Wrapping up this week's series on giving, here is the first part of a meditation on Joachim and Anna's sacrifice of their long-desired only child.
Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Virgin Mary into the Temple. The written source of this story is the Protoevangelium of Saint James. Although not accepted as holy Scripture and riddled with detail that cast doubt on its historicity, the story is important for us today as it testifies to the central role of Mary in Christianity, the importance of the Temple and Jewish worship, history and culture as the nurturing basis of Christianity, and a tribute to those who look beyond brick and mortar places of worship to the people of God as manifestations of the image of God and to Mary, whose body was the Temple for Christ.
The incorporation of Mary into our liturgy is a specific case where theology followed popular piety. It was the women of early Christian communities who looked to Mary for spiritual guidance, as a model and comfort for women in labor and childbirth, as a witness to the mission and sacrifice of her son. The clergy took note of this reverence. It was a widespread and pious devotion. And the Church Fathers understood the significance of Mary as a holy and human person who gave birth to a child, one who was Divine as well as human, an important factor in establishing the Orthodox Christology.
The veneration of Mary can also be traced from East to West in the development of Christianity. There are elaborate hymns and songs to Mary, ancient and current, sung by women throughout Ethiopia. These songs are popular and pious. They praise Mary as Mother of the Savior, the compassionate patron of all women. Filled with references to fertility in nature and guardian of flourishing life, these songs are sung and composed by women outside the Church precincts offering opportunities for women to express religious devotion, to tend to each other’s spiritual needs, to be, in fact, the Christians who bring the Word to those who cannot be ordained or allowed in the church buildings themselves.
The Temple itself was the center of Jewish worship, community, and identity. First built by King Solomon as a place for the Ark of the Covenant, according to the instructions God gave Moses, it was destroyed at the time of the Exile, and rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah. Herod saw that the Temple was enhanced and made more splendid in an elaborate plan and project of renovation.
The story is that Anna and Joachim prayed many years for a child and promised that—should they be so blessed—their child would be devoted to God. After Mary was born, they brought her to the Temple when she was three years old. There she was met by the High Priest, Zachariah. Virgins carrying lamps led the way and angels hailed her radiance. She was fed by the Angel Gabriel. Icons and paintings depict this as a glorious time. The hymns of the Liturgy express praise, beauty, a momentous event of historical, theological, and spiritual importance. Ushered into the building, Mary begins her lessons in reciting the psalms, attending the priests in daily lives and duties, sewing and caring for vestments and Temple cloths. She stayed until she reached puberty at which time she had to leave the Temple precincts. The priests brought together twelve pious and righteous men and chose Joseph as her guardian and companion.
It is, indeed, a story of faith, devotion, holy recognition for this girl’s discipline and grace. And there were children who were brought to the Temple at that time, And yet…
Part Two will appear next week.
Judith Scott is a regular blogger for Axia. She holds a master's in theology from Union Theological Seminary.