CHAPTER III. Mary's life in the temple
|The Presentation of Virgin Mary in the Temple.|
There was no lack of youthful society. But though Mary joined with the others in the symbolical dances performed to the sound of harp or psaltery; though she embroidered the rich girdles of the Levites and the magnificent vestments of the High Priest with gold and precious stones, she seldom took part in the merry speeches of those about her. A faint smile greeted their talk of the future, their happy plannings. The beautiful Salome was making ready for her approaching wedding with becoming modesty. The more frivolous Anais dilated upon the bracelets and earrings of gold, the gorgeous garments which her rich affianced, Orpha, was ready to bestow upon her. Mary heard them, doubtless, but was so lost in interior thoughts, so wrapped in meditation, that she paid but slight attention.
She did not see the young Levites draw aside with involuntary respect as she passed, nor did she know that she was ever regarded as a being set far above others.
"She is more precious than all riches, and all the things that are desired are not to be compared with her." (Prov. iii, 15.) "She hath opened her mouth to wisdom, and the law of clemency is on her tongue." (Prov. xxxi, 26.) "Many daughters have gathered together riches: thou hast surpassed them all." (Ibid., 29.)
When Mary finished her tasks, when she had interspersed the tunics with gold and jewels, for her hands were skillful, when she had performed all the duties of a virgin consecrated to the service of the Temple—just as she used to seek her mother's side in the little house at Nazareth, she sought out Elizabeth, the gentle wife of Zachary, or Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, called the Prophetess, who had dwelt in God's house all the days of her widowhood. At home the Holy Scriptures had been Mary's study. They were her study now. She asked the explanation, the meaning of this phrase or that, and pondered on it. Both women, advanced in years as they were, could not help loving and admiring Mary. Her pure face was so full of earnest thought, she was so serious, so gentle, so wise beyond her years.
"And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." (Gen. xxii, 18.) "The scepter shall not be taken away from Juda . . . till He come that is to be sent. And He shall be the expectation of nations" (Ibid., xlix, io.)
She repeated the words, seated beside Anna, her thoughtful gaze fastened upon the wise woman's face.
"The scepter has fallen from the hand of Juda," she said, musingly. "The time approaches. Do you not fear? Are you not trembling with expectation?"
Anna, far-seeing and wise, said nothing. Perhaps she realized, in the depths of her soul, the holy child's wonderful destiny, though not privileged to speak of it. Perhaps she knew what great honors were in store for Mary, though not allowed to reveal them. At any rate, Mary's knowledge of heavenly things, her deep introspection, never caused Anna any surprise.
"How happy is David," continued Mary. "The only one of all mankind who saw the Saviour in the bosom of His Father, begotten 'before the day-Star' ; (Psalms cix, 3.) who saw Him reigning in His beauty, mildness and justice, 'appointed king by Him over Sion, his holy mountain, preaching his commandment.' " (Ibid., ii, 6.)
She clasped her hands across her breast, a light of deep joy on her countenance.
"O Lord, how great, how powerful, how adorable is Thy holy name!" she exclaimed.
In this way did God dwell in the heart of the Beautiful One, the Lily of Israel. For in the holy Writings she could see and comprehend the future of the Messias. She saw Him suffering upon earth for the sins of all mankind, His feet and hands pierced with nails, blood-stained, weary, His dress torn and disordered, and her own soul pierced with those swords of torment which were afterward to cause her such intense anguish.
Elizabeth, mild and gentle, looked at Anna when Mary had left them.
"Certainly there is a great destiny preparing for this child. Have you ever heard or seen another like her?"
Anna, the Prophetess, much moved, replied: "The Most High hath sanctified His own tabernacle. God is in the midst thereof, it shall not be moved." (Psalms xiv, 5, 6.)
And her heart was filled with an ever-growing tenderness toward this child of light and purity.
* * * * *
Every day Elizabeth became more attached to her young relative and frequently sent for her to keep her company, for, when Zachary's priestly duties detained him in the holy circle, at a distance from the entrance to the portal reserved for women, Elizabeth was lonely. She never ceased speaking of Mary, of Mary's charm and beauty and heavenly disposition. And Zachary, though a cold and reserved man, was as much attracted toward the child as his wife.
"She hears only divine things!" exclaimed Elizabeth one day, shortly after the conversation above recorded. "If you could listen to her discourse on the Holy Scriptures as Anna the Prophetess and I have listened, you would feel your heart kindled with love. When I am near her, Zachary, it seems as if the door of heaven opens to me! Oh, if the Lord had but granted us such a child, how I would have praised Him! But alas, that is my pain! I must be content!"
