November 21, 2020
by Eileen Burke-Sullivan
Creighton University's Division of Mission and Ministry
click here for photo and information about the writer

Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Lectionary: 502

Revelation 11:4-12
Psalm 144:1, 2, 9-10
Luke 20:27-40

Praying Ordinary Time

Weekly Guide for Daily Prayer

The Liturgy of the Church today offers some very complex and almost obscure ways to try and focus our prayer.   An ancient liturgical memorial of the Church which honors Mary’s human generosity of a pure heart rendered over to God is the first focus.  This Liturgical celebration is based on a spiritual text of the 3rd Century whose stories are not found or even alluded to in Scripture.  The story about Mary’s presentation in the Temple (her parents’ act of dedicating her to God when she was a toddler) invites the reader to see Mary as totally pure of heart from early childhood.  The Eastern Church in turn dedicated a feast to Mary based on this story and Mary’s role in the Incarnation.  The Feast came into the West in the 7th Century and has been part of the Marian cycle of feasts in Roman liturgy since.

The  regular lectionary readings of the day  do not seem to have any relevance to each other or to the Marian Feast.  The first reading, from the apocalyptic Book of Revelations, focuses on the glory of those so dedicated to God that they proclaim his word in the face of persecution, are brutally martyred (for their pure-hearted witness) and then taken into eternal life at a command that comes from God after three days. The Purity of Heart of the martyr unto death is the centerpiece of this highly symbolic text.

The Gospel passage from Luke tells of a group of Sadducees (who do not believe in resurrection from the dead)  challenging Jesus with an old dilemma based in the law of Moses that requires a widow to marry her husband’s brother if she hasn’t produced a male child by the time of her husband’s death.  The story is clearly a test case of Jesus’ response to the law of Moses that raises a seemingly unsolvable dilemma about belief in human resurrection. 

The case posed here is full of symbols:  a woman does not give birth to a male heir (the heritage of a good life that her husband’s family would expect) at the time of his death, so she is required by law to marry an unmarried brother and try again to bring forth a male child.  The second brother dies without enabling his wife to conceive so she is handed over to the third brother and so on until they get to the symbol of the total, complete or infinite symbolized in the number 7.  She marries each brother down to the seventh and then (thank God) herself dies.  The question is, who is she married to in eternity?  The case is intended to trip Jesus up and cause him to speak against the code of the law or to produce an absurd answer which would cause him to lose any authority for his teachings.  Jesus sidesteps the dilemma by teaching that those who are pure hearted enough to enter the Reign of God after death will not marry nor be given in marriage because the focus of their eternal life will be God alone.  There are many political and theological ramifications of Jesus’ assertion that have fascinated historians, lawyers and bible scholars for centuries.  By juxtaposing the text with the first reading about the pure hearted martyrs who are called into heaven, and the total self donation of others who enter heaven we can perhaps find a golden thread with the feast itself.  In another passage from Luke the Evangelist quotes Jesus as saying: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.  To “see” in this context is to discern the will of God and live it out.  Those who are pure of heart aren’t naïve; they are wisely knowledgeable – they understand their choices as human persons, and always choose God first.  To see God is to know and do God’s will.  The Will of God for a pure hearted (blessed) person, as Jesus points out in John’s gospel, is the daily bread of real life.  Life to the full is the fruit of purity of heart, that is the commitment to God’s desires in all things.  

Mary’s feast of the Presentation is one of the Liturgical diptych feasts, partnering Jesus’ presentation in the temple on the 40th day after birth. In that feast Jesus’ Mission of salvation is revealed to those who can see.  Those of us who have been Baptized have been presented to God in the new Temple (the Church) at our Baptism – our new birth.  In that presentation we have received, as Mary did, the fullness of God’s Spirit to guide her seeing, her discernment of God’s presence and God’s great desire for her. 

The invitation of the feast to us, it seems to me, is to accept our presentation and claim the gift of the Spirit in order to be blessed by the ability to “See God.”  It is God’s invitation to us to stand on the First Principle of the Spiritual life:  to know that GOD is God, . . . and I am not God.

“Grant, O Lord, through the intercession of Mary, that we may receive the fullness of Grace” . . .
(From the Collect prayer of the Mass on the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.)

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