Have you ever noticed the abundance of barren women in the Bible? They’re everywhere, in almost every book. All the mothers of the patriarchs were barren. Sarah was barren for 100 years before having Isaac; Rebekah (Isaac’s wife) was barren for 20 years before having Jacob and Esau; Jacob’s wife, Rachel was barren for the majority of her marriage. She finally had two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. There was also Hannah, who prayed for a child so intently that the local priest rebuked her because he thought she was drunk. The Lord sent her a son, Samuel… the last of the prophets and the first to anoint kings. Another example is the wife of Manoah (who is never mentioned by name); an angel appeared to her and announced that God was answering her prayer for a son, and a little while later, Samson is born. In the New Testament, Elizabeth had been barren her entire life before conceiving John the Baptist.
In all of these instances, one cannot help but take note that the children born to these women had a very special role and purpose. Had their mothers not been barren, God’s intervention would have been harder to see. In each of these cases, right from the moment of conception, people are amazed. They are paying attention. They want to see what is going to happen next. Then, as these children are born and grow, they have major roles in God’s plan for Salvation History. Each one of these circumstances is a “swap moment.” These women all have the same weakness, the same lack of ability: to bear a child. It is specifically because of this weakness that God’s power is made obvious. This is how God’s power is “made perfect” in our weaknesses.
The apocryphal gospel of James, most surviving Greek menologies, as well as Catholic Tradition (big “T” means it is a legitimate teaching… not fluff) all highlight one more barren woman: St. Ann. Ann was married to Joachim, a faithful and wealthy Jewish man. Supposedly, Joachim felt a kinship to his deceased forefather Abraham. This makes sense as both men were vastly wealthy and well respected in their communities, but both carried the deep wound of a barren marriage. Famously, God promised and delivered a male heir to his faithful servant Abraham. Remembering God’s generosity and goodness, Anne and Joachim devoted themselves to prayer and fasting in the hopes that God would also bless them with a child. According to the story, an angel appeared to St. Anne and nine months later, a child was born. They named her Mary (Mariyum in Hebrew), which has roots in the Egyptian word for “love” or “beloved,” which both seem rather appropriate.
The established belief is that Ann and Joachim took their “beloved” Mary to the Temple when she was 3 years old and dedicated her to God. There is a good amount of evidence to support the existence of Jewish Temple virgins, who played a special role in caring for the sacred space. It is the traditional belief that Mary lived among this altar guild, dedicated to serving the presence of God from that point on. My guess is that she probably didn’t have any memories of what her life was like before this, since the average age for memories to begin forming is at age 3.
The fact that Mary is so close to her cousin Elizabeth, the barren wife of Zechariah (a Levitical priest), supports this fact. It’s possible that since Mary did not grow up in her parent’s house, she could have lived with her cousins. Even if she did not live in their house, she would have seen Elizabeth and Zechariah on a daily basis. Perhaps she was even like a daughter to them – which is why the news of their pregnancy would have filled Mary with such hope! Upon her betrothal to Joseph, Mary would have left the Temple and returned to her father’s house while Joseph went to prepare a home for them. It was then and there (most likely) that the angel Gabriel would have appeared to Mary, and her service to the presence of God in this material world continued.
Today’s feast, the Presentation of Mary, helps us to learn, reflect, and remember important truths — yes, about Mary — but more so about God and his tremendous generosity. Just as with the children born to barren women in the Old Testament, Mary plays a very important role in the story of Salvation History. It was only because of God that she was conceived and from her earliest days, she spent her entire life near God’s presence in the Temple. Her daily tasks would have included sewing and creating vestments, washing the vestments of the priests (which would be stained regularly by the blood of sacrificed animals), preparing liturgical linen, weaving the veil of the Temple, and most importantly, liturgical prayer.
What’s amazing is that she had no idea that God was preparing her for her life’s mission that entire time. Mary would become a Temple far greater than the original, and God would dwell within her in a new and marvelous manner. She would become the Holiest of Holies, a piece of Heaven on earth, the literal dwelling place of the physical manifestation of God. I also can’t help but marvel at the possibility that she could have helped to weave the very veil that was torn at the moment of Christ’s death, that the blood she had “removed” from the vestments of the priests would later be shed by her very own Son, or that she had been participating in the process of atoning for the sins of God’s children for her entire life.
Today, I am reminded that even the most menial tasks (like laundry) have their place in forming me to be God’s devoted servant. I am reminded, once again, that my weakness leaves room for his glory to shine. I am reminded that every bit of suffering has a purpose. Lastly, I am reminded to take those things I hold most dear, and to “present them” to God… offering back to him the blessings that he has given to me. By doing this, even greater blessings will return.