This principally Mexican tradition of the presenting of a child to God, and to the Church, stems from a strong desire by parents to ask for divine protection for their newborn, and thanksgiving for a safe childbirth, as infant mortality rates are extremely high in developing nations.
During most Spanish Masses that I celebrate on Sundays, there are always a great number of “presentaciones” of children, who can be either forty days old or three years old. Towards the end of Mass after the final prayer, I call the names of the children who are to be presented that day. Those who are forty-days old are carried into the sanctuary in the arms of their parents or their “padrinos” (“godparents”); while the children who are three years old, walk up to me accompanied by their parents and godparents. Then, I invite the parents and godparents of each child to draw near to the altar, standing before the congregation.
La presentación” consists of three parts: the marking of a child with the sign of the cross, the anointing with the oil of catechumens, and the consecration of the newborn or toddler to Mary. 1 The rite begins by my saying a prayer over the child held in the arms of one of the godparents, or if three years old, next to the godparents and parents:
La vida es el mayor don que hemos recibido de Dios y la vida de los hijos es el signo mayor de la bendición divina para nuestra familia. Hemos recibido estos dones y por eso presentamos a N________ al Señor. Queremos que lo bendiga y acepte para que sea un buen cristiano en la vida. 2
Then, I turn to the parents and “padrinos” and pray as found in the baptismal rite:
N_____, la comunidad cristiana te recibe con mucha alegría. En el nombre de Dios yo te marco con la señal de la cruz y, en seguida sus padres y padrinos les marcarán con la misma señal de Cristo, el Salvador.” 3
I then trace a cross on the forehead of the child, and direct the parents and godparents to do the same as directed in the baptism rite.
Next, I anoint the child on the chest with the oil of catechumens as described in the rite for the sacrament of baptism and pray:
Por la unción de este niño, le damos la bienvenida como miembro de la familia de Cristo e iniciamos nuestra jornada unidos a ellos hacia el bautismo. N____, te ungimos con el aceite de salvación en el nombre de Cristo, nuestro Salvador; que El te fortalezca con su fuerza que vive y reina por los siglos de los siglos. Amen. 4
I conclude by consecrating the young child to Mary. I hold the child up and pray:
Santísima Virgen María, Madre de Dios y Madre nuestra, te presentamos a este niño que Dios ha dado y confiado a tu cuidado y protección. Te lo consagramos con todo nuestro corazón y te lo entregamos confiadamente a tu ternura y vigilancia materna. Para sus padres ayúdales a cumplir fielmente sus obligaciones hacia ellos y el compromiso que han contraído delante de Dios. Intercede por ellos ante tu Hijo, que vive y reina con el Padre y el Espíritu Santo por los siglos de los siglos. Amen. 5
This long-established tradition of a presentation is principally Mexican in origin. However, with the intermingling of many Latin American cultures in the United States, more and more Hispanics are celebrating this extraordinary custom. The presenting of a child to God, and to the Church, stems from a strong desire by parents to ask for divine protection for their newborn, and thanksgiving for a safe childbirth. As documented in many studies, infant mortality rates are extremely high in many developing nations. Therefore, this custom began because parents wished to give thanks to God, and the Virgin Mary, for the survival, and ongoing good health, of their child.
In addition, this tradition has become an important pastoral opportunity to celebrate God’s gift of life, not only for a family, but also within a larger community, for example a church congregation. With each “presentación,” a family formally announces the birth of a child to the faithful, their brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom they pray at Mass, and socialize with at church events. This moment is also very significant since it marks the beginning of pre-baptismal formation for the parents. The ritual first emphasizes the presentation of a newborn infant or child, but it also incorporates the marking of the cross, and the anointing of an infant or child, with the oil of catechumens, which occur during the baptism of a child. The ultimate goal of all presentations is the baptism of the child. Unfortunately, many families now wait to baptize their children. So, often children, who are even three years old, also need to be christened. The rite of “la presentación” follows closely a pattern outlined in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), where the rites for adults occur in a progressive manner over time, and not in just one specific moment. If the marking and anointing is done at “la presentación” of a child, then there is no need to repeat it again during the actual baptism of the child. In effect, in the adult catechumenate, many rites are likewise performed separately on different Sundays before the actual Easter Vigil, when one receives the sacraments of initiation.
The source of this tradition of “la presentación” is, without a doubt, the presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, forty days after Christmas, or on February 2 as noted on the Church calendar. In Mexico, this special day is an annual holiday as the entire family attends Mass and carries . These statues are of many different sizes, with the child Jesus lying down as in the manager, or sitting up in a chair. In almost all cases, “el niño Jesús” is nicely dressed in elegant clothes, often sewn by the mother of the family. The bringing of “el niño Jesús” to church for a blessing has become a widespread tradition now in the Mexican, and Mexican American, communities in the United States. However, in the United States this celebration has moved to the closest Sunday to the Feast of the Presentation since it is not celebrated as a national holiday in the United States, and many family members work long hours during the week. On that Sunday, I often have hundreds of statues of “el niño Jesús” in the sanctuary to show the deep love that Mexicans have for “el niño Jesús” and the Virgin Mary.
