The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem isn’t much celebrated in the Philippines, and probably even less understood as the offering of Jesus to God, being the first-born of Joseph and Mary. Most devotees probably went to church last Friday for the Sacred Heart devotion more than for the Presentation, which was also celebrated that day.
For this writer, however, the event was particularly uppermost in mind for an educational reason: it was part of the week’s lesson in an online graduate course in biblical studies. In the assigned reading from Saint Luke’s Gospel, one had to reflect on the Presentation and the Finding of Jesus at the Jerusalem temple. But instead of discussing Jesus, the reflections should focus on Mary.
Bored already? Can’t blame you. After all, how can anyone upstage the Child Jesus, who is welcomed with joy and faith by not one, but two ageing holy figures, Simeon and Anna. These two were promised by God that they would see the Savior who would liberate Israel from bondage. As for the Finding at the Temple, paintings of the scene usually show the boy talking with learned rabbis and scribes, with his parents in the background, or nowhere.
‘Me first,’ ‘me only,’ ‘me above all’
Yet in the two Infancy tales of St. Luke, it is precisely Mary’s supporting role that delivers her stellar performance. For humble, unsung but divine decreed presence may well be her leading virtue and spiritual message for humanity and modernity.
Our age is anything but self-effacing and obscure in style and substance. Media extol and celebrate celebrity, power and ambition; flaunt torsos, talent and treasure; and thrive on me-first, me-only and me-above-all.
Yet where has this self-centered modern culture brought the world? Two nuclear-tipped brats are brandishing ICBMs across the Pacific, while the world frets over missile buttons in Pyongyang and Washington, not to mention Beijing and Moscow.
The celebrity center of the world is on tenterhooks over which movie mogul or media executive would bite the dust over allegations of molesting maidens in exchange for marquee billing or plum newsroom jobs.
And what do hundreds of millions of people jump out of bed for, every morning or night, if not the latest likes and posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and what have you, in the hope of impressing friends and sharing the latest and hottest?
In short, everyone wants to get ahead of all, and be first and fabulous. So, the leaders claw and step on one another, while billions are left behind, or worse: the fringe types mobilize many of the world’s disgruntled for mass murder.
The nothingness of Mary
In this megalomaniac world, clearly, the problem is unyielding one-upmanship that will kill to win. How we need even a bit of humility.
Jesus, too, especially since as God humbling himself to become man, his emptying of himself to walk the earth is infinitely denigrating than any other act of self-abasement.
But Christ is also God, despite his embrace of ignominious passion and crucifixion. So, people who believe in him are still in awe at his almighty power.
On the other hand, we need a paragon of weakness. Or better still: nothingness.
Humility is certainly Mary’s strong suit from her first Gospel appearance in the Annunciation. Indeed, she considered herself not just minuscule before God, but utterly nil, totally beholden and dependent on the Almighty.
The Blessed Virgin showed trepidation, not conceit at the Angel’s greeting of heavenly praise: “Hail, full of grace.” When told that she would bear “the Son of the Most High,” Mary was puzzled, not proud. And in expressing her assent to God’s will, she said, “Let it be done to me,” not “I accept” or “I’ll do it.”
Plainly, she put her nothingness in the Creator’s hands, trusting completely. No wonder she gave praise to God when Elizabeth gave her honor, and kept many Godly events of Jesus’ conceiving, birth and infancy in her heart, never letting them fill the chatter of others (hence, Jesus found little faith in Nazareth).
How the devil tempted Mary
Indeed, in tempting Mary — and the tempter who did it to Jesus would not spare His mother — Satan probably sought to make her think even a bit of her wants, her stature, herself, rather than being entirely “the handmaid of the Lord” with all her heart, mind, and strength.
But in her appearances in the Gospels and her apparitions in the world, she always totally manifested God, his Word, his revelation, and his will.
So it was in the Presentation and the Finding at the Temple. She did not need ritual purification as a virgin who gave birth to the Son of God, yet she and Joseph “performed everything according to the law of the Lord.”
When Simeon and Anna affirmed her Son as the promised redeemer, she did not take personal pride. And as she did amid the difficulties and dangers during Jesus’ birth, she expressed no objection or rancor to the prophecy about Jesus facing future discord, and herself being pierced by a sword.
And when Jesus asked why she and Joseph sought him over three days of distraught searching, when they should have known “that I must be in my Father’s house,” Mary spoke no argument or rebuke, and even though she and Joseph “did not understand the saying which he [Jesus] spoke.”
Indeed, many events throughout her motherhood of God were mysteries to her, as they are for all humanity. Yet Mary pondered them in her heart in faith, hope and love for the Lord, not seeking explanations from learned men, but simply awaiting God’s revelation and grace in His time, not hers.
Is Mary the antidote to our proud age? Whether her humility goes global, it may be worthwhile going personal. For if, like Mary, one truly believes, then being nothing can be most comforting. For one puts God in charge. And that could be the best assurance that all will eventually go well. Amen.