The History Of The Blessed Virgin, Translated From The French By The Very Rev. F. C. Husenbeth, D.D., V.G. Part 11.

Chapter 4

The Presentation Part 3

The ceremony of the Presentation certainly took place in the court of the women, and not in the actual interior of the sanctuary, where some authors have located it. It began by a sacrifice. The gate of Nicanor, silently rolling on its brazen hinges to let the victim pass in, showed a perspective view of the farthest space, quite like a marvellous vision of that Eden so much regretted, whose golden palaces, overshadowed by lofty cedars, were the habitations of the Just, as the Pharisees taught. 1 Through the marble columns of a superb portico, from the top of which hung down the gigantic branches and pendant clusters of a golden vine, was discovered an edifice which seemed at first sight to be of massive gold, so strong was the glare which was cast by so many dazzling plates covering its facade of a hundred cubits beneath the pure and powerful light of the sun of Asia. An incredible number of votive offerings, where ears of wheat, lilies, pomegranates, vine-leaves formed of emeralds, topazes, carbuncles, and rubies, according to their colours, were intermingled, were fastened to the temple by golden cords; and when the rushing wind of the mountains began to blow, they might have been taken for real flowers, such was their exquisite workmanship and perfect imitation. At different distances were seen banners shot through with arrows, and stained with idolatrous blood, which the Asmonean princes, heroes of imperishable memory, had won from the Greeks of Syria in the glorious wars of independence, and consecrated with their priestly and warrior hands to the God of hosts. Herod, a cruel prince, but a valiant captain, had added to them the standards lately taken in his fortunate expeditions against the Arabs; and the sight of these trophies of arms filled with patriotic pride and warlike ardour those Hebrew hearts who cared so little for death, when they had to fight for what was dearer to them than gold, their families, or their life—the temple!

The priests and Levites assembled in the last compartment received from the hands of Joachim the victim of prosperity 2 These ministers of the living God had not their foreheads bound with laurel or green smallage, like the priests of the idols; a kind of mitre of a round shape, of very thick linen -cloth, a linen tunic, long, white, and without folds, fastened with a broad girdle, embroidered with hyacinth and purple, -composed the priestly costume, which was worn only in the temple. One of the priests took the lamb, and after a short invocation of the God of Jacob, slew it, turning its head towards the north; the blood, which flowed into a brazen vessel, was poured out here and there around the altar. When these first rites were terminated, the priest laid out upon a golden plate a portion of the flesh of the victim, still quivering, and part of the entrails, which the Levites had carefully washed in the fountain-court; he wrapped up the oblation in a double covering of fat, covered it with incense, threw upon it the salt of the covenant, then, ascending barefooted the gentle rise which led up to the platform of the brazen altar, he there deposited the offering upon the billets of wood, perfectly sound and stripped of their bark, which fed the sacred fire. The rest of the victim, except the breast and the right shoulder, which belonged to the priests, was returned to the husband of St. Ann, that he might make a feast with it for his friends and relatives, according to the custom. 3

The last sounds of the trumpets of the priests were dying away along the porticoes, and the sacrifice was still burning on the brazen altar, when a priest came down into the court of the women to conclude the ceremonial. Ann, followed by Joachim, carrying Mary in her arms, came forward with a veil over her head, towards the minister of the Most High, and if we may believe an Arab tradition which Mahomet himself has recorded in the Koran, she presented to him the young handmaid of the Lord, saying, with a voice full of emotion, "I come to offer you the present which God has made me." 4

The priest accepted, in the name of God, who makes the-womb of mothers fruitful, the precious deposit which gratitude confided to him, and blessed Joachim, as well as his pious company; 5 then stretching out his hands over the assembly, which bowed down over the pontifical benediction, 6 "O Israel," said he, "may the Lord direct his light towards thee—may he make thee to prosper in everything, and grant thee peace!" A canticle of thanksgiving, harmoniously accompanied by the harps of the priests, terminated the Presentation of the Virgin.

Such was the ceremony which took place, in the latter days of November, in the holy temple of Sion. Men, who usually stop at the surface, beheld nothing but a young child, very beautiful and wonderfully fervent, consecrated by her mother to that God who had granted her to her prayers and tears; but the angels of heaven, who hovered over the sanctuary, discovered in that weak and gentle creature the Virgin of Isaias, the spouse of whom Solomon had sung the mystical espousals, the celestial Eve who came to impart to a fallen race the hope of a glorious immortality. Penetrated with joy to see at length the aurora shine forth of the day of the Messias, "they united," say certain ancient authors,7 " with this feast of earth, and covering the young descendant of David with their white wings, they scattered under her feet the odoriferous flowers of Paradise, and celebrated her entry into the temple with melodious concerts."

What passed then in the soul of Mary, in that soul sweetly expanded to the breath of the sanctifying Spirit, where all was peace, pure love, and light ? By what sacred ties did she unite herself to Him, who had preferred her to the -virgins and queens of so many nations? This is a secret between herself and God; but we may reasonably believe that never was oblation more favourably received; and St. Evodius of Antioch, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, St. Andrew of Crete, and a multitude of Latin fathers, agree in considering the consecration of the Virgin as the most pleasing act of religion in the sight of God which man had hitherto performed.

