Have you ever stopped to picture Mary as a little girl?
Not floating on air. Not perfectly manicured. Not glowing.
But as a little girl.
As we come upon the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, I’m forced to stop and consider that she was…human.
That means she had fingernails, toes, and eyebrows. She had cheeks, boogers, and hair follicles.
She may have built castles in the dirt, tripped and bruised her knees, turned small sticks into dolls and played with them. She might have burned herself learning to cook, been sick all night vomiting, had a fever and been drenched in sweat.
She gave a first smile. She took a first step. She said a first word.
Did she run across a yard, delighted, to greet a favorite family member? Did she ask embarrassing questions at top volume during synagogue time when she was a preschooler? Was her heart broken and mended and challenged before she understood what her life would be?
But first, a little background
The Presentation of Mary is on our liturgical calendars, but what does it mean? It can’t actually be proven historically, though we read about it in early documents (namely the Protoevangelium of James).
The Presentation of Mary follows a story of God’s faithfulness to two people. If you’ve read about Abraham and Sarah, then this will feel familiar: Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, were long in years and childless. Not by choice, and it felt to them like a punishment.
They prayed and they fasted. They mourned separately. We’re not told about the difficulties this may have posed for them personally: The mocking looks of the women to Anne, the pitying gazes of the men to Joachim. Did they argue or harbor resentment toward each other? Were they just getting comfortable in their old age, accepting what was to be? Did they just toss up a last “let’s see what happens” prayer?
It was clearly the last prayer, because Anne, in her old age, was pregnant. An angel is involved, so it’s legitimately a miracle.
There was much rejoicing. (And, in my experience, much napping as well.)
After Mary was born, you can imagine how Joachim and Anne rejoiced! They did what any God-loving Jewish couple would do — think Hannah, mother of the Old Testament prophet Samuel — and dedicated her to God.
This is where things get fuzzy for me, because I have a hard time picturing the longing for a child and then the giving up of said child. I’d like to pull up a chair with Anne and just chat about this. What kind of pain of separation is that? I’m tempted to see it as a way of avoiding the turmoil of the teen years, except that both Joachim and Anne had promised, in their prayers and fasting, to dedicate any child they would have to the Lord.
Tradition holds that Mary took her first seven steps when she was six months old, and Anne declared that she wouldn’t walk again until she walked at the Temple.
When Mary was three years old — just at the age to do the very cutest (and most maddening) things — we have her Presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem. This involved a journey to Jerusalem, which would have been no small thing: 64 miles (and no easy way to get there).
And then…they left her at the Temple. Though I spent the better part of a morning searching, I couldn’t find any good source to show me what her life would have been like. I assume she would have been surrounded by scripture and worship. Did she learn to read? Could she write? I haven’t been able to find out, but I suspect that she could and did.
Mary’s first steps in the Temple were to dance in front of the altar (remember how David did that, too, many centuries before?). The stories (legends?) say that a halo of light surrounded her, and I’m pretty sure she was something to behold. Not only was she cute, but she was blessed right out of the gate. Every adult there was charmed and praising God.
I can’t help but wonder: Were Joachim and Anne a little tempted to just move to Jerusalem to stay close to Mary? Watch her grow up? Stay in touch? According to Coptic tradition, Joachim died when Mary was six and Anne died when she was eight.
There is a cute anecdotal story about the priests and elders sitting around, talking about God. Mary chimed in, and you can see them all smiling. But then, Mary had that effect on people.
History of the feast day
The Presentation of Mary, then, is a celebration of her sinlessness, of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Preserved from original sin, she received a special sort of upbringing, too.
Could it be that we’re celebrating something that has been a bit exaggerated? Something that might have happened very differently?
Consider the Nativity and the many different images we have of that event.
There’s something inherently fascinating about the story of Mary being taken to the Temple. Picturing her as a young girl, just beyond toddlerhood, still with all her baby teeth and wispy hair, makes her more human and accessible for me.
Mary, the Mother of God — that makes her sound so grown-up, so perfect, so imposing. But Mary as a three-year-old, dancing in front of the altar? I’ve almost seen that happen with my own kids (and I was maybe more than a little horrified).
Picture the ebullience she must have had, and the way those around her couldn’t help but smile. Pause for a moment, the next time you pray a Hail Mary, and think of the little girl Mary must have once been.
And when you don your blue on the feast of Mary’s Presentation — because why not wear blue to honor the Blessed Mother on her feast day? — put an extra skip in your step and give God a little something extra in thanksgiving.
image: Connellsville, Pennsylvania / Stained glass window depicting presentation of the child Mary in the Jerusalem Temple by her parents, Joachim and Ann via Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com.