The Nativity of the Mother of God

September 8th

The Church commemorates saints almost invariably on the day of their death, which is the day of their birth into heaven.  The three exceptions are, the Nativity of St John the Baptist, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Nativity of Our Lord.  For many centuries there were reservations within the Church, especially in Rome, about feasts that depended on sources other than the Bible.  For this reason the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was not widely observed until the eleventh century in the West.  The observance was well established by the sixth century in Constantinople. The Anglican position became confused when in 1549 and 1552 the Calendar initially removed all Marian feasts except the Annunciation and Purification (both events mentioned in the Gospels). This changed in 1561 when the Church of England again marked Our Lady’s Conception on 8 December, her Nativity on 8 September, and the Visitation on 2 July.  A collect was finally provided in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer Revised and in Common Worship although Anglo-Catholics had adopted the Roman form long before.

The basic story in this account tells of Joachim and Anna a devout and wealthy couple but shunned by their community because of they had no child.  As they prayed for a child an angel appeared first to Anna then to Joachim announcing that they would be blessed with a child.  In the fullness of time a daughter was born and named Mary.  When she was three years old she was taken to the temple and presented to the High Priest.  The entry of Mary into the Temple is celebrated on 21st November as one of the Eastern Church’s Great Feasts but it is hardly acknowledged in the West.  The story continues to relate that when Mary was twelve Joseph was chosen from the local widowers to be her husband.

The Orthodox new liturgical year begins on September 1st and eight days later another New Year.  Eight is the number of eternity, taking us out of time, the repetitive cycle of the seven days of the week, into eternity. It means that the birth of the Mother of God will, in the fullness of time, enable God to enter into human history, into human time. “And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.” Jn.1.

The Orthodox Tradition dates back to the earliest Christian times before the Bible we now have existed.  We have an account of the birth and early life of Mary in the Protoevangelium of James. This text is hardly known in the Western churches but it has been very influential in the East. Manuscripts of it exist in every main Church language: the Icon of the Nativity and most art on the life of Mary are based on it.  The oldest text of it is dated to the third century making it the earliest known complete text of any Gospel and it contains material that modern scholars think might come from the first century. The Latin West formally rejected it in the sixth century by the Gelasian Decree.  It should be remembered that Jesus Himself wrote nothing and His followers used oral teaching to disseminate the Gospel (good news) for much of the time in the face of persecution. Neglect of this and other early texts have impoverished our understanding of Christianity.

Christopher Jobson

The feature image is “Nativity_of_the_Virgin_mg_9920”, Wikicommons (P.D.)

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