My oldest child was baptized on the feast of the Presentation of Mary. I didn’t realize that that was the day’s feast at the time, because it fell on a Sunday that year (and the feast of Christ the King took precedent). I was delighted to realize that she was baptized on so fitting a feast.
The feast of the Presentation of Mary, recalls the tradition that, as a young child, Mary was presented to the temple by her parents, in order to be raised there. This, of course, calls to mind other instances in Scripture where a child is dedicated to God from a young age. The first to come to mind is the story of Samuel, whose mother, Hannah, prayed for a child and gratefully presented her son to the temple once he was weaned. Like Hannah, tradition holds that Sts. Anne and Joachim (the parents of Mary) prayed for a child for many years, before being given Mary.
The idea of presenting a toddler or preschooler to a temple to be raised sounds like abandonment to our modern ears. I remember the year that my oldest daughter turned three (the age that it is traditionally thought that Mary was entrusted to the temple). I took her to Mass on the feast of the Presentation of Mary that year, to celebrate the anniversary of her baptism. Suddenly, it hit me – this beautiful, funny, adorable little person in my arms was the same age that Mary was, when her parents presented her. My heart ached at the thought of having to give up my own sweet daughter at such a tender age, and I was grateful that it wasn’t necessary.
Certainly, the concept of entrusting a child to the temple sounds like abandonment. In a sense it is, but not in the sense that we may be thinking of. The child would have been well provided for in the temple, would not have wanted for food, clothing, shelter, or education. The parents certainly didn’t forsake the child. In fact, most images of the Presentation of Mary show the high priest of the temple eagerly waiting for her, with his arms wide open. Mary certainly would have been well cared for.
However, there is another sense of the word “abandonment.” In the spiritual tradition, when we speak of abandonment, we are referring to a complete and total entrusting of one to God’s love and providence. In this sense, what Anne and Joachim did was abandonment – total and utter abandonment to the will of God in the life of their daughter.
Another key feature of images of Mary’s Presentation is the willingness with which she entered the Temple. I have a toddler daughter of my own, and I can’t image her skipping up the steps of the church into the arms of a priest or nun (and her father works at a seminary, so she actually is friends with a number of priests and nuns!). She would certainly resist, and a parting like this would be traumatizing for both of us. But this isn’t the case for Mary. The tiny child shown in these images eagerly and peacefully looks up to the Temple. We don’t know exactly how Mary reacted to the parting with her parents, but this depiction of her makes perfect sense. This is she whose son would later say, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Of course she, too, would long to be close to God.
As a mother, I can only imagine how tremendously painful this would have been for Mary’s parents (especially her mother, who had probably only recently weaned her). Presenting Mary to the Temple was no small sacrifice on their part.
For my fellow parents, the inference is simple – do we relinquish our children to God’s plan for their lives? Or do we constantly try to conform them to our own desires? Are we willing to abandon our children to the work of God’s providence in their lives?
For all of us – parents and non-parents alike – there is an even stronger message. Do we long for God the way that Mary did? Do we find ourselves running and leaping up the steps of the Temple, or dragging our feet at the realization that doing so means time taken away from checking Facebook/tuning in to the football game/binging on a TV series on Netflix/sleeping an extra hour? I am fairly certain that Mary would have missed her parents. But I also am certain that she entered the Temple with joy. There is nothing wrong with browsing Facebook (or whatever your social media outlet of choice may be). There is nothing wrong with following your favorite sports team, or sleeping in on occasion, or relaxing with a good book and a mug of coffee or a glass of wine. Of course, there is nothing wrong with loving your children and not wanting to let go of them. There is, however, something wrong with loving each of these things more than God. There is something out of order when our longing for something else makes us less free to long for God.
What is preventing us from dancing up the steps of the Temple, into the arms of God?