by St Alphonsus Di Liguori
The Offering that Mary made of herself to God was prompt without delay, and entire without reserve.
There never was, and never will be, an offering on the part of a pure creature greater or more perfect than that which Mary made to God when, at the age of three years, she presented herself in the temple to offer him, not aromatical spices, nor calves, nor gold, but her entire self, consecrating herself as a perpetual victim in his honor. She well understood the voice of God, calling her to devote herself entirely to his love, when he said, Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come! (Surge, propera, Amica mea . . . et veni"--Cant. ii. 10) Therefore her Lord willed that from that time she should forget her country, and all, to think only of loving and pleasing him: Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; and forget thy people, and thy father's house ("Audi, Filia, et vide, et inclina aurem tuam; et obliviscete populum tuum et domum patris tui"--Ps. xliv. 11). She with promptitude and at once obeyed the divine call. Let us, then, consider how acceptable was this offering which Mary made of herself to God; for it was prompt and entire. Hence the two points for our consideration are, first, Mary's offering was prompt and without delay; secondly, it was entire and without reserve.
Mary's offering was prompt. From the first moment that this heavenly child was sanctified in her mother's womb, which was in the instant of her Immaculate Conception, she received the perfect use of reason, that she might begin to merit. This is in accordance with the general opinion of theologians, and with that of Father Suarez in particular, who says, that as the most perfect way in which God sanctifies a soul is by its own merit, as St. Thomas also teaches (P. 3, q. 19, a. 3), it is thus we must believe that the Blessed Virgin was sanctified: "To be sanctified by one's own act is the more perfect way. Therefore it is to be believed that the Blessed Virgin was thus sanctified" (Sanctificari per proprium actum, est perfectior modus; ergo credendum est, hoc modo fuisse sanctificatam Virginem"--De Inc. p. 2, d. 4, s. 8). And if this privilege was granted to the angels, and to Adam, as the angelic Doctor says, much more ought we to believe that it was granted to the divine Mother, on whom, certainly, we must suppose that God, having condescended to make her his Mother, also conferred greater gifts than on all other creatures. "From her," says the same holy Doctor, "He received his human nature, and therefore she must have obtained a greater plenitude of grace from Christ than all others" ("Ex ea accepit humanam naturam; et ideo prae caeteris majorem debuit a Christo gratiae plenitudinem obtinere"--P. 3, q. 27, a. 5). "For being a mother," Father Suarez says, "she has a sort of special right to all the gifts of her Son" ("Unde fit ut singulare jus habeat ad bona Filii sui"--De Inc. p. 2, d. 1, s. 2); and as, on account of the hypostatic union, it was right that Jesus should receive the plenitude of all graces, so, on account of the divine maternity, it was becoming that Jesus should confer, as a natural debt, greater graces on Mary than he granted to all other saints and angels.
Thus, from the beginning of her life, Mary knew God, and knew him so that "no tongue" (as the angel declared to St. Bridget) "will ever express how clearly this Blessed Virgin understood his greatness in that very first moment of her existence." And thus enlightened, she instantly offered her entire self to her Lord, dedicating herself, without reserve, to his love and glory. "Immediately," the angel went on to say, "our Queen determined to sacrifice her will to God, and to give him all her love for the whole of her life. No one can understand how entire was the subjection in which she then placed her will, and how fully she was determined to do all according to his pleasure" (Serm. Ang. c. 14).
But the immaculate child, afterwards understanding that her holy parents, Joachim and Anne, had promised God, even by vow, as many authors relate, that if he granted them issue, they would consecrate it to his service in the temple; as it was, moreover, an ancient custom amongst the Jews to take their daughters to the temple, and there to leave them for their education (for which purpose there were cells contiguous) as it is recorded by Baronius (Appar. ad Ann. n. 47). Nicephorus, Cedrenus, and Suarez, with Josephus the Jewish historian and also on the authority of St. John Damascene (De Fide Orth. L. 4, c. 15), St. George of Nicomedia, St. Anselm, and St. Ambrose (De Virg. l. 1), and as we may easily gather from the Second book of Machabees, where, speaking of Heliodorus, who besieged the temple, that he might gain possession of the treasure there deposited, says, Because the place was like to come into contempt . . . and the virgins also that were shut up came forth, some to Onias" (Pro eo quod in contemptum locus esset venturus . . . Virgines, quae conclusae errant, procurrebant ad Oniam"--2 Machab. iii. 18).
