This coming week, the Catholic Church will celebrate one of the lesser known feast days surrounding the life of Mary of Nazareth. While not contained in the Bible, the event of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple has been believed and revered by the Christian community for millennia.
Jerusalem has an ancient home near the Temple that’s believed to be that of Joachim and Ann, the parents of Mary. From this house, Mary was taken to the Temple and consecrated to God under a vow of perpetual virginity.
Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome has a magnificent mosaic of this event over the altar containing the body of Pope Pius X. Other devotions, churches, chapels, and masterpieces of art around the world portray this beautiful act of simplicity and purity.
While its historical validity is debated by some, it’s worth asking why the feast day is preserved on the liturgical calendar. What lessons might this holy day have for our contemporary world? What bearing should the consecration of a virgin over two thousand years ago have on us today?
Well, in light of the news cycle and the disturbing accounts surrounding Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Al Franken (among others), it would seem obvious that the discipline of chastity and the innocence of purity have a much-needed place in our world today. The uplifting witness and liberating message of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s purity can shed light on higher values and point each of us and our civic and cultural leaders to a better way of life.
Purity has been praised by saints and scholars, political leaders and philanthropists, educators and philosophers throughout the ages. People of good will have always found purity both necessary and edifying to personal growth and the common good.
When it has been welcomed and supported, purity has proven itself an invaluable help to human flourishing. When dismissed or mocked, its absence has brought dire consequences to human dignity and social harmony.
One commentator who made an enduring argument for purity was the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. In 1927, long before the shadow of Humane Vitae covered the Catholic conversation on sexual ethics, von Hildebrand wrote the simple look book, In Defense of Purity.
In the book, the German scholar observes: “Reverence is a fundamental component of purity. The pure man always lives in an attitude of reverence for God and his creation, and therefore reveres sex, its profundity, and its sublime and divinely ordained meaning… the pure man understands that sex belongs in a special manner to God, and that he may only make such use of it as is explicitly sanctioned by him.”
Von Hildebrand contributed to the development of Church thinking at a critical time. His arguments on the importance of the unitive aspect of the nuptial act helped to shape Casti Connubii, the 1930 encyclical on Christian marriage. Rather than seeing the nuptial act as one of mere requirement for procreation that leads to impurity, the philosopher stressed that proper sexual expression remains precisely within the realm of purity.
Von Hildebrand insisted that intimacy, ordered desire, and sexual enjoyment in marriage are expressions of purity, not its death. As he notes: “Not the exercise of sex, but the manner in which it is exercised is decisive for purity or impurity.”
Namely, for von Hildebrand, purity is about self-donation, gentleness and tenderness to one’s spouse. It is not about an avoidance of sexual activity but its virtuous expression. He clarifies that even the celibate, while not having sex, could still be impure if his heart is distracted from his mission and lacking in virtue.
The thoughts contained in the book, In Defense of Purity, summarize the holistic understanding of purity and present its essential and helpful lessons to our own growth as human persons as well as the betterment of the common good.
These truths are reflected in the event of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple. The feast day offers all people of good will a hope that goes beyond sexual weaknesses and deviancies in our world today. It shows us the freedom, light, and joy that a life of purity can give to those who choose to follow it.