Mary’s Birthday – Is Anyone Celebrating?

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.

12 comments

  1. It’s Mary’s birthday! Is anyone celebrating?

    Not in the post-Vatican II Roman Rite this year, due to its (archaeologistic) insistence on only one collect etc. per Mass.

    Before 1955, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin would have been celebrated when it fell on a Sunday, with a commemoration of the particular Sunday after Pentecost. Between 1955 and 1967, Our Lady received a commemoration on the Sunday. After Tres abhinc annos, when the 8th September is a Sunday, it’s just a Sunday.

    1. Matthew, you raise a good point.

      I remember in the early days of my ‘conversion’ (I’m a cradle Catholic and was always church-going) and increased interest in Catholicism in high school and college, I loved when saints’ days fell and though it made the day and the Mass more interesting. But the longer I’m a monk, the more I treasure lectio continua, and I suppose we could call it kalendarium continuum, at Mass and Office, and the day-in-day-out regularity of simply encountering God in Christ. So I’m quite supportive of the Consilium’s work in re-prioritizing Sunday as the Lord’s Day.

      On the other hand, during my years of graduate study in Austria I was frequently struck by how many local and regional customs they have around saints and celebrations, and how readily they transferred these to a Sunday. So, St. Hubert would preempt Sunday in the Fall and there’d be a morning blessing of deer hunters at Mass, then a blessing of the deer they got that night in front of church. There was a charm to this, and I experienced a Catholicism much more enculturated then I’ve known in the U.S.

      I wouldn’t want more than one collect at Mass though! A second one would be a distraction.

      Pax,
      awr

  2. The writer is, of course, approaching the feast within the context of the eastern tradition, in which it is one of the twelve major feasts of the year (the first to occur in the liturgical year).

    When I think of the feast in the western tradition, I don’t think so much liturgically as artistically: the inspiration for part of the famed fresco cycle by Giotto in the Scrovegni chapel (aka Arena chapel) on the grounds of the Monastero degli Eremitani in Padua, where the story of Anna, Joachim and Mary is illustrated along the uppermost tier of frescoes just below the blue vault along both long sides of the chapel:

    (scrollable panosphere; one can also move through the chapel): https://tinyurl.com/y4j7v4y3

  3. When I think of Catholic popular culture in the USA, I see saints’ days mostly as strongly associated with immigrant groups – intramural bonding more than extramural bridging, as it were (though I would say that Our Lady of Guadalupe does seem to show some brighter prospects for bridging beyond its heretofore strongly Mexican-indigenous bonding associations). We can line up the associations, so I will omit those here. In this light, I think it’s unfortunate that the US bishops in the 19th century chose a title of patronage of the BVM for national patron that was not likely to beget a strong national Catholic culture of celebration on its designated day of the year (about the only way it’s resonated in US Catholic culture is lots of parish churches with the title). In more than half the nation, it’s not a great time of year for outdoor processions and feasts. Moreover, the time of year is overshadowed by secular holidays and the commerce of secular Christmas, as well as liturgically overshadowed in a way that sometimes prompts preachers to teach more than preach, shall we say, and its smack in the middle of a season where it can never be celebrated on Sunday (as is the case in 3 months’ time), something also suffered by Our Lady of Guadalupe, mind you, though that never stops popular celebrations in Mexico because it’s more of a ground-up than top-down kind of thing.

    By contrast, imagine the greater cultural possibilities of other choices. I do wish the USCCB might consider adding to our national patronage – after all, other nations have more than one patron. Ideally, however, apropos my contrast of Immaculate Conception and Guadalupe above, this would be a ground-up effort. Probably needs await a time when there’s a canonization of a local saint with a truly broad cultus from below.

  4. Well, a Latin parish whose patroness is the Nativity of the BVM (like one I was assigned to a decade ago), could celebrate it this Sunday.

    1. Just for reference clarification, there’s an often-ignored difference between patrons (with rather finely drawn lines concerning different kinds of patrons….) and titles*, and the difference sometimes can a difference in terms of the precedence of liturgical days – a reasonable dissection can be found at the link:

      http://www.canticanova.com/articles/liturgy/art9aj1.htm

      * In Boston, for example, the title of the cathedral is of the Holy Cross (falling tomorrow), but the archdiocesan patron is St Patrick of Ireland (which, for Boston, therefore falls much further down the table of precedence – his patronage of the archdiocese, that is, as compared to his patronage of Ireland itself – St Patrick’s Day in Boston is not a calendrical solemnity by universal legislation, and therefore if it falls on Friday any dispensation from preceptual Lenten abstinence would need to be affirmatively granted by the ordinary, unlike the Annunciation or St Joseph’s day).

  5. Nicholas, Thanks for the great piece. You may be interested in knowing that just down the road from you in South Bend three ELCA parishes celebrated this feast of Mary’s Nativity yesterday: Gloria Dei, First English, and Good Shepherd, the last of which is where I have been presiding and preaching on a regular basis for the past three years. Two places used Blue vestments and one Rose. The late Lutheran theologian, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who was part of the early Lutheran-Catholic dialogues with Godfry Diekmann, OSB, once said this: Lutherans “following the Church’s example in the case of St. John the Baptist, should be willing to add [to their calendars] Mary’s Nativity on September 8 and her Falling Asleep on August 15…. and [to accept] the legitimacy of naming churches and church institutions after her and after the mysteries of her Annunciation, Visitation, Birth, and Falling Asleep.” And, Philip Pfatteicher, very involved in the calendar of Lutheran Book of Worship, advocates for this in his recently suggested ecumenical calendar, New Book of Festivals and Commemorations (Augsburg Fortress).

    Pax

    Max

  6. First: “There is no story of salvation without Mary” – a first cousin, it seems to me, of what I heard in one homily on the Immaculate Conception: “If Mary had said ‘no’ then God could not have saved us through Jesus.” True, the trajectory of our story of salvation would not be the same without Mary; that does not mean that God would not or could not have told the story another way. Mary is the great exemplar of faithful obedience, but was not, as a mortal, created being, someone who had the power to halt God’s saving action.

    Second: I learned of the celebrations of Mary’s birth occurring in a number of Lutheran churches & it delighted me as a delightful way that the winds of That Wacky Paraclete continue to blow through our world. Though the Lutherans do not hold the Immaculate Conception, they still celebrate this day which is calculated from the traditional observance of it!

    1. Alan, it’s the other way around. Her Conception is calculated from her birth, not her birth from her conception since Mary’s Nativity was celebrated already in 6th century Jerusalem and her conception only later (originally called The Conception of St Anne and held on December 9, because only Jesus can have a perfect gestation period from March 25 to Dec 25. Only later does the West move the Conception to Dec 8). Immaculate Conception – also not held or celebrated among the Orthodox – has nothing really to do with the theology or date of this feast. Thanks.

      1. Thank you Max! Another mix-up from my RC elementary schooling set aright. The Dec. 9 detail is particularly fascinating.

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