08 September 2017

‘This day is for us the beginning
of all holy days. It is the door
to kindness and truth’

A traditional Greek icon of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is one of her few festivals that is provided for in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland, which also include the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and the Feast of the Visitation (31 May), but not the Dormition or the Assumption, the commemoration of her death (15 August).

The provisions of a full set of readings, a collect and post-communion prayer, as well as Penitential Kyries, Peace, Preface and Blessing, presumes that this festival will be celebrated with the Eucharist today [8 September] in cathedrals and parish churches throughout the Church of Ireland. I was first invited to preach in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, when the Very Revd Maurice Sirr was the Dean of Limerick.

Canonical scripture does not record the Virgin Mary’s birth. The earliest known account of her birth is found in the Protoevangelium of James (5:2), an apocryphal text from the late second century, in which her parents are named as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim. Tradition says Joachim and Anna were childless and were fast approaching the years that would place Anna beyond the age of child-bearing.

Traditionally, the Church commemorates saints on the date of their death. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist are among the few whose birth dates are commemorated.

The reason for this is found in the singular mission each had in salvation history, but traditionally also because they were also seen as being holy in their birth – Saint John was believed to be sanctified in the womb of his mother, Saint Elizabeth, before his birth (see Luke 1: 15).

The earliest document commemorating this feast is found in a hymn written in the sixth century. The feast may have originated in Syria or Palestine in the early sixth century, probably after the decrees of the Council of Ephesus.

The first liturgical commemoration is connected with the sixth century dedication of the Basilica Sanctae Mariae ubi nata est, now called the Church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem. By the seventh century, the feast was celebrated in the Byzantine tradition as the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the Latin Church was slower in adopting this festival.

In the eighth century, Pope Sergios (687-701) adapted the festival from the Orthodox calendar. The idea of the Immaculate Conception was not promulgated by the Papacy until 1854.

The Orthodox Church disagrees totally with the concept of the Immaculate Conception. The Orthodox position is that since Jesus Christ is God, he alone is born without sin.

Orthodox theologians argue that if the immaculate conception is taken literally, the Virgin Mary would assume the stature of goddess alongside God. The popularity of the name of Mary attests to the glorification of the Virgin Mary.

The Orthodox believe that she was conceived in the normal way of humanity, and so was in the same need of salvation as all humanity. Orthodox thinking varies on whether she actually ever sinned, though there is general agreement that she was cleansed from sin at the Annunciation.

The Gospel reading in Orthodox churches today is Luke 1: 39-49, 56, which includes the words of the canticle Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed

The icon and the feast acknowledge a transition from barrenness to life. This foreshadows what is offered through Christ – the transformation from death to eternal life.

In the traditional icon, Saint Anna and Saint Joachim are depicted embracing to indicate the joy of all humanity at this blessed event.

The icon and this feast prefigure the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. But there is a stark contrast between her Nativity and his Nativity: he will be born in a cold and hostile setting, while she is born in a safe and comfortable place.

In these traditional icons, Saint Joachim is show hearing from an angel that he and his wife would be blessed with a child, while Saint Anna reclines on a bed, recovering from the childbirth.

These icons illustrate the tradition that Saint Anna invited pure young women to attend and assist with the care of her child. Some icons also show a banquet on her first birthday, to which scribes, priests and elders were invited.

Saint Andrew of Crete writes: ‘This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth.’

Readings: Isaiah 61: 10-11; Psalm 45: 10-17; Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 1: 46-55.


Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
Grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
Grant that we who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature,
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image,
and conformed to the pattern of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The High Altar and the Lady Chapel in Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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