The sorrow of Elizabeth was as that of Anne, the wife of Joachim. She had no children, and could not throw off the shame that this meant to her as a woman of her race. Zachary often rebuked her for the sadness which at times she could not overcome.
"Well," he said now, "let us adopt our young cousin for our child. I, too, believe that the countenance of God is turned toward her and that she will be the blessing of any house she shall enter."
"I had rather not. I would wait. Anna, whom people call the Prophetess, has bidden us to look forward to a future which shall contain great joy. Perhaps—" Zachary shook his head.
"Have your way," he said, "but count not on such a probability."
Elizabeth seemed confused. Her husband's curt dismissal of something so very dear to her was not unexpected, since she knew his bruskness and domineering manner. Nevertheless, he was noble-hearted and just. So she kept silent, not reverting to the weak little hope that still lingered in her breast.
"After all, what would we profit in adopting Mary?" she said, with a sigh. "She has chosen perpetual chastity for her portion—yes, and in my own presence made a vow of virginity."
"What!" cried Zachary. "A vow of virginity!" He rose in some perturbation, and hurriedly paced the room. "How could she do so? Now, at this hour, when we approach, after so long an expectation, to the fulfilment of the prophecies! How could she make a vow so contrary to our customs and to the hopes of the times in which we live!"
He was more disturbed than Elizabeth had ever seen him.
"Ah, well!" he resumed, in gentler tones. "She is under my guardianship—I am her nearest relative, now that her father and mother are dead, and the law gives me power to release her from that vow, as it authorizes me to select a husband for her.
But tell me—when did this rash thing happen, Elizabeth?"
"You know how often you have to be absent from me a week at a time to fulfil your sacred duties—" began Elizabeth.
"Yes," assented her husband.
"You know, also, that I then call some of the young girls from the Temple to dispel my solitude and weariness—"
"Yes—and I am aware how much they appreciate the favor," said Zachary, smiling, for Elizabeth was dearly loved by all.
"It was in this way that I learned of the affection of the lovely Salome for a young fisherman of the Lake Tiberias, as well as that of the gay-hearted Anais for Orpha, to whom you will soon unite her. And you may be pleased to hear that Salome is now preparing with great diligence for the humble life she is desirous of taking up. Anais"—Elizabeth shook her head—"is different. I can not imagine her the spouse of a poor man—"
"Let us talk of Mary," interrupted Zachary.
"The last week you were away," resumed Elizabeth, "I invited Mary to come to me. Never has the time of your absence passed so pleasantly. At the very sight of this young girl the heart is calmed, the mind quieted. She is like a beautiful morning fresh from the hand of God.
"We had spent several days together. You were to come home on the morrow, and in order not to lose a moment of her precious company, I begged her to pass the night with me. The servants brought as fruit, citron, and flour cakes, and we continued our work rather late, for I was most anxious to finish the band which I intended to give you. Occasionally Mary put down her needle and sang a hymn in a voice that sounded like a nightingale's." Elizabeth hesitated.
"What I have to tell you now seems almost too sacred to bear repetition. At the hour of the second watch Mary wished to sing again, and took up her kinnor. (An ancient stringed instrument) She struck some notes which seemed to me to come from some heavenly instrument. But soon I heard a softer, sweeter note. The whole room resounded with harmony."
Zachary, with eyes bent upon the ground, listened with deep attention.
"Then Mary sang. She sang of virginity, declaring that by it womanhood might be raised from the fall of the first of women. My lord, I doubt if you will believe me, but though her words were in direct contradiction to those hopes which we Israelites cherish, I thought them so beautiful, so elevated, that I was filled with respect. My sentiments wholly coincided with hers."
Zachary remained silent.
"When she finished," pursued Elizabeth, "she sat musing a long time, silently listening—as indeed I was, also—to the delightful harmony that continued to stir the air about us. Then there was a great noise, like the rushing of a tempestuous wind. The lights of the tapers grew dim. Mary, who had been seated until then, holding the kinnor in her arms, slipped down to her knees, crossed her hands upon her breast, and exclaimed, 'Yes, my God! I. am here! I am yours! I will obey you in everything. I consecrate to you my virginity, now and forever!'
"At these words the music began again, gradually mounting upward, and growing fainter and fainter until at last all was silence."
"And you did not question Mary about this?" exclaimed Zachary, in astonishment.
"How could I refrain?" said Elizabeth. "She seemed surprised at my questioning, saying, 'Do you not have, every night, a similar visitation?' 'Alas, no!' I replied. 'I do not understand,' she returned. 'Ever since I can remember—ever since I was an infant in my dear father's house at Nazareth, I have been thus visited by angels, who come to tell me wonderful things, and teach me the songs of their country. I"thought,' she continued a little anxiously, 'that this happiness was common to everybody on earth.'
