single bloom will delight her!
Don’t let Mary’s memorial go by without saying something special to her or doing something special for her. This is a celebration, not only of her service to God but also of the great gift that her service originated.