Chapter Three: The Earthly Mission of the Immaculate Heart
When the fullness of time had nearly come for God to send his Son into the world, He created Mary. She was created as the Immaculate Conception, the first fruit of the divinely-foreknown Redemption. So even the first beats of her Immaculate Heart in the womb of St Anne were well-pleasing to God.
We know practically nothing of the childhood of Mary. Sacred art and popular piety, and especially the visions of saints and mystics, have given us a general picture of her holy life, of her being taught the Scriptures by her mother, of being protected by angels and enlightened by the Holy Spirit from her infancy.
The accounts of Mary’s birth and her entrance or presentation in the Temple are found in ancient Christian writings, which, to some extent, satisfy the longings of the hearts of the faithful to know more about the origins of their Lady and Queen. These writings do not form part of the canon of Holy Scripture. But the same Church that discerned and decided which holy books were infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit, also discerned and decided that certain portions of other ancient writings were worthy to be included in the life, piety, and liturgical celebration of those who held the true and Catholic faith.
We need not go into great detail about these accounts of Our Lady’s nativity and early childhood, but there are a few points that bear upon our understanding of who she is and hence her mission as Mother of the Savior.
According to the Proto-Gospel of James, written in the second century, Mary’s parents, Saints Joachim and Anne, were elderly and childless, which was a great grief to them. So they prayed fervently to the Lord and in response they were visited by angels. Here is a portion of the account:
“And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: ‘Anne, Anne, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.’ And Anne said: ‘As the Lord my God lives, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and the child shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life.’ And behold, two angels came, saying to her: ‘Behold, Joachim your husband is coming with his flocks.’ For an angel of the Lord had gone down to him, saying: ‘Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down hence; for behold, your wife Anne shall conceive’…
“And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anne brought forth. And she said to the midwife: ‘What have I brought forth?’ And she said: ‘A girl.’ And said Anne: ‘My soul has been magnified this day.’ And she laid her down. And the days having been fulfilled, Anne was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary…
“And when she was a year old, Joachim made a great feast, and invited the priests, and the scribes, and the elders, and all the people of Israel. And Joachim brought the child to the priests; and they blessed her, saying: ‘O God of our fathers, bless this child, and give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations.’ And all the people said: ‘So be it, so be it, amen.’ And he brought her to the chief priests; and they blessed her, saying: ‘O God most high, look upon this child, and bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be forever.’”
We see, then, that the early Christians held Mary in great reverence. Further theological reflection, and light from the Holy Spirit over the ensuing years, would be needed to understand the mystery of her Immaculate Conception. Yet it is clear from her miraculous beginnings that Mary was set apart by God for a unique and universally-recognized mission, for which God’s most precious graces and blessings would be bestowed. God would indeed “give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations,” and He would “bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be forever.”
A further indication of Mary’s unique holiness and mission is found in the mystery of her presentation in the Temple. At the age of three, she was brought to the Temple in order to live in the holy presence of God (although, as the Byzantine liturgy declares, she herself was already more holy than the Temple, being filled as she was with the Holy Spirit). The account is somewhat embellished, at least from a historical perspective. For example, it says that Mary was raised in the Holy of Holies. While it was evidently possible for a woman to remain indefinitely in the Temple precincts (like the prophetess Anna in Lk. 2:36-37), only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies.
The point of all this is to highlight her person and mission. Mary was set apart solely for God; she was consecrated to Him from the moment of her Immaculate Conception. The liturgy even says she was consecrated to God before her conception, in his eternal will. Because God would dwell within her in an incomparably more profound and tangible manner than He ever did in the Temple, Mary is understood to be the new and definitive Temple of God.
Therefore we read in the Byzantine liturgical prayers for the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God: “Today the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, Mary, the pure and blessed one, is being brought into the temple according to the law, to live in its holy precincts… since she is to be the sublime Temple, the palace, the throne, and the wondrous abode of our God… Let us praise the only-Immaculate One, who was foretold by the prophets and is being led into the temple. She was chosen from eternity to be the Mother, and in time she was revealed as the God-bearer…”
So Mary’s little Heart belonged to God from the very beginning. He loved it, because it would eventually produce the very life-blood of the humanity of the Eternal Word. The Precious Blood that Jesus shed to take away our sins was originally given to Him by Mary in her virginal womb. The Blood that flowed from the Pierced Heart of Jesus on the Cross first flowed through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In giving life to Him in the flesh, Mary made it possible for the Son of God to give his life for us, and thus to give us eternal life in Heaven.
To be continued…