The History Of The Blessed Virgin, Translated From The French By The Very Rev. F. C. Husenbeth, D.D., V.G. Part 12.

Chapter 5

Mary In The Temple. Part 1.
In the fortified enclosure of the temple, on that site where the Christians erected an oratory, of which the companions in arms of Godfrey made a church with a gilded cupola, under the invocation of the Blessed Mary, 1 which the crave Knights Templars often took delight in ornamenting with spoils of the Saracens, arose that part of the religious edifice which had been consecrated to the virgins who were dedicated to the Lord : it was thither that Zachary led his young relative. 2

Although virginity in Israel was only a temporary virtue, and had soon to give place to conjugal virtues, it was not without privileges and without honour. Jehovah loved the prayers of chaste children, of pure virgins; and it was a virgin, and not a queen, whom he had chosen to bring about the redemption of the human race. Thus, when the seers of Juda unfolded to the elect, but oft chastised people, the prophetic picture of their miseries, or their victories, they always introduced in it a virgin, either smiling or in tears, to personify provinces and cities. In the wars of extermination, in which the broadsword of the Hebrews cut down the women, children, and old men of Moab, the virgins were spared; and the high priest, who was forbidden by a severe law to pay funeral honours to the friend whom he loved as his own soul, and even to the prince of his people, might assist without being defiled at the funeral of his sister if she had died a virgin. 3

The virgins, or almas, took part in the ceremonies of the Hebrew worship before that worship had a temple. We see them, under the guidance of Mary, the sister of Moses, celebrate with dances and canticles the passage of the Bed Sea. 4 These dancing choirs of young women, transplanted from Egypt into the desert, continued a long time among the Hebrews. The virgins of Silo, who seem to have been, in the time of the Judges, more especially consecrated to the service of Adonai than the other daughters of Israel, were dancing to the song of canticles and the sound of harps, at a short distance from the holy place, during a feast of the Lord, when the Benjaminites carried them off. This serious event did not pat an end to this custom, which ceased only at the disastrous epoch when the ark was lost and the first temple destroyed. 5

All the almas were probably admissible to these sacred choirs, when their reputation was not tarnished with any stain; but among them a chosen portion are distinguished, who are grouped about the altar, with greater fervour and perseverance. While the ark of God was still encamped in tents, the women who watched and prayed at the door of the tabernacle offered to God the brazen mirrors which they had brought from Egypt. They were doubtless pious widows, who had refused to form new engagements in order to attend more uninterruptedly to heavenly things, and almas devoted by their parents to the service of the sanctuary, who had been placed under the protection of these virtuous women. St. Jerom thus understands this passage of Exodus.

As the vow of parents could generally be redeemed, and as the redemption, fixed at a moderate sum, 6 was always effected at the end of a few years, 7 these temporary vows were called a loan made to the Lord. 8 "I have lent him to the Lord," said Anna, when she took her little Samuel to Silo. 9

After the return from the captivity, the influence of the Persians, who banished women from their religious solemnities, 10 told upon the institution of the almas; they ceased to form, in some degree, a body in the state, and to take an ostensible part in the ceremonies of worship. Under the pontiff kings, they lived in seclusion, and their days passed in so profound a retreat, that when they ran in dismay to the high priest Onias, at the time when the sacrilegious attempt of Heliodorus threw all Jerusalem into commotion, the Jewish historians considered the fact so unusual and wonderful that they recorded it in their annals. 11 There were then, whatever some may have said, certain virgins attached to the service of the second temple at the time of the presentation of Mary; the institutions of the primitive Christians attest it, 12 and St. Ambrose, St. Jerom, and before them the proto-gospel of St. James, have affirmed it. But what passed daring the abode of the Virgin in the temple ? What were, at this interesting time of her life, her tastes, her habits, her practices of devotion ? On this subject, there remain but few authentic documents. A traditionary life of the Mother of God, which St. Epiphanius, who lived in 890, considered then as very ancient, no doubt entered into those details, but it is lost. The gospel of the infancy of the Virgin, and of St. Jerom, though both inform us of the admission of Mary among the daughters of the Lord, confine their indications almost entirely to this fact. To fill up this vacant space of a history which God seems to have been pleased to envelop in clouds, we have nothing more than a few uncertain lines, some mutilated pages of the fathers, of which it is difficult, even by putting them carefully together in order, to make a satisfactory outline. No matter; like the Indian artisan, who joins together a broken piece of cloth, thread by thread, and who patiently endeavours to job the ends again by unravelling, tying together, and letting his shuttle glide with infinite precautions along this woof, worn out and easily broken, we shall apply laboriously to the work, and collect together the scattered shreds of the precious web of the life of the Virgin, to reunite the tissue, if it be practicable. With the persevering patience of Banian, we shall endeavour, not to make up a conjectural affair, which our profound respect for our subject would forbid, but to give, by the help of the best authorities and a long study of the manners of the Hebrews, the most precise idea, and that approaching as near as possible to the truth, of the almost cloistered life of Mary in the temple.

