08 December 2021

Praying in Advent 2021:
11, The Blessed Virgin Mary

A fresco of Saint Anne with her child, the Virgin Mary, with her child, the Christ Child, by the icon writer Alexandra Kaouki in a church in Rethymnon, Crete

Patrick Comerford

Storm Barra seems to have abated overnight, and today is probably going to be another busy day, continuing until late in the day with a meeting of a school board in Rathkeale later this evening.

Before this busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (8 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the Advent, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

A statue of Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary in Nicker Church, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many calendars in churches throughout the Anglican Communion name this day the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The same feast is a celebrated as liturgical holiday in the Orthodox Church and a number of Eastern Catholic Churches on 9 December. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the holy day was once called the Feast of Conception of Saint Anne.

This celebration only became known as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic calendar in 1858. When I was younger and living in Wexford, this was a day when all shops closed, and was an opportunity for many people to go to Dublin for pre-Christmas shopping.

Of course, the Gospels do not mention the birth and infancy of the Virgin Mary. Nonetheless, early Christians thought that, like Saint John the Baptist, her birth too must have had something of the miraculous. This is reflected in the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal second century infancy gospel. A strong devotion to Saint Anne – and by extension to Saint Joachim – developed in the East, and a number of churches were dedicated to them.

By the mid-seventh century, the Conception of Saint Anne, or the Maternity of Holy Anna, had become a distinct feast day, celebrating the conception of the Virgin Mary by Saint Anne. It was first celebrated at the Monastery of Saint Sabas, later entered the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Church, and eventually began to be observed in the West as the Conception of Mary. By the tenth century, the Feast of the Conception of Mary appeared in Irish liturgical calendars on 3 May, and Irish missionaries brought it to England, where it was celebrated at Canterbury from ca 1030, and later at Exeter.

After the Norman Conquest, the feast was suppressed when Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury reorganised the Church calendar.

In the early 12th century, Osbert de Clare, Prior of Saint Peter's Abbey, Westminster, tried to reintroduce this Anglo-Saxon feast at Westminster Abbey. A number of monks objected but the Council of London in 1129 decided in favour of the feast, and Bishop Gilbert of London adopted it for his diocese. Other abbeys and cathedrals followed, and the feast spread throughout England.

The Churches in the East and in the West focus on different aspects of the feast. On 9 December, the East celebrates the miracle of God taking away the barrenness of Anna’s womb, while on 8 December the Western Church emphasises the Virgin Mary’s purity from her conception. In the Greek Orthodox Church, this feast is called ‘the Conception by Saint Anne of the Most Holy Theotokos.

In the understanding of the Eastern Church, the Virgin Mary is conceived by her parents as all conceived. But, in her case, it is a pure act of faith and love, in obedience to God's will, as an answer to prayer:

Come, let us dance in the spirit!
Let us sing worthy praises to Christ!
Let us celebrate the joy of Joachim and Anna,
The conception of the Mother of our God,
For she is the fruit of the grace of God.

Pope Sixtus IV designated 8 December as the feast day of the Conception of Mary, and in 1476 issued the apostolic constitution Cum Praeexcelsa. In 1568, When Pope Pius V revised the Roman Breviary in 1568, he suppressed the office, substituting the word ‘nativity,’ although the Franciscans were allowed to retain the old form.

In the papal bull Commissi Nobis Divinitus, Pope Clement XI made this a Holy Day of Obligation in 1708. But it was not until Ineffabilis Deus in 1858 that Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma.

While the Eastern Church recognises the exceptional holiness of the Virgin Mary, and celebrates her as immaculate (achrantos), it does not agree with the Roman Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, the Orthodox Church has never subscribed to notions of original sin and hereditary guilt taught by Augustine of Hippo.

The Feast of Saint Anne is celebrated on 26 July. When I was growing up in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, the two parish churches shared the one triangular piece of land: Saint Anne’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, and Saint Mary’, the Roman Catholic parish church.

In the Church of England and many other parts of the Anglican Communion – but not in the Church of Ireland – the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary may be observed as a Lesser Festival on 8 December.

Saint Anne’s Church, Cappoquin, Co Waterford … shares a church site with Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Matthew 11: 28-30 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (8 December 2021) invites us to pray:

We celebrate the power of education. May children and adults alike be provided with opportunities to learn throughout their lives.

Yesterday: Saint Columba

Tomorrow:The Revd Aeneas Francon Williams

An icon of Saint Anne with her child, the Virgin Mary, with her child, the Christ Child, in the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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