The Church does not have the custom of celebrating the earthly birthday of the Saints of God, but rather celebrates their heavenly birthday, that is, the day of their death which, for them, is the beginning of eternal life. She does make an exception, however, for the two greatest Saints in the Church – the most Pure Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. We celebrate not only their heavenly birth, but also their birth on earth.
One of the great feasts we celebrate at the beginning of the Liturgical Year is the feast of the Nativity of the most Holy Mother of God (Theotokos). As is evident from the words of the troparion of this festival, it is a joyful and significant feast.
It is joyful because it is the birthday of the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven and earth. It is significant because it places before our eyes the great truth of our holy faith concerning the Divine Motherhood of the most Pure Virgin Mary, from whom “shone forth the Sun of Justice, Christ our God.” The morning star has risen, therefore, the rising of the sun is not far off. The sublime name of the feast given in our liturgical books also indicates the great significance of this feast: “The Nativity of our most Holy Queen, the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary”.
What is the basis for the institution of this feast? What is its history and its significance?
The Institution of this Feast
The Gospel records very few incidents in the life of the most Pure Virgin Mary. It says nothing about her nativity, her parentage, her childhood or youth, or her holy assumption into heaven. What is the source of our information about all these things? All this information comes from the tradition of the Church and the apocryphal writings. The Apocrypha are those writings which relate certain events from the life of Jesus Christ or his most Holy Mother that are not included in the Holy Gospel. Although the Church does not acknowledge the Apocrypha as authentic writings nor as trustworthy historical sources, nevertheless, much of what they relate to belongs to the authentic tradition and belief of the primitive Church.
The chief source of information on the life of the most Holy Mother of God is the Apocryphal book written around the year 170-180 called the Proto-evangelium of James. This book presented the basis for the institution of such feasts as the Conception of St. Anna, the Nativity of the most Holy Mother of God, the Presentation in the Temple, and the feasts honoring Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary. From this book we learn of the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Virgin Mary, and the names of her parents, Joachim and Anna.
The apocryphal Proto-evangelium of James in ancient times was held in high esteem. Among the many Fathers who cite or explain it are St. Epiphany, St. Andrew of Crete, St.
Sophronius, Patriarch Germanus I, St. John Damascene and Patriarch Photius.
In the Proto-evangelium of James we learn that the most Pure Virgin Mary was descended on her father’s side from the royal house of David, and on her mother’s side from the priestly line of Aaron. Her parents lived in Nazareth and were fairly well-off. They were also distinguished for the great holiness of their lives and their great love of God and neighbor. Joachim was accustomed to dividing the fruits of his labor into three parts: one part he gave to God as a sacrifice, the second part he distributed among the poor, and the third part he kept for himself. Their one great sorrow was that they had no children. Among the Jews, childlessness was looked upon not only as an absence of God’s blessing, but as a punishment from God. Because of their childlessness, Joachim and Anna had to suffer much. Therefore, it is not surprising that they should unceasingly implore God for a child. This was the main purpose of all their prayers, fastings, and alms. Finally, the Lord God blessed them in their old age with a child who was destined to become the Mother of God.
The History of the Feast
The feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God in the Eastern Church is one of the most ancient Marian feasts; so ancient that the time of its appearance cannot be accurately determined. St. John Chrysostom, St. Proclus, St. Epiphany, St. Augustine and St. Roman the Melodist mention it. A tradition in Palestine recounts that St. Helena (†330), mother of the Emperor Constantine, built a church in Jerusalem honoring the feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God.
The Sacramentary of Pope Gelasius (492-496) of the fifth century also mentions this feast.
The Patriarch Anatole (449-458), Stephan of Jerusalem (6c), St. Andrew of Crete, the Patriarch Sergius (7c), St. John Damascene, the Patriarch Germanus (8c), and St. Joseph the Studite (9c) all composed sticheras and hymns in honor of this feast. The official introduction of this feast in the Byzantine empire is ascribed to the Emperor Mauricius (582-602).
From the East, the festival of the Nativity of the Mother of God found its way to the West, spreading first to Rome in the seventh century and then, in later centuries, throughout the entire Latin Church. The 8th day of September was selected as the day of this feast because on that day nine months were completed from December 9, the day on which the church celebrates the conception of the Most Pure Virgin Mary in the womb of Anna. This day was also selected because it marked the day on which a church in Jerusalem was consecrated in her honor. This feast ranks as one of the twelve major feasts in our Liturgical Year. It has a one day pre-feast and a post-feast lasting only four days because the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is celebrated on September 14.
The Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God – A Day of Universal Joy
The birth of Mary, who was to become the Mother of God, was a singular source of joy for her parents – Joachim and Anna, for heaven, for earth, and for all creation. The spiritual joy occasioned by this feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God has been stressed by various Fathers of the Church. St. Andrew of Crete, in his longer sermon on this feast, extols the Most Holy Mother of God as the one in whom all the prophecies and prefigurements of the Old Testament were ful-filled. Fittingly, extolling her with the most sublime titles of praise, he summons all to share in this joy – heaven, earth, the sea and every creature; finally, he concludes with the words: “For today a child is born, from whom we have received salvation, Christ God and Word, who, having come, abides with us forever.” St. John Damascene in a sermon for this day says: “The day of the Nativity of the Mother of God is a day of universal joy for, through the Mother of God, the entire human race was renewed and the sorrow of the first mother, Eve, was transformed into joy.”
The divine services of this day are filled with joyful melodies, almost as though we were celebrating the Nativity of our Lord or his glorious Resurrection. The principal motives underlying this joy are the end of the childlessness of the holy Joachim and Anna, the beginning of our salvation, the most wonderful dignity of Divine Motherhood bestowed on Mary, the unique role and significance of the Mother of God in the work of the redemption of the human race.
The first to rejoice at Mary’s Nativity are her parents. In the sticheras of the Aposticha in the Small Vespers service, the Church cries out to them: “Rejoice, O Joachim and Anna, rejoice, for from a barren woman is born the Cause of our joy and salvation.”
The angels and all the faithful also rejoice at Mary’s Nativity: “To Your honorable Nativity, 0 Most Holy and Pure Virgin,” we sing in the Small Vespers service in the sticheras at Psalm 137, “The multitude of angels in heaven and the human race on earth are singing praises, for you became the Mother of the Creator of all, Jesus our God. While imploring Him, do not cease praying for us, who after God place our hope in you, О Mother of God, ever praised and Immaculate.” All the Saints of both the Old and the New Testaments share in this joy: “Renew yourself, O Adam,” says the Exapostilarion of the Matins service, “be happy, О Eve, rejoice you prophets together with the Apostles and the righteous, for today the universal joy of the angels and men has shone forth from the righteous Joachim and Anna: The Mother of God, Mary.” Finally, the Church calls upon the faithful to pay due veneration to the Mother of God: “Come, all you faithful, let us hasten to the Virgin, for she is born, who even before her conception was destined to be the Mother of our God. She is the vessel of virginity, flowering rod of Aaron from the stem of Jesse, proclaimed by the prophets, and the child of Joachim and Anna. She is born; and through her the world is renewed, and the church is clothed in splendor. She is the holy temple, where God abides, a virgin vessel, a royal chamber, in which the wondrous mystery of the marvelous union of the two natures of Christ is accomplished. By paying worship to him let us praise the All Pure Virgin.”
Katrij J, A byzantine rite. Liturgical year, Detroit-New York 1983, 212-217