Imagine taking your 3-year-old child to live with someone else — and she stayed there until she was old enough to be married.
According to tradition, that is exactly what happened to the parents of the Blessed Virgin — and it is the origin of the feast we known call “The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox churches know the feast as “The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos (God-bearer) into the Temple.” All of these churches celebrate the feast on the same date: Nov. 21.
The four Gospels in the Bible tell us nothing about the childhood of Jesus’ mother, much less anything about her parents. However, apocryphal writings of the early church — such as the Protoevangelium of James — form the basis for our traditions about Mary’s family. From these writings, we have the names of Mary’s parents — Anne and Joachim, know that they were childless and that angels appeared to them both to foretell the birth of their child.
From here, we also are told that Anne and Joachim took their little daughter, , at the age of 3, to the Temple to consecrate her to the Lord’s service. Once there, the toddler proceeded to climb the 15 Temple steps that led to the Holy of Holies. This innermost part of the Temple was a place where only the High Priest could enter to make sacrifice and even then only one day out of every year.
No doubt at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the High Priest (the Orthodox churches teach that the High Priest that year was Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist) did not turn the child away, but even took her into the holy site.
The Orthodox Church in America explains this event as a transition point in the history of salvation: “(Mary) was led to the holy place to be ‘nourished’ there by the angels in order to become herself the ‘holy of holies’ of God, the living sanctuary and temple of the divine child who was to be born in her.”
Mary remained in the Temple until the time when she was betrothed to Joseph, shortly before the Annunciation, which tradition says took place in Nazareth and not in Jerusalem.
While nothing is known of her time there, the Eastern churches’ tradition notes that, after she had been betrothed, Mary was invited back to the Temple, with other Temple virgins for a special task. They were asked to weave a new veil for the Holy of Holies. To Mary fell the lot of spinning the royal purple yarn, which she worked on in the house at Nazareth. Legend says that this was the same veil that was torn in two when Jesus died on the cross.
A feast day honoring Mary’s Presentation at the Temple first began in the East, around Jerusalem in the sixth century. It is a large feast for the Orthodox churches and Eastern Catholics.
Mary’s Presentation feast arrived in the West through France and was celebrated in Rome by Pope Gregory XI in 1372. It did not become part of the official church calendar until 1585.
In 1953, Pope Pius XII instituted Pro Orantibus (“For Those Who Pray”) Day, also known as World Day of Cloistered Life. In 1994, Pope John Paul II set the date for the celebration of Pro Orantibus Day to be on Nov. 21, the feast of the Presentation of Mary.
During his pontificate, Pope Francis has used Pro Orantibus Day as a time to visit local cloistered communities in and around Rome. Last year, at his Nov. 18 general audience, he called Pro Orantibus Day an occasion to “thank the Lord for the gift of the vocation of men and women who, in monasteries and hermitages, have dedicated their life to God.”
Mary’s life, from the moment of her Immaculate Conception, was dedicated to the will of God. As we near the celebration of Advent, her example draws us all to renew our personal vocation.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; w2.vatican.va; saltandlighttv.org; catholicculture.org; vocationsblog.com; OCA.org; Goarch.org; and the Institute on Religious Life.