Growing up as a Quaker lad in Indiana meant that I never heard of this Feast Day, as the Catholic Church calls a day when a saint is remembered and celebrated. Of course, the saints are not worshipped, but they do serve as models of faith. They are human, but they also were so open to God’s Spirit working in and through them that they became servants of that Spirit in the world. The implication is you and I also can become instruments of the Spirit.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one such saint. In fact, for many of my Catholic friends and non-Catholic friends, Mary would be unique among the saints. Only she can claim to be the mother of Jesus. In that sense she has been accorded special status within the Christian Church. In fact, she even plays an important role within Islam. Many of us who are not Catholics do not “get it.” Rather than be dismissive of this stuff, perhaps we ought to pay more attention and see what learning there is for us.
Be open rather than opinionated is a pretty good approach. Instead of dismissing the stories surrounding Mary as silly, perhaps we could open ourselves to those stories not as fact, but as teaching tools of the Spirit. Let’s do a little of that here.
The Presentation of Mary as a religious festival goes all the way back to the sixth century. It appears to have originated in Jerusalem. Historically, it probably was associated with the building of a basilica, which was named in the Virgin Mary’s honor. At that time the Christian geography existed primarily in two different parts, known as the East and the West. The West was centered in Rome and dominated by the single Roman bishop, namely, the Pope. Eastern Christianity did not have a single center. Jerusalem was one focal point, along with Alexandria in Egypt and Constantinople, located on the isthmus between Europe and Asia (the modern Istanbul, Turkey). The Feast of Mary played a more prominent role in the East. Over time, however, it took a place of importance in all of Christianity.
The Presentation of Mary is actually a dedication of the young Mary at the Temple. The story is not found in the Christian Bible. Rather one has to look in what is called the Apocryphal literature. The literature is a group of writings from the second to fourth centuries. The dedication of Mary’s story is found in a writing known as the Protevangelium of James. I first ran into this little book when I was in graduate school. In that little book we read that Mary’s parents took her to the Temple in Jerusalem. There she was presented (dedicated) to the service of the Lord. She would be tapped as one of the favored ones to play a special role in God’s work in the world.
I doubt that anything in this story is historical fact. But that does not really matter. What matters is the theology behind it---the spiritual fact, if you will. In effect, the Presentation of Mary is the story of human availability for Divine action in the world. Mary is not a passive tool. She is an active participant. I want to believe Mary had the option at any point along the way to say, “No.” She could have chosen to be unavailable.
I like the idea of availability. It is a common word that has spiritual impetus for me. Availability is my willingness to be present. If I tell you I am available, then you should be able to count on me to be present and helpful. If I am available, then I am “at home” when you need me. I think that is exactly the story of Mary. She was dedicated to this purpose. I want to be dedicated to that purpose, too.
Availability is closely related to hospitality. But I do think hospitality takes another step further than availability. Hospitality affirms that I will actually host you, if you come wanting something. Hospitality means I will care and I will share. Hospitality offers to you some of what is mine. Availability means possibility; hospitality suggests actuality.
It is easy for me to understand Mary as available to God and willing to be hospitable to God. But there is a third and more radical step Mary was willing to take. She was ready to be incarnational. That affirms that Mary was willing and ready to embody God---in her case, literally. Mary became the Spirit embodied---“the Word became flesh,” as John’s Gospel tells it.
It is easy to acknowledge that was true for Mary. But I would push it further. Not only is it true for Mary. It can be true for each of us. Mary is the model---the paradigm. She is the model of availability, of hospitality, and yes, of incarnating the Spirit of God so that we too might become servants of the Spirit.