The feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8 comes exactly nine months after the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. It is because of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s holiness in the womb that the Church celebrates her birthday in its liturgy. The only other nativity of a saint celebrated liturgically is that of St. John the Baptist who was sanctified in the womb when he stirred at the presence of the unborn baby Jesus within Mary.
The Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from Original Sin from the very moment of her conception and persevered throughout her life without personal sin. While Pope Pius IX officially pronounced this as a dogma of the Church in 1854, it was held from early times.
The Protoevangelium of James
If Mary was truly free from sin from the moment of her conception all throughout her life as Catholics believe, then she must have had a remarkably holy and pure childhood. The first document to try to narrate what Mary’s childhood must have been like was written in the latter half of the second century. Though excluded from the canon of Scripture, the Protoevangelium of James was quite popular in the early Church, since over 130 ancient copies have been discovered. Some of the stories it tells endured in Catholic tradition.
In addition to mirroring stories from the canonical gospels and passages from the Old Testament, the document could have preserved some of the stories that were circulated orally in the early Church. The Church Fathers, while not endorsing the text itself, testify to certain core concepts furthered by it about Mary as both sinless and as ever-virgin.
The document itself, also called the Proto Gospel of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, is not authoritative for Catholics. Some of its stories seem odd and Pope St. Gelasius I in the late fifth century listed it among the texts to be rejected by Catholics. Modern scholars generally do not place much credence on its historicity, much less its purported authorship by St. James.
The Visions of Bl. Catherine Emmerich
But the more detailed visions of Blessed Catherine Emmerich—who was born September 8, 1774 and died in 1824—tell of a very similar chain of events in Mary’s early life to those in the Protoevangelium of James. These private revelations were written down later by Clemens Brentano, who sat at her bedside, and while the Church finds nothing contrary to the Faith in them, neither does it officially endorse them. It is also not known how reliable Brentano, who was likewise familiar with the Protoevangelium of James, was in his writing to the actual words of Blessed Catherine Emmerich.
The main points of the stories first put into writing in the Protoevangelium of James serve to show that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived Jesus but was ever-virgin, and furthermore, all-pure before God. Emphasis was given to show that nothing impure was allowed to enter her and she was given only the most pure of influences as a child. Virginity was assumed to be part of Mary’s very identity, and Joseph, who was later chosen as her spouse, likewise respected this.
Some of the highlights of the stories are as follows. Mary’s parents, given names for the first time in this text as Joachim and Anne, were righteous yet childless in their old age. When the wealthy Joachim came to the Temple with a generous offering to the Lord, he was rejected on the grounds that he alone of the righteous in Israel had no seed. So in mourning, he went out into the desert to fast and pray that he and his wife would be granted a child. Likewise, his wife Anne felt the disgrace of her barrenness and lamented her sad state to the Lord—like Hannah, the once-barren mother of the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 1). The Lord heard the prayers of Joachim and Anne and sent angelic messengers to one and then the other to announce the birth of a child who would “be spoken of in all the world” and who “shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life” (Protoevangelium of James, 4).
Comparing the Two Texts
Anne vowed to give the child to the service of the Lord. She gave birth to a daughter, Mary. While the Protoevangelium of James passes over the actual birth of Mary rather quickly, Blessed Catherine Emmerich glimpses into its heavenly significance:
“In the moment when the newborn child lay in the arms of her holy mother Anna, I saw that at the same time the child was presented in heaven in the sight of the Most Holy Trinity, and greeted with unspeakable joy by all the heavenly host. Then I understood, that there was made known to her in a supernatural manner her whole future with all her joys and sorrows. Mary was taught infinite mysteries, and yet was and remained a child. This knowledge of hers we cannot understand, because our knowledge grows on the tree of good and evil. She knew everything in the same way as a child knows its mother’s breast and that it is to drink from it.”The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 4.3
According to the Protoevangelium of James, when Mary was six months old, Anne set her down to see if she could stand. When the child Mary took seven steps, Anne picked her up and exclaimed, “As the Lord my God lives, you shall not walk on this earth until I bring you into the temple of the Lord” (PJ, 6).
