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November 21 – The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Presentation of the BVMIn Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the narrator, describing events in a mental hospital, comments that “it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.’’
It’s an idea that we accept all the time, and it applies to an observance in the Catholic Church during this month.
We accept this paradoxical statement, for example, when we hear the parables of Jesus.
It doesn’t matter to us whether a father actually forgave his prodigal son or whether a Samaritan traveler actually helped a Jewish man who had been mugged.
We hear those stories, and we get the message, whether the stories are true or whether Jesus made them up.
So it is with the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which the eastern and western Catholic churches and the Orthodox Church celebrate on November 21.
This observance commemorates the occasion when the parents of Mary brought her to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate her to God.
There is one complication: None of the Gospels that are recognized by the Church and therefore included in the New Testament describe this incident.
This story comes instead from “apocryphal’’ literature—that is, a body of gospels and letters that purport to be the work of authoritative writers, including some of the apostles, but which Catholic scholars regard as either pious fiction, possibly laced with some facts, or outright fraud.
Some of these writings, including the Protoevangelium of James, embellish what we know about the betrothal and marriage of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
People in the early Christian era apparently were a lot like people today in their curiosity about the lives of famous people, and these apocryphal writings, whatever else they achieved, satisfied some of that curiosity.
The Protoevangelium of James, which scholars think was written in the second century, includes an elaborate account of the birth and childhood of Mary.
According to the author, Joachim and Anna were distraught because they did not have a child, but while Joachim fasted in the desert, God responded through an angel to Anna’s intense prayer.
The angel announced that Anna was pregnant and that “your child will be spoken of everywhere people live.”
When Mary was three years old, her parents—because of their gratitude—took her to the Temple and consecrated her to God.
Mary remained in the Temple until she was 12 years old, and then the priests selected Joseph—a widower and a father—to take custody of her.
At least in part, it is from this account that we derive the tradition that Joseph was much older than Mary and the idea accepted by some Christians that Jesus had siblings—ostensibly including the James, who wrote this gospel and claimed to be Joseph’s son.
A feast day to commemorate Mary’s appearance in the temple originated in connection with the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary the New which was built in the sixth century near the former site of the Temple and destroyed by the Persians during the siege of Jerusalem in 614 AD.
So this feast has a somewhat complicated history, but there is nothing complicated about its implications.
Whether or not the story is true, this feast reminds us that Mary was devoted to God throughout her life and that she was not only the mother of Jesus but his first disciple.
As St. Augustine expressed it, Mary herself was a temple, bearing Jesus in her own body and keeping the word of God in her mind and heart—as always, an example for all of us.
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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