Mary hearing this, I say, having scarcely attained the age of three years, as St. Germanus (Enc. In S. Deip.) and St. Epiphanius attest--the latter of whom says, "In her third year she was brought to the temple" ("Tertio anno, oblate est in Templo")--an age at which children are the most desirous and stand in the greatest need of their parents' care, she desired to offer and solemnly to consecrate herself to God, by presenting herself in the temple. Hence, of her own accord, she requested her parents with earnestness to take her there, that they might thus accomplish their promise. And her holy mother, says St. Gregory of Nyssa, "did not long delay leading her to the temple, and offering her to God" (Anna haud cunctata est eam ad Templum adducere, ac Deo offerre"--In Nat. Chr.).
Behold now Joachim and Anne, generously sacrificing to God the most precious treasure that they possessed in the world, and the one that was dearest to their heart, setting out from Nazareth, carrying their well-beloved little daughter in turns, for she could not otherwise have undertaken so long a journey as that from Nazareth to Jerusalem, it being a distance of eighty miles, as several authors say. They were accompanied by few relatives, but choirs of angels, according to St. George of Nicomedia (Or. de Ingr. B. V.), escorted and served the immaculate little Virgin, who was about to consecrate herself to the divine Majesty. How beautiful are thy steps, O prince's daughter! ("Quam pulchri, sunt gressus tui . . . Filia principis!"--Cant. vii. 1) O, how beautiful (must the angels have sung), how acceptable to God is thy every step, taken on thy way to present and offer thyself to him! O noble daughter, most beloved of our common Lord!
"God himself, with the whole heavenly court," says Bernardine de Bustis, "made great rejoicings on that day, beholding his spouse coming to the temple" ("Magnam quoque festivitatem fecit Deus cum Angelis, in deductione suae Sponsae ad Templum"). For he never saw a more holy creature, or one whom he so tenderly loved, come to offer herself to him ("Quia nullus unquam Deo gratior usque ad illud tempus templum ascendit"--Marial. p. 4, s. 1). "Go then," (says St. Germanus, archbishop of Constantinople), "go, O Queen of the world, O Mother of God, go joyfully to the house of God, there to await the coming of the divine Spirit, who will make thee the Mother of the Eternal Word. Enter with exultation the courts of the Lord, in expectation of the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the Conception of the only-begotten Son of God" ("Abi, ergo. O Domina Mater Dei! in atria Domini, exsultans et exspectans Sancti Spiritus adventum, et unigeniti Filii conceptionem"--Enc. In S. Deip).
When the holy company had reached the temple the fair child turned to her parents, and on her knees kissed their hands and asked their blessing; and then, without again turning back, she ascended the fifteen steps of the temple (according to Arius Montano, quoting Josephus), and as we are told by St. Germanus, presented herself to the priest, St. Zachary. Having done this, she bade farewell to the world, and renouncing all the pleasures that it promises to its votatires, she offered and consecrated herself to her Creator.
At the time of the deluge a raven sent out of the ark by Noah remained to feed on the dead bodies; but the dove, without resting her foot, quickly returned to him into the ark ("Reversa est ad eum in arca"--Gen. viii. 9). Many who are sent by God into this world unfortunately remain to feed on earthly goods. It was not thus that Mary, our heavenly dove, acted; she knew full well that God should be our only good, our only hope, our only love; she knew that the world is full of dangers, and that he who leaves it the soonest is freest from its snares: hence she sought to do this in her tenderest years, and as soon as possible shut herself up in the sacred retirement of the temple, where she could better hear his voice, and honor and love him more.