On the Feast of the Presentation, we Catholics commemorate Jesus being carried to the Temple in the arms of Joseph and Mary. In doing so, the parents of Jesus were merely following the Mosaic Law of that time by giving over their first-born male child to the Lord, as a testimony and remembrance of his Divinity. As observant Jews, Mary and Joseph knew of this law from the Book of Exodus, when Moses informed his followers that, when the Lord brings you safely into the land of the Canaanites, everyone “must offer every first-born male to the Lord.”(Exodus 13:11). Moses explains that, as a result of obtaining this freedom, everyone had to “buy back every first born male child” (Exodus 13:13; Numbers 18:15) by going to the Temple, and paying with a lamb, or if one is poor, “with two turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24). From that moment, the eldest son was fully consecrated to the service of God.
For the Blessed Virgin Mary, the offering of her Son in the temple was not merely a ritual gesture. The significance of the presentation of her Son was that Mary was offering Jesus up for the redemption and salvation of the world. In fact, by her very act, Mary was renouncing her maternal rights to Jesus, as she offered her Son fully to the will of the Father. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in the eleventh century, expresses this very clearly in one of his prayers: “Offer your Son, Holy Virgin, and present him to God the Father as the fruit of your womb. Offer him for our salvation, the sacred victim who is pleasing to God.”
By placing Jesus in the arms of Simeon and Anna, Mary also offers her Son to the world. In this respect, she is acting as the Mother of the whole human race. Pope Benedict XVI, in a homily for the liturgical feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and for the Day of Consecrated Life on February 2, 2006, explains the singular role of Mary in the temple: “Carrying her Son to Jerusalem, the Virgin Mother offers him to God as the true Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world; she hands him to Simeon and Anna as an annunciation of redemption; she presents him to all as light for a secure journey on the path of truth and love.”
There is a strong connection between the presentation of Jesus to God, and the saving act of Jesus’ death on the cross. On this joyful occasion of the presentation of Jesus in the temple, we also hear of the impending sadness in the words of Simeon to Mary:
This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart” (Lk2:34-35).
The sword, mentioned by Simeon, represents Mary’s participation in Christ’s suffering, particularly in his passion and death. In effect, the Mother of Jesus Christ suffers because of the rejection of Christ by men. This suffering, prophesized by Simeon to Mary, is not limited to solely one particular moment, but assumes dimensions much greater that extend to her entire life. Every rejection endured by Christ, throughout his life, will pierce his mother’s heart. This suffering clearly finds its culmination onCalvary, when Christ is crucified and dies. John Paul II has emphasized the character of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple as a “second annunciation.” According to the Pope, the first annunciation focuses on the Incarnation and the role of Mary as Virgin Mother; however, the second one centers on Mary’s co-operation in redemption as she witnesses her Son’s passion and death.
The second custom of the presentation in Jewish law was the purification of the mother after giving birth to a son. This law is spelled out in the first chapter of Leviticus that “if a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days … on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised … She shall bring to the door of the tent of the priest a lamb a year old for a burnt offering … and if she cannot afford a lamb, then two turtledoves or two pigeons … and the priest will perform this ritual to take away her impurity and she will be ritually clean”(Lev 1:8). Thus, this feast day is also known as the “Purification of the Virgin Mary.” However, in truth, Mary did not have to go through this ritual purification since she remained a virgin, even though she had given birth to a child.
Over time, the Mexican tradition of “la presentación” has changed noticeably. In the past, Mexican families would follow the custom known as “sacamisa,” (“take one to church”), which was a tradition to bring the already baptized child to church in order to hear Mass for the first time. The parents did this precisely forty days after the birth of the child. At the end of the Mass, then, the priest would give a special blessing to the child and the mother. Why has this tradition changed so drastically? Times have changed. Catholics no longer baptize their children within the first week of birth. Perhaps, also due to the lack of catechesis, parents do not feel obliged to baptize their children so quickly. They often wait to baptize their children when they have enough money for a large gathering or celebration. As a result, parents first plan to present their child during his first year, and delay the baptism for later. Surprisingly, “los padrinos,” form an important part of “la presentación” of a child. They often are the ones who carry the child up to the altar, if he is forty days old, or if three years old, they hold the child’s hand and walk with them to the sanctuary. In most cases, “los padrinos” are chosen based on their ability to help pay for the child’s clothes and party, and not especially for their deep faith in God. Interestingly, parents often ask me if the “padrinos” for “la presentación” have to be married in the church if they are a couple, as required for godparents for the sacrament of baptism. The Church does not provide any definite rules about “padrinos” for a presentation, but I try to encourage the parents to choose carefully so as to have the same “padrinos” for “la presentación” as for baptism.
Even though “la presentación” is a wonderful and significant tradition in the Hispanic community, I often reiterate that the truest form of “la presentación” of a child is at the sacrament of baptism. A presentation is no substitute for this sacrament. In “la presentación,” a child is merely presented to God and the Church, and the parents are blessed. It is not a sacrament instituted by Christ for grace, and entrusted to the Church. In addition, the efficacious sacrament of baptism is the basis for our whole Christian life. By this sacrament a child is freed from original sin, becomes a member of the Church, and also a child of God. So, true catechesis is required for the parents, and even the faithful, to learn about the role of “la presentación” which leads to baptism.
