The Church celebrates the birthdays of only three individuals, preferring, in most circumstances, to celebrate instead the entrance of the saints into everlasting life. The three exceptions appear in the monastery’s Deisis, the triptych of icons above the high altar. On either side of Christ Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, are the two esteemed forerunners of His gospel. On our right is John the Baptist, the greatest prophet and exemplar of the Old Testament or Torah. On the left, the Holy Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, whose birth was the dawn of salvation. Parallel to John the Baptist, she is frequently named as the greatest disciple of her Son and the exemplar of the new life of grace.
Today’s celebration marks nine months from the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The Catholic Church has formulated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The large window in the south transept of our church shows Pope Pius IX declaring the dogma infallibly, surrounded by a variety of Church Doctors whose teachings had clarified Mary’s role in salvation history. The pope’s decision to define this dogma has occasioned some controversy and some tension—hopefully creative tension—with the churches of the East, where Our Lady’s sinlessness has been understood in differing ways.
This range of interpretations makes today’s feast all the more significant doctrinally and historically. The first celebrations of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary take place in the East, probably in Syria. This is a clear indication that the devotion of the faithful to the Mother of God included an awareness that her birth was extraordinary.
In fact, the roots of this awareness go back even further, to the remarkable second-century document known to us today as the Protoevangelium of James. Calling this book “apocryphal” is something of a slight, even if it was not ultimately accepted as Holy Scripture. In it, we find the story of Joachim and Anne, an annunciation of the birth of the Virgin (again, parallel to the annunciations by the Archangel Gabriel of the births of John the Baptist and Christ Himself), and the early consecration of the child Mary to service in the temple.
Recent scholarship has made this temple service more plausible. It seems that groups of virgins were designated to weave the curtain that separated the main body of the temple from the Holy of Holies, the same curtain that was torn at the death of Christ. In iconographic depictions of the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin Mary is shown either reading Scripture, or, in the Eastern fashion, weaving. Whereas the curtain separated the sacred from the profane, Our Lady would, from that moment on, knit together the body of the Savior, Who weds heaven and earth, drawing all things to Himself in a supreme act of reconciliation.
As Solomon’s temple had been understood to be God’s residence on earth, the womb of the Blessed Virgin became the new tabernacle, the tent in which sojourned God the Son before the time of His birth. As the temple was to be kept pure, Mary’s body was understood to be free of the stain of Adam and Eve’s transgression. Quietly, in an obscure home in Nazareth, God prepared a dwelling for Himself and began, with the consent of the Virgin Mary, the restoration of the cosmos.
With this momentous event now widely known and celebrated, the Church hearkens back to an even quieter and more obscure commencement, the entry into the world of the one person chosen to be the Mother of God and the Mother of all the living. And here is the last distinguishing feature I would like to highlight. In ancient patriarchies, the birth of a son was widely anticipated and celebrated. Here is a new occurrence. We celebrate the birth of the great “daughter of Jerusalem,” and it is precisely Mary as woman that we honor. In the Blessed Mother of God we glimpse the full and unique dignity of women. Rightly let us sing together, “Today is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose splendid life illuminates the whole Church!”
[Please come and pray Solemn Vespers with us tonight–Friday–at 7:00 p.m.]