Thus did the Blessed Virgin in her very first actions render herself entirely dear and agreeable to her Lord, as the holy Church says in her name: "Rejoice with me, all ye who love God; for when I was a little one I pleased the Most High ("Congratulamini mihi, omnes qui diligitis Dominum, quia, cum essem parvula, placui Altissimo"--Off. B. V. resp. 2). For this reason she was likened to the moon; for as the moon completes her course with greater velocity than the other planets, so did Mary attain perfection sooner than all the saints, by giving herself to God promptly and without delay, and making herself all his without reserve. Let us now pass to the second point, on which we shall have much to say.
The enlightened child well knew that God does not accept a divided heart, but wills that, as he has commanded, it should be consecrated to his love without the least reserve: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart ("Diliges Dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo"--Deut. vi. 5). Hence from the first moment of her life she began to love God with all her strength, and gave herself entirely to him. But still her most holy soul awaited with the most ardent desire the moment when she might consecrate herself to him in a more solemn and public way. Let us, then, consider with what fervor this loving and tender Virgin, on finding herself actually enclosed in the holy place, first prostrate, kissed that ground as the house of her Lord; and then adored his infinite majesty, thanked him for the favor she had received in being thus brought to dwell for a time in his house, and then offered her entire self to God, wholly, without reserving anything--all her powers and all her senses, her whole mind and her whole heart, her whole soul and her whole body; for then it was, according to many authors, that to please God "she vowed him her virginity," a vow which, according to the Abbot Rupert, "Mary was the first to make" ("Deo prima vovisti votum virginitatis"--In Cant. l. 3). And the offering she then made of her entire self was without any reserve as to time, as Bernardine de Bustis declares: "Mary offered and dedicated herself to the perpetual service of God" ("Maria seipsam perpetuis Deo obsequiis obtulit et dedicavit"--Marial. p. 4, s. 1); for her intention was to dedicate herself to the service of His divine majesty in the temple for her whole life, should such be the good pleasure of God, and never to leave that sacred place. O, with what effusion of soul must she then have exclaimed, My beloved to me, and I to Him! ("Dilectus meus mihi, et ego illi!"--Cant. ii. 16). Cardinal Hugo paraphrases these words, saying, "I will live all his, and die all his" ("Ego illi tota vivam, et total moriar"). "My Lord and my God," she said, "I am come here to please Thee alone, and to give Thee all the honor that is in my power; here will I live all Thine, and die all Thine, should such be Thy pleasure; accept the sacrifice which Thy poor servant offers Thee, and enable me to be faithful to Thee."
Here let us consider how holy was the life which Mary led in the temple, where, as the morning rising (Quasi aurora consurgens"--Cant. vi. 9), which rapidly bursts out into the full brightness of mid-day, she progressed in perfection. Who can ever tell the always-increasing brightness with which her resplendent virtues shone forth from day to day: charity, modesty, humility, silence, mortification, meekness. This fair olive-tree, says St. John Damascene, planted in the house of God, and nurtured by the Holy Ghost, became the dwelling-place of all virtues; "led to the temple, and thenceforward planted in the house of God, and cultivated by the Spirit, she as a fruitful olive-tree became the abode of all virtues" ("Ad templum adducitur; ac deinde in domo Dei plantata atque per Spiritum saginata, instar olivae frugiferae, virtutum omnium domicilium efficitur"--De Fide Orth. l. 4, c. 15). The same saint says elsewhere, "that the countenance of the Blessed Virgin was modest, her mind humble, her words proceeding from a composed interior were engaging" (De Nat. B. M. or. 1). In another place he asserts that she turned her thoughts far from earthly things, embracing all virtues; and thus exercising herself in perfection, she made so rapid progress in a short time, that she merited to become a temple worthy of God (De Fide, ut supra).
St. Anselm also speaks of the life of the Blessed Virgin in the temple, and says that "Mary was docile, spoke little, was always composed, did not laugh, and that her mind was never disturbed. She also persevered in prayer, in the study of the sacred Scriptures, in fastings, and all virtuous works" (Forma et Mor. B. M.).
