Monday, December 2, 2013

The Mary of History

     Several years ago there was a made for TV movie on the historical life of Mary. After watching about 5 minutes of the movie the so called history experts who made the movie demonstrated that Mary was disobedient to her parents. From the point of view of secular history this makes sense, given what we know of the psychology of children.  In addition, there is no historical or scientific evidence that can validate the claims of my Catholic faith that might teach otherwise. Even if secular historians attempted to use Catholic teachings the sources we use can’t escape the limits of the historical critical methods. All we have are the truths that have been handed down through our liturgical traditions to teach us about who Mary was. In these sources there is always a supernatural element that could be rightly said to have no historical basis when using modern historical methods. Based on this, it makes no sense to me when my fellow Catholics dismiss the historical reality of the feast of The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. They will say it is a theological truth or a product of popular piety but never history. However, they will maintain the historical possibility of other Catholic feasts that involve the Theotokos. What they don't realize is that all feasts concerning the Theotokos come to us from the same source, which is, as I said, our liturgical tradition. This source obviously gives little room for historical accuracy with the tools that modern historians use and for the most part anything with a supernatural element can not be deemed as real history.
     In comparing the high Catholic feasts about the Theotokos, modern historical methods would place the events of the celebrated feast of Mary entering the Jewish temple as more probable. All the other Catholic liturgical traditions rely heavily on a supernatural element but not necessarily this feast. What the feast teaches is that the Theotokos was led into a restricted place, the Holy of Holies, by the high priest.  As compared for instance to The Feast of the Dormition (Mary dying, being resurrected, and taken to heaven), which eludes the methods used to study history, there are many instances in world history where people were led into restricted places by others. So when I hear my fellow Catholics say that this feast, The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, was a product of popular piety, not history, it makes me wonder if they use the same reasoning for how they understand the rest of their faith. If anything, the feast of The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple has more of a historical basis than any other Catholic tradition concerning Mary.
     In my studies of Catholic tradition I was encouraged to use every method that was available to better understand my faith. In doing so, I also came to realize the limitations of certain methods that are used in the mainstream study of history.  In speaking about these historical methods Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became the Pope, taught that the current historical methods for studying history are excellent to use but each as he says, “contains its own philosophy, which in general—for example when I try to study the history of medieval emperors—is hardly important. And this is because in that case I want to know the past and nothing more. But even this cannot be done in a neutral way, and so there are also limits to the method”. The limits that he speaks of here are no doubt the ones being expressed by my fellow Catholics that deny the feast of the Theotokos Entering the Temple as being historically possible. What they don’t realize is that there is in fact a history taking place but one that does not have the same limitations as the one developed by secular historians.
     The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is Salvation History. Salvation History is a history that is formed with God’s interaction with man. It is also a history that escapes being limited to certain periods of our contemporary timelines. Salvation History is a history that we can indeed enter into now and we do this primarily in our Divine Liturgy. In each liturgical cycle all the events that bring us salvation are celebrated. However, it is not a mere celebration of a memory, rather through the power of God there is a real participation in the event. In other words, it is as if we are actually there, symbolically, but never the less truly present in the event. Based on this, it really is out place for Catholics to consider the events celebrated in a Divine Liturgy as just piety, theological ideas, or anything less than true events.
     During the Feat of the Entrance of the Theotokos into Temple we Byzantines sing, ”Today is the prelude of God's benevolence and the herald of our salvation; for the Virgin openly appears in the temple of God  and foretells Christ to all Let us also with full voice exclaim to her: Rejoice, fulfillment of the Creator's plan”. I have no doubt that if what this proclaims did not happen there would be no salvation for us today. Every event that we celebrate in our liturgies concerning the life of the Theotokos was for our salvation. As I said, it is Salvation History!  It is unfortunate that today many of my fellow Catholics have lost touch with how the Church Fathers understood the traditions that we pass on liturgically. For some of the Fathers, to say that the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is not history would qualify one for an anathema.


  1. I'm not taking a stance on this one way or the other, but I just wanted to point out that not only Catholics deny the historicity of this feast. Some Orthodox do as well. For example:

    "It’s virtually certain that [the Protoevangelium of James] is not historical literature. It is not about historical facts as such. In fact, it’s probably considered to be that form of writing that was very popular at the time where you made a narration, you made up a story, in order to make points, to make theological and spiritual and even exegetical points.... A further elaboration of the Protoevangelium even claims that she sat within the Holy of Holies in the Temple. That is, by the way, not in the Protoevangelium as such.... I really don’t think that what is said in the Protoevangelium of James is literal history." - Fr. Thomas Hopko

    1. I think when those of the Church who use source criticism need to keep in mind that there are many instances in the New Testament where non historical books are used as history. Sometimes there a real events p[laced in non-historical sources. For example, Jude 14-15 quotes directly from the non historical book of Enoch as if it were a real event. There are many of these examples in the New Testament and so much that there often used to prove that the bible is not historical. Just because a liturgical feast uses the Protoevangelium of James doesn't mean the event is any less history. If source criticism is a criteria for what is history then the bible in not history.

  2. With no disrespect to Fr. Thomas, but I wonder how he feels about the Dormition. Our earliest manuscripts come from the fifth century and they all fall into same boat as the Protoevangelium of James in terms of historical accuracy.

  3. The dormition falls in the same category. Much is said about the event. But it's hard to say what "really happened". That's why we have fathers and doctors of the church: to properly assess things like the entrance and dormition. I am not going to overly fuss over things like it either.

  4. This is very good, Ric. As a trained historian, I always found it amazing that if the Church's ancient liturgy, or scripture for that matter, said something happened, then why was the Church held to a higher standard than secular history - We do not question whether Caesar crossed the Rhine into Germany or the English Channel into Britain, but you can find no material proof that he did so, only Caesar's statement that he did so in the Commentaries on the Gallic War. If the author of the Protoevangelium of James states that Mary was presented into the Temple, why disbelieve him? Such skepticism is not logical, or nor is it proper historical criticism, Roman military historian Graham Sumner, in trying to find out how Roman Soldiers dressed, discovered that one of the best historical sources for the late Roman military were Christian hagiographies of saints, many of whom are discredited by the Latin Church today. Thus, if a secular historian can use the story of the saint to say, "hey, Roman soldiers dressed like this around the year 290," then why can we not believe that saint so and so referenced in the self same source existed also? The excessive and toxic skepticism is simply illogical.