1 The mosque of Omar (el Aksa) represents to the Christians the ancient temple of Solomon; el Sakhra (the rock) is built on the place where Mary lived from the age of three years till her espousal with Joseph. This place was at that time an appendage to the temple of Solomon, as el Sakhra is now to the mosque of Omar. Before the crusades, el Sakhra was only a chapel; the Franks added to it a church, which they surmounted with a gilt cupola. When the conquerors threw down the great cross which glittered on the cupola of the Sakhra t the cries of joy of the Mussulmans, and the cries of grief of the Christians, were so great, says an Arab author, that it seemed as if the world was going to be destroyed.—(Correspondance d'Orient, t. v.) According to Schonah, there arose a great tumult in the city, which Saladin was obliged to suppress in person.

2 St. Germanus affirms that it was Zachary who undertook to place the Virgin in the temple. The Arab traditions relate, in like manner, that God gave the Virgin in charge to Zachary, ouacafalha Zacharia. The Koran, in the Surate which treats of the family of Amram, adds to this fact a marvellous legend picked up among the Christian tribes in the desert. It says that Zachary, who went from time to time to visit his young relative, never did so without finding near her a quantity of the finest fruits of the Holy Land, and always out of season, which obliged him at length to inquire of Mary whence all these fine fruits came. Mary answered, " Hou men and Allah iarzoc man 'iascha begair hissa" (All that you see comes from God, who provides what he pleases, without count or number.)—(D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, t. ii. art. Miriam.)

3 Levit. xxL 3.

4 Mary and her young companions (les almas) sung canticles at the passage of the Red Sea, accompanying themselves with timbrels.— (R. sal Yarhhi. Exod. xv.)

5 These sacred dances, which brought to mind the passage of the Bed Sea, and which were accompanied with hymns of praise, were considered among the Jews as a practice of so great piety, that we find them even among the severe therapeuts. " The sacred dance of the devout therapeuts," says Philo, "was composed of two choirs, one of men, the other of women,—the union of both was very harmonious and real music, because nothing was heard but very fine words, and the grave and decorous dancers had no other object than the honour and service of the God of Israel/'—(Philo, de Vita cont)

6 Moses had fixed the ransom of this vow, by an express law, at a sum of fifty sides at most. The side of silver weighed four Attic drachms, and was worth about fifteen pence of English money.

7 The children, in this sort of bondage, retained their rights to the paternal inheritance, and could ransom themselves, if their parents did not redeem them.—(L'Abbe Guenee.) Josephus (Ant. lib. iv.) remarks that men and women who, after consecrating themselves voluntarily to the ministry, wished to break their vows, paid to the priests a certain sum, and that those who were unable to pay placed themselves at the discretion of the priest.

8 F. Croiset, Exerc. de Piete.

9 Id circo et ego commodavi eum Domino.

10 At Bombay, the descendants of the Persians have a temple-consecrated to fire. They come in crowds upon the platform, with their brilliant white costumes and coloured turbans, to salute the rising of the sun, or to offer their homage to his last rays, by humbly prostrating before him. Their wives do not appear at that time; it is the hour when they go to fetch water from the wells.—(Buckingham, Picture of India.)

11 Macch. i. 2.

12 It is known that the primitive Christians, particularly those of Jerusalem, who were of Hebrew origin, preserved some institutions of the old law; of this number was that of virgins and widows, who are found attached to the primitive churches to exercise various good works in use by the sex.—(See Fleury, Moeurs des Israelites et des Chretiens, p. 115.)