St. Jerome and St. Bonaventure enter more into detail. They say that Mary thus regulated her life: In the morning until the third hour she remained in prayer; from the third hour until the ninth she employed herself with work; and from the ninth hour she again prayed until the angel brought her her food, as he was wont to do. She was always the first in watchings, the most exact in the observance of the divine law, the most profoundly humble, and the most perfect in every virtue. No one ever saw her angry: her every word carried such sweetness with it that it was a witness to all that God was with her (Med. vitae Chr. c. 3).
We read in St. Bonaventure's Life of Christ, that the divine Mother herself revealed to St. Elizabeth of Hunger that "when her father and mother left her in the temple she determined to have God alone for her Father, and often thought how she could please him most" ("Cum pater meus et mater mea me dimiserunt in Templo, statui in corde meo habere Deum in Patrem; et frequenter cogitabam, quid possem facere Deo gratum"). Moreover, as we learn from the Revelations of St. Bridget, "she determined to consecrate her virginity to him, and to possess nothing in the world, and to give him her entire will" ("Vovi observare virginitatem, Nihil unquam possidere in mundo; et ei (Deo) omnem voluntatem meam commisi"--Rev. l. 1, cap. 10). Besides this, she told St. Elizabeth that of all the commandments to be observed she especially kept this one before her eyes: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God ("Diliges Dominum Deum tuum"); and that at midnight she went before the altar of the temple to beg that he would grant her the grace to observe them all, and also that she might live to see the birth of the Mother of the Redeemer, entreating him at the same time to preserve her eyes to behold her, her tongue to praise her, her hands and feet to serve her, and her knees to adore her divine Son in her womb. St. Elizabeth, on hearing this, said, "But, Lady, wast thou not full of grace and virtue?" Mary replied, "Know that I considered myself most vile and unworthy of divine grace, and therefore thus earnestly prayed for grace and virtue." And finally, that we might be convinced of the absolute necessity under which we all are of asking the graces that we require from God, she added: "Dost thou think that I possessed grace and virtue without effort? Know that I obtained no grace from God without great effort, constant prayer, ardent desire, and many tears and mortifications."
But above all we should consider the revelation made to St. Bridget of the virtues and practices of the Blessed Virgin in her childhood, in the following words: "From her childhood Mary was full of the Holy Ghost, and as she advanced in age she advanced also in grace. Thenceforward she determined to love God with her whole heart, so that she might never offend him, either by her words or actions; and therefore she despised all earthly goods. She gave all that she could to the poor. In her food she was so temperate, that she took only as much as was barely necessary to sustain her body. Afterwards, on discovering in the sacred Scriptures that God was to be born of a Virgin, that he might redeem the world, her soul was to such a degree inflamed with divine love, that she could desire and think of nothing but God; and finding pleasure in him alone, she avoided all company, even that of her parents, lest their presence might deprive her of his remembrance. She desired, with the greatest ardor, to live until the time of the coming of the Messiah, that she might be the servant of that happy Virgin, who merited to be his Mother." Thus far the Revelation of the Bridget (Rev. l. 3, c. 8; l. 1, c. 10).
Ah, yes, for the love of this exalted child the Redeemer did indeed hasten his coming into the world; for whilst she, in her humility, looked upon herself as unworthy to be the servant of the divine Mother, she was herself chosen to be this Mother; and by the sweet odor of her virtues and her powerful prayers she drew the divine Son into her virginal womb. For this reason Mary was called a turtle-dove by her divine Spouse: The voice of the turtle is heard in our land ("Vox Turturis audita est in terra nostra"--Cant. ii. 12. 23). Not, only because as a turtle-dove she always loved solitude, living in this world as in a desert, but also because, like a turtle-dove, which always sighs for its companions, Mary always sighed in the temple, compassionating the miseries of the lost world, and seeking from God the redemption of all. O, with how much greater feeling and fervor than the prophets did she repeat their prayers and sighs, that God would send the promised Redeemer! Send forth, O Lord, the Lamb, the ruler of the earth ("Emitte agnum, Domine, Dominatorem terrae"--Is. xvi. 1). Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just ("Rorate, coeli, desuper, et nubes pluant Justum"--Ib. xiv. 8). O that thou wouldst rend the heavens, and wouldst come down! ("Utinam dirumperes coelos, et descenderes"--Ib. lxiv. 1).