According to the Old Testament, only the first born son was presented to God for consecration. However, tradition provides a basis for “la presentación” of young girls. On November 21, the Church celebrates a feast known as the “Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary” in the temple. This event is based on an ancient tradition of Judaism, which is not found in Sacred Scripture. This presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is detailed in a work titled the “Protoevangelium of James,” from the second century. However, the true commemoration of this feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary did not truly begin until the solemn dedication of a church to the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem in 543 A.D.
According to the proto-Gospel and tradition, the Virgin Mary was carried to the temple at the age of three by her older parents, Saint Ann and Saint Joaquin. The Blessed Mother was presented to God by her parents, who were also further instructed in the faith on that day. Even though the Blessed Virgin Mary was consecrated to God on that eventful day, in reality this sanctification had begun much earlier during her infancy when the Holy Spirit bestowed graces on her from the time of her Immaculate Conception. In the apocryphal gospel, we also learn that lighted torches were carried by the parents of the many girls, who were also to be presented that day. At the temple, we are told that Mary broke away from the crowd of children, and climbed fifteen steps, in spite of her young years, drawing near to the most sacred place of Judaism, the Holy of Holies. According to tradition, there she received a special gift of food from the angels above, who were singing psalms to her. At that moment, Mary was being prepared, in both body and soul, for her unique role to become the Mother of God, and the Church. Her presentation, of course, points to the similar event of the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple. Due to the deep love and honor that Mexicans have for the Blessed Virgin Mary in the person of “La Guadalupe,” they also began to practice the custom of presenting little girls in the church in order to consecrate them, along with the boys, to the maternal care of Mary.
In the third phase of “la presentación,” the child is consecrated to the care of “la Virgen María.” Honor is rendered to Mary in a unique way in Catholicism. She is celebrated for being present in the salvific events in the life of Christ, for example, in the Presentation of Jesus Christ, which points directly to the death and resurrection of her Son, Jesus Christ, and the salvation of all peoples. All devotion to her is based on a Christological orientation because all of the various forms of piety towards the Mother of God ensure that, while the mother is honored, the Son is always glorified. On December 9, 2010, at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, John Paul II proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe as “la Emperatriz de las Américas.” (“Empress of the Americas”). Extending from Canada to Patagonia, the Pope entrusted all Americans to the unconditional love and the care of the Blessed Mother. In “la presentación,” the consecration of a child to the Blessed Mother highlights, in a public way, how all of us are children of Mary.
For priests, extra attention needs to be given to the explaining of the wonderful tradition of “la presentación” for each family and the faithful. Many of our faithful are not catechized, and, therefore, they merely believe that the presentation of a child is an excuse to celebrate the birthday of a child with a huge party. Many families even believe that the certificate given for “la presentación” of a child is an important document that they often frame and hang on the living room wall of the house, surrounded by pictures. However, nowhere in sight is the baptismal certificate.
Therefore, the priest, during the “presentaciones,” should emphasize the intrinsic value of “la presentación” since it is a way to catechize the child, the family, and even the faithful. I often utilize a beautiful stained glass window of the Presentation of Our Lord in the church to help teach about the history and value of a presentation. This is a teachable moment for all. Not surprisingly, if the celebrant shows genuine trust and warmth in presenting the child to the congregation, his credibility will be enhanced. The same is also true if the priest looks for ways to involve all of those present in “la presentación,” both family and the faithful. However, it should never be overlooked that the true objective of this vibrant tradition should always be the baptism of the child.
In fact, the priest should underscore that, from the moment of “la presentación,” the child and the family should walk along with Jesus to that special moment of the “entrega” (“giving over”) in the sacrament of baptism, when the parents entrust the child to the godparents for the pouring on of water, and the praying of the Trinitarian form by the priest, and, afterwards, the lighting of the candle. Only then, can we understand how “la presentación” is a very special and sacred way for a family to begin to walk with God towards that great sacrament of baptism.
- Mark Francis and Arturo J. Pérez-Rodríguez, Primero Dios: Hispanic Liturgical Resource (Eldrige, Iowa: Liturgy Training Publications, 1997), 25. ↩
- Translated by author, “Life is God’s greatest gift to us. The life of a newborn child is the family’s greatest sign of blessing. Since we have received the gift of a new life, we come to present N_______ to the Lord our God. We ask that God bless and welcome him so that he may become a good Christian in this life. ↩
- Translated by author, N____, the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ by the sign of the cross. I now trace the cross on your forehead and invite your parents and godparents to do the same.” ↩
- Translated by author, “By anointing this child, we welcome him as a member of the family of Christ and we begin our journey with them toward baptism. N____, we anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Christ, our savior, may he strengthen you with his power, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.” ↩
- Translated by author, “Most holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, we present to you this child that God has given us and place him in your care and protection. We consecrate him with our whole heart and we give him over to your tenderness and maternal love. Help his parents faithfully comply with the obligations they have committed themselves to this day in the presence of God. Intercede for them before your Son, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever. Amen.” ↩