CNS PHOTO | COURTESY OF FABBRICA DI SAN PIETRO
This small detail showing Mary at the age of 3 is part of a mosaic copy of Francesco Romanelli's 17th-century painting of Mary climbing the steps of the Temple. According to the apocryphal gospels, Joachim and Anne brought Mary to the Temple to consecrate her to God. The mosaic hangs over a side altar in St. Peter's Basilica.
Two of the more unusual feasts on the liturgical calendar are the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8) and the Presentation of Mary in the Temple (Nov. 21). There is no scriptural description of either Mary's birth or her presentation.
Indeed, it was typically only firstborn males who were presented in the Temple, that coming 40 days after birth. The feast of Mary's presentation falls 10 and a half weeks after her birth, considerably more than 40 days.
Moreover, saints' feast days are usually arranged to fall on the day of their death – that is, their birth into heaven – not on their birthdays. The only birthdays that we celebrate in church are those of Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.
The most ancient story about Mary's nativity is found in the somewhat fanciful Birth of Mary, later renamed the Protoevangelium of James, written about 170 or 180 AD. Although this book is not part of the canon of Scripture and thus not regarded as divinely-inspired, this does not mean it is pure fiction.
James tells of Mary being born to her parents, Joachim and Anne, who were wealthy, elderly and childless. The couple prayed for a child and angels appeared to them separately saying that their prayers would be answered. Seven months later (!), Mary was born.
Mary, according to this story, was of the tribe of David while Joachim was a priest and thus a Levite, a different tribe. Obviously, this is not possible. Nor is it possible that Mary was raised in the Temple as the story relates.
James' account is that Mary was presented in the Temple when she was three years old because of a vow made by Joachim and Anne and that she was left to be raised in the Temple.
In a different account, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Mary's parents brought her to the Temple when she was three and she was so excited to arrive that she ran up the steps, never giving so much as a side glance to her parents.
While much in these accounts would seem to be historically dubious, they do point to a profound devotion to Mary in the early Church. One hypothesis is that the Protoevangelium of James was written to counter attacks on Mary's sanctity. The book, then, is a witness to a belief in the early Church that Mary's holiness was something that needed to be defended.
Likewise, Mary's presentation in the Temple is seen as her offering herself to God at an early age. As well, the reason we celebrate the births of Mary and John the Baptist is that they are bridge persons between the Old and New Testaments. They were born in the Old and played crucial roles in helping Christ establish the New Covenant.
One essential Marian feast is the Immaculate Conception – the celebration that she was conceived without original sin. That feast falls on Dec. 8, nine months (not seven) before the feast of Mary's Nativity.
However, the feast of Mary's Nativity was celebrated centuries before that of the Immaculate Conception. Although the early Christians had little or no notion of Mary being preserved from original sin, they knew she was important in the story of salvation and that her birth ought to be celebrated.
We also have no other evidence that Mary's parents were named Joachim and Anne. Nevertheless, Mary must have had parents and it is a reasonable belief that those parents, whose grandson was the Saviour, would have been deeply devoted to God.
As early as the sixth century, churches were dedicated to St. Anne, a testimony to the importance of grandparents in nurturing the life of faith.
Mary, meanwhile, is first among the saints and our celebration of these events in her life testifies to the importance of her role in our salvation.
(This article is the second in a series of occasional reflections on the Virgin Mary.)