In a word, it was a subject of delight to God to behold this tender virgin always ascending towards the highest perfection, like a pillar of smoke, rich in the sweet odor of all virtues, as the Holy Ghost himself clearly describes her in the sacred Canticles: Who is she that goeth up by the desert as a pillar of smoke, of aromatical spices, of myrrh and frankincense, and of all the powders of the perfumer? ("Quae est ista quae ascendit per desertum, sicut virgule fumi ex aromatibus myrrhae, et thuris, et universi pulveris pigmentarii?"--Cant. iii. 6). "This child," says St. Sophronius, "was truly God's garden delights; for he there found every kind of flower, and all the sweet odors of virtues" ("Vere Virgo erat Hortus deliciarum, in quo consita sunt universa fiorum genera et odoramenta virtutum"--De Assumpt.). Hence St. John Chrysostom affirms (Ap. Canis. De M. Ceip. l. 1, c. 13), that God chose Mary for his Mother in this world because he did not find on earth a Virgin more holy and more perfect than she was, nor any dwelling more worthy than her most sacred womb. St. Bernard also says, "that there was not on earth a more worthy place than the virginal womb" ("Nec in terries locus dignior uteri virginalis templo"--In Assumpt. s. 1). This also agrees with the assertion of St. Antoninus, that the Blessed Virgin, to be chosen for, and destined to the dignity of Mother of God, was necessarily so great and consummate in perfection as to surpass all other creatures: "The last grace of perfection is that which prepared her for the conception of the Son of God" ("Ultima gratia perfectionis est praeparatio ad Filium Dei concipiendum"--P. 4, 5. 15, c. 6, #2).
As, then, the holy child Mary presented and offered herself to God in the temple with promptitude and without reserve, so let us also present ourselves this day to Mary without delay and without reserve; and let us entreat her to offer us to God, who will not reject us when he sees us presented by the hand of that blessed creature, who was the living temple of the Holy Ghost, the delight of her Lord, and the chosen Mother of the Eternal Word. Let us also have unbounded confidence in this high and gracious Lady, who rewards, indeed, with the greatest love the homage that she receives from her clients.
O beloved Mother of God, most amiable child Mary, O that, as thou didst present thyself in the temple, and with promptitude and without reserve, didst consecrate thyself to the glory and love of God, I could offer thee, this day, the first years of my life, to devote myself without reserve to thy service, my holy and most sweet Lady! But it is now too late to do this; for, unfortunate creature that I am, I have lost so many years in the service of the world and my own caprices, and have lived in almost entire forgetfulness of thee and of God: Woe to that time in which I did not love thee! ("Vae tempori illi, in quo non amavi te!") But it is better to begin late than not at all. Behold, O Mary, I this day present myself to thee, and I offer myself without reserve to thy service for the long or short time that I still have to live in this world; and in union with thee I renounce all creatures, and devote myself entirely to the love of my Creator. I consecrate my mind to thee, O Queen, that it may always think of the love that thou deservest, my tongue to praise thee, my heart to love thee. Do thou accept, O most holy Virgin, the offering which this miserable sinner now makes thee; accept it, I beseech thee, by the consolation that thy heart experienced when thou gavest thyself to God in the temple. But since I enter thy service late, it is reasonable that I should redouble my acts of homage and love, thereby to compensate for lost time. Do thou help my weakness with thy powerful intercession, O Mother of Mercy, by obtaining me perseverance from thy Jesus, and strength to be always faithful to thee until death; that thus always serving thee in life, I may praise thee in Paradise for all eternity. Amen.