The Presentation of Mary in the Temple, November 21, is an ecumenical feast originating in Jerusalem in the 6th century. A new church, honoring Mary, was built for pilgrims by the Emperor Justinian near the ruins of the Jewish temple where tradition said Mary was born. Other early traditions place her birthplace in Nazareth or Sepphoris, a city close by.
Artists like Giotto lent support to the Jerusalem tradition by their popular portrayals of Mary introduced into the temple by Ann and Joachim, her mother and father. (above)
Luke’s gospel may support the Jerusalem tradition by noting that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was married to Zechariah, a temple priest. Luke also says Mary and Joseph were familiar visitors to the temple. Forty days after the birth of Jesus , they went there “when the days were completed for their purification,” (Luke 2,22) They brought Jesus to the temple as a child to celebrate the feasts. For Jesus the temple is “my Father’s house.”
Yet the church celebrates this feast not so much to recall an historical event but rather Mary’s gift for “listening to the word of God and keeping it.” (Luke 11:28) For Mary the temple was a place of God’s presence. Like Jesus, she believed the temple of God was everywhere, in Nazareth, Bethlehem, even on Calvary.(cf. John 4, 22-26) “You are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you,” St. Paul reminds the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 3, 16)
St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, was greatly devoted to this feast because he began his 40 day retreat to discern God’s will on this day. He experienced God’s call to found a community during those holy days. Afterwards, he dedicated the first retreat of his congregation on Monte Argentario to the Presentation of Mary and returned there year after year to renew the grace he received then. St. Vincent Strambi, his biographer, writes:
“Whenever possible, Paul kept the feast in the Retreat of the Presentation. How often, even when old and crippled, he would set out from the Retreat of St.Angelo, traveling over impassible roads in the harsh days of November, to Monte Argentario, where he would celebrate the feast with great recollection. It would be difficult to describe the days he spent there. His heart seemed to melt like wax in a fire because of his love for the Mother of God and his gratitude towards her. As the feast drew near he was so full of joy that the air around Monte Argentario seemed to breathe a sweetness similar to what the prophet Joel describes: “On that day, the mountains will drop down sweetness and the hills flow with milk.” On the day of the feast, he seems totally penetrated with tender devotion. Even on his deathbed, he recalled, “The day of the Presentation was always a holy and solemn day for me.”
Please pray for the Passionists, the community he founded that, like Mary, the Mother of God, we may hear God’s word and kept it.