Mary's Presentation in the Temple
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
To celebrate Mary's Presentation in the Temple, which Holy Mother Church observes annually on November 21st, we make a pilgrimage to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and pray to the Lord before the magnificent Altar in the Chapel of the Presentation of the Virgin. This impressive mosaic portraying the Virgin Mary's entry into the Temple was created by Pietro Paolo Cristofari in 1728 and serves as the centerpiece of the Altar. The original painting by Francesco Romanelli, finished in 1638 and now housed at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs in Rome, was replaced by the mosaic. The mosaic of Mary’s Presentation adorns the Altar and serves as a most appropriate counterpart to words of Psalm 42 that Priests recite at beginning Mass:
Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam. "I will go unto the altar of God, to God who is the joy of my youth" (Psalm 42:4).
This mosaic depicts the joy of Mary's own Introit. With arms humbly crossed over her heart, she enters God’s Temple with joyous anticipation. In most artistic representations of the Presentation, St. Anne and St. Joachim are placed at a distance to emphasize Mary's solitary resolve, but here the artist, Cristofari, depicts St. Anne and St. Joachim close by Mary’s side, as St. Anne places her right hand on Mary's shoulder. According to Fr. Alban Butler, the presentation of young children in the Temple was a custom of some Jewish parents at the time:
“Religious parents never fail by devout prayer to consecrate their children to the divine service and love, both before and after their birth. Some amongst the Jews, not content with this general consecration of their children, offered them to God in their infancy, by the hands of the Priests in the Temple, to be lodged in apartments belonging to the Temple, and brought up in attending the Priests and Levites in the sacred ministry.”
In our own times we see a beautiful tradition among Mexican Catholics of presenting their child to God (La presentación). The infant boys are often presented on the 40th day after birth, recalling how the Christ Child was Presented by Mary and Joseph in the Temple on the 40th day after His Nativity. The presentation of girls is traditionally on their third birthday, as parents consecrate their children to Mary’s protection.
The ancient text, the Protoevangelium of James (c. 145 A.D.), describes the Presentation of the Infant Mary in the Temple of Jerusalem. Mary's parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne, brought her to the Temple when she was three years old, so that she be dedicated to God:
And the child was two years old, and Joachim said: “Let us take her up to the Temple of the Lord, that we may pay the vow that we have vowed, lest perchance the Lord send to us, and our offering be not received.” And Anna said: “Let us wait for the third year, in order that the child may not seek for father or mother.” And Joachim said: “So let us wait.”
And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: “Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord.”
And they did so until they went up into the Temple of the Lord. And the Priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: “The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.”
And he set her down upon the third step of the Altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back. And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.
As we see in Cristofari’s mosaic, the Jewish High Priest was waiting for her at at the top of fifteen stairs at the Altar of Holocausts. The fifteen steps going up to the Altar represented the slow progression of the Davidic Psalms recited by the Israelites as they brought their sacrifices to the Lord. The scene takes place in the portico of the Jerusalem Temple, with a massive, imposing column made of green marble serving as a backdrop to the stairway leading up to the Altar. The wall of the enclosed garden and the open sky beyond are seen via the portico's enormous open arc. This garden makes an allusion to the poetic imagery that the Spouse uses for His bride in the Canticle of Canticles, which is evoked by this landscape (Cfr. Canticle of Canticles 4:12). The Church's early Patristic writers see the imagery of the enclosed garden as a mystical reference to the perpetual virginity of Mary and to her Immaculate Conception.
As we gaze again at this artistic representation of Mary's Presentation, at the column's apex, we behold an angelic host appearing from behind the clouds, as rays of light shine forth. We behold the majesty of the Lord as God is in the midst of His Temple. As we behold the Virgin Mary entering the Temple, we recall that, as God's plan for her is only beginning to unfold. In the fullness of time, the Archangel Gabriel will announce God's message at the Annunciation, proclaiming:
"The power of the Most High will overshadow you."
In that moment which Christ becomes incarnate in her womb, Our Lady will in actuality become the living Temple of the Lord (Luke 1:35) and the Tabernacle of the Most High. Look again at this remarkable mosaic and you will see a Seraph in brilliant robes appearing out of the clouds. This Angel looks at Mary, and then extends his hands in benediction. From heaven, the Cherubs are singing and dancing with joy at the sight of the Child Mary, who, through her Divine Maternity, would be crowned as Queen of the Angels. A blue-robed angel appears to be descending to Earth, an allusion to the Divine Child Jesus who will enter the world by way of Mary. The blue of his robes match of the color of the Jewish High Priest's garments, because Jesus is the Eternal High Priest of Heaven in the Holy of Holies. In this painting's foreground, the Jewish High Priest, dressed in his solemn sacred garments, leads a procession. The High Priest wears a breastplate adorned with the symbols of the twelve Israelite tribes. Two acolytes flank the candelabras on either side. The High Priest shows the Child Mary respect by lowering his head and motioning for her to enter the sanctuary. As Our Lady makes her majestic entrance with hands joined in prayer, as if to announce:
"Behold the handmaid of the Lord..." (Lk 1:38)
She's wearing red, not only because it is the traditional color for wedding garments of the Imperial Court, but because she is to become the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. St. Anne stands at Mary's side as she delivers her daughter to the High Priest. It is certain that St. Anne suffered great shame in her culture due to her inability to bear a child. As she was favored with this pregnancy late in life, St. Anne consecrated her child to God in service to the Temple in thanksgiving to Him. With her eyes wide and her arms outstretched, St. Anne gives Mary unreservedly to the Lord. St. Joachim looks at his holy daughter with a face full of intense love. The couple has peace of mind because they believe they are only returning to God what is rightfully His. Because of God's mercy, the prayers of St. Anne and St. Joachim to have a child, were answered in the most remarkable way, as the Lord chose them to conceive the Immaculate Virgin Mary. On the left side of the painting, a lady kneels, facing the viewer. The two doves in her hands represent the offering which poor people make in the Temple. This alludes to the offering that Mary and Joseph will make when they bring Jesus to the Temple years later. Today is also a day of prayer for the contemplative and pious monks, nuns, and other consecrated souls all over the globe who serve Christ and His Church in a life of prayer and sacrifice. The World Day of Cloistered Life is held annually on November 21st. For this reason, it is known as Pro Orantibus Day ("The Day for Those Who Pray.)
The Venerable Pope Pius XII established it in 1953, on the feast day of Mary's Presentation in the Temple. The souls of these consecrated persons instill in us the wisdom that brings us closer to God and, in turn, to our neighbor. We commit them to the care of the Most Holy Virgin Mary and say as one the prayer set out for this Marian feast:
O God, by Whose will the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, was on this day presented in the temple, grant, we beseech You, that by her intercession we may be found worthy to be brought into the temple of Your glory. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.