"She was quiet for some time, and I need not tell you that I was too overcome to break in on her reverie. At last, raising her eyes to my face, she said, in her sweet voice, 'What have I ever done to merit so great a favor?' And she scarcely spoke again to me until the hour of our parting.
"I do not understand all this, Zachary—but I know that I can only approach, with deepest veneration and respect, a soul so innocent and so pure, whom angels condescend to visit."
There were tears of emotion in Elizabeth's eyes and her voice was husky. Zachary seemed thoughtful and troubled.
"Only he who is born without sin should see God," said the High Priest now. " In what manner is Mary free from the law which weighs upon all the human race?"
He meant to question Mary, to penetrate as deeply as he could into the mysteries surrounding the beautiful daughter of Joachim and Anne. But God was keeping His will to Himself, and, hiding the secrets of the future in Mary's innocent heart, decreed that they should not yet be given to the world.
The Feast of Tabernacles, that great and joyous festival of the Jews, held yearly on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, was beginning. All Judea flocked to Jerusalem, since this was one of the festivals when every Israelite was required to appear before Jehovah. The Temple, the porticoes, the country itself, and the lanes which surrounded it, were crowded with the faithful—and since it is a commemoration of the time when the Israelites dwelt in tents during their sojourn in the wilderness, they were commanded to live in booths or shelters of green boughs or foliage. Offerings were brought, far more numerous than on any other festival. Priests, Levites, sacrificing priests, choristers, virgins, and musicians—all were engaged in highest or lowest duties.
One burned incense, another presented the victims, others kept the lamps in order, others lifted up the golden censer, others adorned the Temple with vine leaves and flowers. The air was filled with the music of those beautiful canticles of which the people of Babylon were jealous during the period of the Captivity—and the cithern, the nebel, the kinnor, the sambuca, the harp, the flute and cymbal accompanied them. Hearts were raised toward God and the voice of a whole nation offered to the Lord the only incense which is agreeable to Him, the sacrifice of prayer. (Psalms xlix, 14.)
Zachary, detained in the sanctuary by his priestly duties, could not find time to question Mary, who was mingling with the crowd of virgins in the Temple. It was destined that he was not to question her. Hardly had the last day of the festival come to a close when he was attacked by a sudden and violent illness. He was compelled to leave the Temple at once and return to his native country in the mountains of Judea.
Elizabeth, of course, accompanied him.
Angel of Heaven
The holy Virgin has grown up under our protection. Behold her exalted like a cedar in Libanus, and as a cypress-tree on Mount Sion . . . like a palm-tree in Cades, and as a rose-plant in Jericho. (Ecclus. xxiv, 17, 18.)
Angel of Earth
Behold her as a fair olive-tree in the plains, and as a plane-tree by the water in the streets. (She giveth) a sweet smell like cinnamon and aromatical balm . . . a sweet odor like the best myrrh. (Ibid., 10, 20.) The sons of men behold her and find her beautiful. Their hearts burn with tender affection for her. She is adorned with all the charms of a bride ornamented for her bridegroom.
Angel of Heaven
She that dwelleth in the heart of the Most High shall abide under the protection of the God of heaven. She hath said to the Lord: Thou art my protection and my refuge. My God, in Him will I trust. For He hath delivered me from the snare of the hunters and from the sharp word. He will overshadow thee with His shoulders, and under His wings thou shalt trust. His truth shall compass thee with a shield; thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night; of the arrow that flieth in the day; of the business that walketh about in the dark 9 of invasion or of the noonday devil. A thousand shall fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.
Thou shalt consider with thine eyes: and shalt see the reward of the wicked. Because Thou, O Lord, art my hope. Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge. There shall no evil come to thee: nor shall the scourge come near thy dwelling. For He hath given His angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways. In their hands they shall bear thee up; lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.(Psalms xc, 2-12.)
Angel of Earth
Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk; thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon. (Ibid., 13.) Because she hath hoped in the Lord. He will deliver her. He will protect her because she hath known Him. Like the children in the furnace, she shall go out sound, and without a spot from the fire of the world.
Angel of Heaven
God will support her by His blessed countenance; God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her in the morning early. My brother of the earth, the time is at hand. We shall bring to Mary that one whom the Lord has selected to be the companion of her pilgrimage. The just one whose memory shall be blessed. God bestows upon him all the blessings of the earth, confirming His alliance with him.
Angel of Earth
O ye patriarchs, Abraham, Jacob, and David! Leap with joy! Behold your race honored through time and eternity.
Angel of Heaven
Ye heavens, and you, O earth, resound with mirth! The Desired of nations will appear! He will descend upon the earth like the dew upon the flowers in the morning.
Let us bless the Lord! Let us praise Him!