The feast of the Presentation of the Virgin celebrates Joachim and Anne’s offering of their child Mary to the Temple in Jerusalem, at the age of three, there to live until maturity — an event recorded around 150 A.D. in the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of James and called also as the Protoevangelium of James:
“And the child was three years old, and … they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. … And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her”. (Roberts-Donaldson translation, www.earlychristianwritings.com)
Later accounts, from the 800s on, substitute for dancing on the third stair the child’s unaided climb up the 15 temple steps corresponding to the 15 Psalms of Ascent (Ps. 120-135), without looking back. The Golden Legend, written around 1270, spread this version of the event throughout Europe. There really were such steps in the Second Temple, but they did not lead directly to the Holy of Holies, as Christian tradition has supposed. They led from the Court of the Women to a pair of massive bronze doors, said to have been 75 feet high, in the Nicanor Gate leading to the Court of the Israelites (men) and Court of the Priests, beyond which the towering Temple proper stood. (See Barry D. Smith, “The Second Temple,” New Testament Introduction, Atlantic Baptist University, www.abu.nb.ca.)
Artists have seldom reproduced any of the accounts literally. Orthodox icons of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple usually set the Virgin and the priest on the second step, her parents following below, and a domed pavilion behind, representing the inner sanctum which the God’s future Mother is believed to have entered, although women were not allowed beyond the Nicanor Gate. (See “Feast of the Entrance into the Temple,” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, www.goarch.org.) Catholic images often show the Virgin ascending a long staircase, usually with less than 15 steps. She is always bigger than a three-year-old, sometimes quite grown.
The November feast date may derive from the dedication day of Justinian’s Church of Mary, Mother of God in Jerusalem, on November 21, 543. Known as the Nea (new) Church to distinguish it from an older Church of the Virgin near the Pool of Bethesda, the huge Byzantine basilica on the slope of Temple Mount was itself a presentation of the Holy Mother at God’s holy place. By the 900s, the Nea Church, like the Temple itself, was in ruins. Muslims built the al-Aqsa Mosque there, which, along with the Dome of the Rock on the Temple site, made Jerusalem the third-holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin was first celebrated in the eastern churches. The earliest liturgical calendar to include this feast is probably the Menologion of Basil II, compiled around 1000 in Constantinople. In 1372, a returning Crusader brought the feast to France during the Papal stay in Avignon, and 100 years later Pope Sixtus IV made it a universal Catholic feast day. Religious orders and localities began adopting the Presentation of Mary as their patronal feast. And many shrines chose November 21 as the feast day for other Marian devotions (below). The present Catholic calendar lists it as an obligatory memorial — not a major feast, solemnity, or day of required attendance, but with liturgical importance. (Information from Matthew R. Mauriello, “A Meditation on the Feast of the Presentation of Mary,” Fairfield County Catholic, January 1996, reproduced in The Mary Page, campus.udayton.edu; and other sources.).
This feast emphasizes the first total donation or consecration that Mary made of herself, becoming the model of every soul that consecrated to the Lord. On this day, the Church also celebrates World Day of Cloistered Life, also known as “Pro Orantibus” Day, which is a Latin phrase meaning “for those who pray.” This is an important ecclesial event for all Catholics worldwide to commemorate the hidden lives of consecrated religious in cloisters and monasteries. We celebrate this day because the contemplative life is a gift from Almighty God to us all — all the world benefits spiritually from the prayer and sacrifice of these dedicated and faithful souls, even when we may not know it. On this day, the faithful are encouraged to reach out to the cloistered and contemplative communities in their diocese, through prayer, encouragement, and material support. (http://vocationblog.com/2017/10/tuesday-november-21-2017-world-day-of-cloistered-life/)