The child Mary was set apart as holy, and Anne made a sanctuary in her bed-chamber when she was only six months old and would not let anything unclean enter her. She was recognized by the priests and the people as set apart for God and destined to be brought up in the Temple. While her parents first considered giving her to the service of the Temple at the age of two, as with the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament, they decided to wait until she was three.
At that time, they gave her over to be raised in the Temple as they had vowed:
“Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her”PJ, 7
A Virgin of the Temple
The child Mary, set on the steps of the Temple, did not turn back to her parents as a child normally would, so her parents marveled at this as a sign of her exceptional holiness. We are told that the child Mary dwelt in the Temple until she was twelve, and that she was fed by the hand of an angel.
According to the Protoevangelium of James, when Mary was twelve, the priests of the Temple decided that she should be given in marriage. They assembled widowers of the line of David and gave them each a rod from which to draw lots. A dove flew out of Joseph’s rod and rested on him, indicating God’s choice of Joseph as husband to the ever-virgin Mary. Joseph was much older than Mary and had a holy fear of taking into his protection the “virgin of the Lord,” but the priests confirmed that he had indeed been chosen, and must take his responsibility seriously.
Meanwhile, seven virgins of the house of David, including Mary, were chosen to draw lots to see which should knit the different parts of the Temple veil. The lots for the purple and scarlet threads fell to Mary to knit, and it was while she was working on this holy task that she was approached by the angel Gabriel, who announced to her that she was to be the mother of the Lord.
Most scholars today point to the lack of historical evidence for Temple virgins serving liturgically in Jerusalem. But there are a few indications in the historical record that could point to what is described for Mary and her companions in the Protoevangelium of James. Exodus tells us the skilled women of Israel knitted the veils for the Temple (Exodus 35:25-26). The Mishnah, the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions, later indicates that this role was given to virgins and also implies that they had a role at the Temple.
Also, Numbers 6 established the Nazarite vow, which required a holiness of lifestyle like that described for the child Mary in the Protoevangelium of James. This also could be taken on by women, and was popular during the Second Temple period (Megan Nutzman, “Mary in the Protoevangelium of James”).
More Details of Mary’s Childhood
The visions of Blessed Catherine Emmerich as recorded in The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary give us an intimate portrait of what the life of a young girl without sin might have been like in the Temple:
“I saw the Blessed Virgin in the Temple, ever progressing in learning, prayer, and work. Sometimes I saw her in the women’s dwelling with the other young girls, sometimes alone in her little room. She worked, wove, and knitted narrow strips of stuff on long rods for the service of the Temple. She washed the cloths and cleansed the pots and pans. I often saw her in prayer and meditation. I never saw her chastising or mortifying her body–she did not need it. Like all very holy people she ate only to live, and took no other food except that which she had vowed to eat. Besides the prescribed Temple prayers, Mary’s devotions consisted of an unceasing longing for redemption, a perpetual state of inner prayer, quietly and secretly performed. In the stillness of the night she rose from her bed and prayed to God. I often saw her weeping at her prayers and surrounded by radiance. As she grew up, I always saw that she wore a dress of a glistening blue color. She was veiled while at prayer, and also wore a veil when she spoke with priests or went down to a room by the Temple to be given work or to hand over what she had done. There were rooms like this on three sides of the Temple; they always looked to me like sacristies. All sorts of things were kept there which it was the duty of the Temple maidens to look after, repair, and replace.”IV
While these stories show Mary’s life as very holy and set apart in keeping with her dignity, they also give us a glimpse of her humanity. Though sinless, Mary was and is fully and only human. She shows us that it is only our common experience of fallen human nature that says, “to sin is only human.” In God’s plan, Mary models what St. Irenaeus of Lyons taught:
“Man fully alive is the glory of God.”
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Michael J. Ruszala is the author of several religious books, including Lives of the Saints: Volume I and Who Created God? A Teacher’s Guidebook for Answering Children’s Tough Questions about God. He holds a master of arts degree in theology & Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Michael is pastoral associate for faith formation & evangelization at St. Leo the Great Parish in Amherst, New York, music director & organist at St. Teresa Parish in Buffalo, and adjunct lecturer in religious studies at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. He lives outside Buffalo with his wife Kate and young son Joseph. For more information about Michael and his books, visit michaeljruszala.com.
Featured image sourced from Wikimedia Commons