St John of Damascus on the Presentation of the Virgin Mary

Gregory DiPippo

The feast of the Virgin Mary’s Presentation the originated with the dedication of a new church which the emperor Justinian built to honor Her in Jerusalem in 543. In the Byzantine Rite, it is celebrated as one of the most important solemnities of the year, part of a group known as the Twelve Great Feasts which are second in rank only to Easter. It was adopted into the liturgy in the West beginning in the later 14th century, and its position was only definitively established in 1585, but it has remained on the calendar ever since.

Since it is one of the many enrichments of the liturgy which the western churches have received from the East, it was only fitting that one of the readings in the Divine Office be taken from an Eastern Church Father. In the breviary of the usus antiquior, the following passage is read at Matins from a Latin translation of St John of Damascus’ On the Orthodox Faith. This work was the first attempt to present the whole of the Church’s theology systematically; it was translated into Latin in 1150, and became extremely influential on the medieval scholastics.

“Joachim lectissimam illam ac summis laudibus dignam mulierem Annam matrimonio sibi copulavit. Verum, quemadmodum prisca illa Anna, cum sterilitatis morbo laboraret, per orationem ac promissionem, Samuelem procreavit; eodem modo hæc etiam per obsecrationem et promissionem Dei Genetricem a Deo accepit, ut ne hic quoque cuiquam ex illustribus matronis cederet. Itaque gratia (nam hoc sonat Annæ vocabulum) Dominam parit (id enim Mariæ nomine significatur). Vere etenim rerum omnium conditarum Domina facta est, cum Creatoris Mater exstitit. In lucem autem editur in domo probaticæ Joachim, atque ad templum adducitur. Ac deinde, in domo Dei plantata atque per Spiritum saginata, instar olivæ frugiferæ virtutum omnium domicilium efficitur; ut quæ videlicet ab omni hujusce vitæ et carnis concupiscentia mentem abstraxisset, atque ita virginem una cum corpore animam conservasset, ut eam decebat, quæ Deum sinu suo exceptura erat.

(An icon of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, as the feast is called in the Byzantine Rite. Cretan, 15th century; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Joachim (the Virgin Mary’s father) took to wife that most eminent and praiseworthy woman, Anna. And even as Hannah of old, when she was stricken with barrenness, by prayer and promise became the mother of Samuel, so likewise this woman also through prayer and promise received from God the Mother of God, that in this way also she might not yield (in fame) to any of the famous matrons. Therefore Grace (for such is the meaning of the name ‘Anna’) is mother of the Lady (for such is the meaning of the name ‘Mary’.) For she did indeed become the Lady of all of creation, since she has been the mother of the Creator. She was brought to the light in Joachim’s house at the sheep-pond (cf. John 5, 2), and was brought to the Temple, and there planted in the Lord’s house (cf. Ps. 91, 14), and nourished by the Spirit, made her to flourish in the courts of her God, and like a fruitful olive-tree she became the dwelling place of all the virtues, as one who had drawn her mind away from every desire of this life and the flesh, and thus kept her soul as a virgin together with her body, as became her that was to receive God into her womb.” (De Fide Orthodoxa, 4, 15)

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