Looking at the calendar, I noted that September 8 falls on a Sunday this year. My muscle memory kicked into gear and I immediately saw visions of blue. We would be wearing blue vestments for the feast of Mary’s birth on September 8. My thoughts then turned to the story of her feast, one that comes to us from the Protoevangelion of James, and not the New Testament.
And then –
It’s Mary’s birthday! Is anyone celebrating?
I already know that the clergy will follow the instructions for her feast by wearing blue, adding the propers to the appointed hymns of the day, and preaching on the significance of her coming into the world.
Besides this obvious answer to my question, I wondered if commemorations like Mary’s birth have transformed from festal liturgical events of thanksgiving for Mary to an interesting read about the history of her birth. In other words, do we limit our celebration of this feast to reading engaging historical syntheses on its development?
The point of her story of Mary’s birth is not to inform; it’s to inspire, to invite all to embrace her, and to be offer thanks for her agreement to do what seemed impossible.
The source for the story, this mysterious protoevangelion of James, tells us about Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna. These pious people bear the terrible burden of barrenness, despite their faithfulness. They are living examples of good news, of faithful servants of God’s covenant with Israel when the pattern indicated that the holy people strayed away, tempted by other gods.
God performs the impossible with Mary’s birth, giving Anna the gift of fertility, and they conceive Mary. Mary is raised by pious, observant Jews who love the law of the Lord and love their Lord. And, of course, this story of these humans of the covenant takes a twist and a turn, because God’s novel is so much more interesting than the ones we write.
Mary’s faithfulness leads her to Joseph, and she is poised to follow the venerable path of her parents until God introduces the ultimate plot twist. Mary is to conceive without human seed. Her conception and pregnancy will strain her relationship with Joseph. They will become outcasts and she will give birth to Jesus surrounded by barn animals instead of family and friends.
As if that was not enough trouble for Mary, Israel’s ruler will feel threatened by her infant son, and the parents will have to flee to Egypt (not exactly a safe haven for observant Jews who have heard therstories of Exodus at table).
Then after all of this, her son will preach, pray, keep vigil, heal, comfort, and raise a stir among the people by loving all the other outcasts. They will put him to death on a cross and he will commend Mary to one of his disciples.
While we marvel at the story, do we take a moment to reflect on this cast of characters? Joachim and Anna conceived Mary despite the curse of barrenness. They trusted God.
Mary agreed to give birth to God, and it turned her life upside down.
There is no story of salvation without Mary; nor is there a Mary without Joachim and Anna. God presented this family with a preposterous proposal, and they all agreed to it.
I can think of dozens of reasons to be thankful for Mary. And when doubt creeps in about the historical details, I remind myself that the Churches are anchored in the piety and prayerful of the poor who find no shame in petitioning Mary for her assistance for miles upon miles.
The opinion of an overeducated, privileged white male (me!) about the historical details of Mary’s earthly journey is irrelevant. Those who preceded me and whose company I join today share this story with me, and rejoice in gladness.
I have no good reason to withhold from trusting them. I wait for my mind to follow my heart and soul – they sing Mary’s praises, for a remarkable human being whose trust in God did not waver, even though God turned her life and those of her parents upside down.
They endured all of that for the generations to come, to be saved by the Just One in our midst.
So on September 8, I will serve, celebrate, and sing the Church’s song of thanksgiving – for Mary, in memory of her birth – with great joy. And I rejoice in the knowledge that millions of Christians will do the same.