Tuesday, November 21, 2023


 Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and since I'm doing the Protevangelium of James as the current fortnightly book, it's worth saying something about the feast -- the Protevangelium is a major reason why it exists.

The feast is also known, in certain Eastern calendars, as the Feast of the Entry (Eisodos) of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple, and this is in fact what it celebrates. According to the Protevangelium, which may be drawing on prior oral legend and is certainly influenced by reading of certain parts of the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 45) as prophecies of Christ, the Virgin's parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne, glad to have a child, promise to consecrate her to the Lord. When the young girl is three years old, they bring her to the Temple to be trained to provide some of the materials that are used in the Temple services (spinning thread for various cloths being the primary one). She is there for the next nine years, during which time both of her parents die, so according to the Protevangelium, when she is twelve, and thus about to enter puberty and unable to participate in the service in which she had thus far participated, the priests arrange for her to be betrothed to Joseph, who becomes her guardian. 

The feast itself commemorates the Virgin's dedication to Temple service, and thus one of its important functions is that it liturgically presents Mary as patron of consecrated virginity; it is associated as such with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. The association with the Temple also makes the feast a celebration of Mary as symbolically the Ark of the Covenant. The feast itself is Byzantine in origin, possibly arising as early as the sixth century, although the first definite identification of it in a liturgical calendar is in the eleventh. It has ever since been continuously celebrated as one of the major feasts of the Byzantine liturgical calendar. It has had a rockier history in the West; it was occasionally celebrated, but only became a consistent feast in the Western calendar in the sixteenth century, possibly even then only as a concession to its importance in the East. It likewise became a popular subject of Western art in the late Renaissance, with Titian's painting perhaps being the most famous example:

Presentation titian.JPG

We don't know a lot about the broader Temple service and organization in the Second Temple period; we don't have much definite evidence from other sources as to how the Temple sourced its physical requirements like cloth, and the Protevangelium is, as far as I know, the only early source that indicates that there was some sort of formal dedication to the Temple, although it's at least consistent with Luke's account of the Nativity that Anna and Simeon may have been known by name because they were associated by some vow with some aspect, however secondary, of Temple service. But Luke's account also does not require such a thing. (The Protevangelium also does not strictly require that it was a matter of a vow by Mary herself, although later sources do say this.) The Mishnah, long after the fact, records the tradition that there were fifteen departments, each overseen by an officer, that looked after the various material needs, with two of them devoted to cloth (one for curtains and one for vestments); it seems clearly to envision these as woven specially for the temple, which of course would make sense. We have very little for external evidence beyond this, and arguably this is one of the reasons why it was slow to be accepted in the West, and also why the Western tradition tends to be more vague than the Eastern tradition about exactly what the feast celebrates, often treating it as a general feast commemorating the Virgin Mary's own self-dedication to God, and treating some of the Eastern traditions as metaphorical rather than literal. (What the story definitely seems to establish historically, however, is that there was a fully developed Christian tradition of consecrated virgins by about the middle of the second century when the Protevangelium is usually thought to have been written; the Protevangelium, while showing some broader knowledge of at least some Jewish customs, seems regularly to describe them in terms that would be familiar with Greek-speaking Christians in its own time.)