Today is a great feast in the Church, the birth of Mary, Mother of God. For Churches observing the Byzantine rite, today’s feast is a big deal. Formally, the Nativity of Mary is the first major feast of the liturgical year, which commenced on September 1. It seems appropriate for a Marian feast to begin the liturgical year: the Church begins with Mary’s birth, and concludes the year with her Dormition on August 15. Mary’s feast also precedes another major feast; the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14. So for the faithful who observe the liturgical year, the joy accompanying the announcement of Mary’s birth leads straight to the heart of Christianity, Jesus’ Pascha, commemorated in a special way on September 14 (more on this feast in a few days).
There is no record of Mary’s birth in the New Testament, of course, so the readings appointed for this day do not narrate the story of her birth. In the Byzantine tradition, one learns the narrative of Mary’s birth through the hymns appointed to the feast. The hymnographers who told the story of Mary’s birth relied on the story told in the Protoevangelion of James. an apocryphal work dating from the second half of the second century, probably of Egyptian provenance. The text of the Protoevangelion tells about Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna (known as the “holy ancestors of God” in Byzantine liturgy). Joachim is poorly regarded in Israel because he has no children, despite his good reputation for generosity. Anna barrenness amounts to a curse; she is cast out of the temple and regarded as less than matter, since even the earth bears fruit. After Joachim goes into the wilderness to fast for forty days, angels visit them, and report that God has heard their prayer. Mary is born of Anna, and Mary is presented as the fruit of righteousness.
St. Romanos the Melodist, perhaps the most famous hymnographer of the Great Church in Constantinople, reflected on Mary’s birth with reference to the story of the Protoevangelion:
By your holy birth, o Pure one, Joachim and Anna were freed from the curse of barrenness, and Adam and Eve from the corruption of death; your people also, who have been freed from the guilt of their sins, celebrate the feast of your birth by crying unto you: ‘the barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, who nursed Christ, our life.’
Mary’s birth ushers in the good news of divine forgiveness granted by God to all of humanity. Joachim and Anna are important figures in this story: their righteousness and steadfastness, manifest by piety, results in God producing fruit from death. The theological genius of the story prefigures the promise of resurrection: we are all Adam and Eve, called to faithfulness, and promised life after death. Mary is the sign of the fruit of a life lived in holiness: not only was her birth wondrous and remarkable, but she becomes the one who says “yes” to God’s invitation to raise God’s only son, despite the sword piercing her own heart.
As I have meditated on the significance of this feast throughout the years, I wonder about its connection to the everyday piety of Christians. The speed of technological advance and modernization does not curtail or prevent the preponderance of Marian piety in the world. People kneel before images of Mary every day, asking her to intercede before God’s throne on their behalf. Christians ask everything of Mary: healing of sickness, hope in times of despair, deliverance from danger, comfort of fear, and courage in times of battle. These prayers reflect the lives of real people: they invest their hope in the one whose courage and longsuffering surpassed everyone else’s. Mary is an eternal figure of hope to whom Christians of East, West, North, and South have turned and will always turn.
Of the dozens of lessons one could glean from today’s feast, three in particular come to mind for me. First, I hope that primary message of this feast would permeate the minds and hearts of Christians everywhere. God is the one who creates life from nothingness, and there is no limit to the possibilities of God’s creative energy. The one whose mercy grants life from barrenness can grant life to those who wish to conceive children, but cannot. The same God can also renew the spirits of those afflicted by the aridity of dead souls, revealing the vibrancy of joyful life when everything appears to be bleak. Second, Mary ultimately points to Christ. The proximity of the feast of Mary’s birth to the Exaltation of the Cross might be accidental, but the transition of the narrative is sensible. As people thank God for the gift of Mary, they have an opportunity to enter into the Paschal mystery once again with the feast of the Exaltation to ponder their own “yes” to God’s invitation to carry one’s cross. And finally, I hope that people will discover – or perhaps re-discover – Mary as the mother who wishes to gather her children and lead them to her son, Jesus. For some reason this morning, I wandered from my usual walking path to my office and found myself standing before a statue of Mary titled “fiat,” right next to Sacred Heart Chapel at Loyola Marymount University. I hope others might find her there as well, and wonder at the joy surrounding the mystery of her birth.