The name of the priest who received the Blessed Virgin among the number of daughters of the Lord is not known; St. Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople, and George of Nicomedia, incline to the belief that it was the father of St. John the Baptist: the ties of relationship which connected Zachary with the family of Joachim, the high rank which ho then occupied in the priesthood, 8 and the tender affection which Mary cherished for him and for Elizabeth, impart to this supposition a high degree of probability.

Be this as it may, the blessed daughter of Joachim was solemnly admitted into the number of the almas, or young virgins, who were brought up under the sacred shadow of the altar.

That Mary spent her best years in the temple is proved by apostolic tradition, by the writings of the fathers, and the opinion of the Church, who is not used to sanction doubtful facts; 9 nevertheless, certain heretics have allowed themselves to treat this circumstance as fabulous, and some Catholic authors themselves have considered it an obscure point, concealed beneath the veil of olden times, which it was very difficult to clear up. The denials of the former surprise us but little, bat the circumspection of the others is strange indeed; for if ever a Christian tradition possessed a character of authenticity it is this. St. Evodius, who was the first to relate, in an epistle entitled Lumen, which Nicephorus has preserved for us, this glorious circumstance of the infancy of the Virgin, flourished at the very time of the apostles and of the Mother of God. He was Bishop of Antioch, a town of Syria, to which both Jews and Christians resorted; and the temple where the newly-formed faithful followed, with profound veneration, the traces of the Son of God and his divine Mother, still subsisted in all its glory. This tradition, which came from the church of Jerusalem,— a church composed of the first disciples of Jesus Christ, among whom were found a number of relatives of the Virgin and of St. Joseph,—was consecrated very early by a religious memorial; a demonstrative proof in the eyes of Protestants themselves. 10 In fine, the greater number of the fathers, 11 and especially St. Jerom, who lived in the midst of the sites of our redemption, and where the traditions were yet recent, have recorded it, and held it to be true. This traditional belief may therefore be ranked in the number of the best established facts of history.

1 The Jews believed that the souls of the saints go into the garden of Eden, the entrance of which is forbidden to the living by the angel of death. They are magnificent in the description of this locality, where they place palaces built of precious stones, and, rivers of perfumed waters. In hell, on the contrary, a river of fire falls upon the damned, who suffer the extremes of heat and cold.—(Maimonides, Menasses, &c.)

2 Whether a favour was asked of God, or he was thanked for one obtained, it was called " a sacrifice of prosperity.''

3 This feast, reputed sacred, might he kept for two days together;but the law expressly forbade anything to be reserved from it for the third day, and it must be given even to the last morsel to the poor, for two reasons, says Philo: the first, because, as the victim belonged to God, who is in his nature liberal, it was his will that the needy should partake of it; the second, to hinder avarice, which is a vice of slaves, from creeping in, and dishonouring a holy practice.—(Philo, Tract, de Sacrif. c. 2.)

4 According to a Mahometan tradition, when St. Ann had given birth to the Blessed Virgin, she presented her to the priests, saying these words, which are also found in the Koran: " Dhouncon hadih alnedhirat," that is "Behold the offering which I make you." Hossein Vaez adds to these words in his Persian paraphrase, " Kih esan Khodii," which means, " For it is a present which God has made me," or, still more literally, " For it is from this present that God is to come."—(D'Herbelot, Bibl. Orient, t. ii. p. 620.)

5 Heli blessed Elcana and his wife, and he said to Elcana, "The Lord give thee seed of this woman, for the loan thou hast lent to the Lord. And they went to their own home."—(1 Kings i. 20.) See F. Croiset upon this ceremony.—(Exercises de Pi£te, t. xviii. p. 48.)

6 While the pontiff gave the blessing, the people were obliged to place their hands over their eyes and hide their faces, because it was not lawful to behold the hands of the priest: the Jews imagined that God was behind the pontiff, and looked upon them through his outstretched hands; they did not dare to lift up their eyes to him, " for jio one can see God and live."— (Basn., liv. vii. c. 15.)

7 St Andrew of Crete, and St. George of Nicomedia.

8 The Jews believed that St. John Baptist was much greater than. Jesus Christ, because he was the son of a high priest.— (St. J. Chrysost., Serm. 12, in Matt.)

9 In 1373, Philip de Maziere, a French nobleman, chancellor of the King of Cyprus, came to the court of Charles V., and related to him that in the East, where he had lived a long time, the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin was annually celebrated, in memory of her having been presented in the temple at the age of three years. Philip added, " I reflected that this great feast was not known in the Western church, and when I was ambassador from the King of Cyprus to the pope, I spoke to him about this festival, and presented him the office of it; he had it carefully examined by the cardinals, prelates, and doctors of theology, and permitted the feast to be celebrated." The Greeks kept it early under the title of the " Entrance of the Blessed Virgin into the Temple:" mention is made* of it in their most ancient martyrologies.

10 Gibbon himself could not help acknowledging the authenticity of the religious traditions in Palestine. " They (the Christians) fixed, by unquestionable tradition, the scene of each memorable event" (c. xxiii.): an avowal of considerable weight in the mouth of a writer so well informed as the English historian, and a man at the same time so little disposed in favour of religion. According to M. do Chateaubriand, if there is anything well proved upon earth, it is the authenticity of the Christian traditions at Jerusalem.

11 St. Epiphanius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzum, St. Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople, George of Nicomedia, St John Damascen, &c.