SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Quick quiz: Which event in the Bible do millions of Christians regard as bridging the Old Testament and the New Testament?
Answer: The Nativity of Mary!
In all fairness, there may not be one answer for the above quick quiz, but today, but more than a billion Christians mark the Nativity of Mary / the Theotokos. The Eastern and Western churches differ in their core beliefs about Mary’s birth—the Eastern holds that she was released from actual sin, while the Western Catholic church preaches that she was conceived immaculately and preserved from Original Sin—but both agree that Mary played a mysterious transformative role in the world as the mother of Jesus (Get an Eastern POV from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Or, at Antiochian.)
So, happy birthday Mary! In Orthodox churches, she is known as the Theotokos or God-bearer. Don’t flip open your Bible, looking for all of these details. Mary’s birth isn’t recorded in the kind of detail now taught in Eastern and Western churches. (Wikipedia has more about this.) Tradition holds that Joachim and Anna had hoped for a child for many years. At that time, it was believed that a lack of children indicated divine displeasure. When Joachim’s temple offering was refused one day, he had hit the limit: He and Anna moved from Jerusalem and isolated themselves in the countryside and continued praying to God. Finally, an angel appeared to husband and wife while they were both praying. The angel told them that Anna would have a child whose name would be known around the world. (Wikipedia has more.) Though previously infertile, Anna became pregnant even at her advanced age and, in nine months, bore a daughter.
On this day of joy for observant Christians, Mary joins ranks with two other biblical figures in such formal, long-standing birthday celebrations: Jesus and John the Baptist. Some say her feast originated in Jerusalem, while others insist it began in Syria or Palestine. (Read more from Catholic Culture or Fisheaters.) Either way, the entire Roman Church had accepted the celebration by the end of the 7th century; all Christian nations came to observe Mary’s Nativity by the 12th century.
MARY’S NATIVITY AS THE START OF AUTUMN IN FARMING REGIONS
In many parts of central and Eastern Europe, Mary’s Nativity is an unofficial first day of fall. Churches have long used Sept. 8 as a day to bless the harvest, and in the wine regions of France, this day is a grape harvest festival (in some places, farmers tie grapes to the hands of Virgin Mary statues). In the Alps, elaborate “down-driving” takes place: cattle and sheep leave their summer mountain slopes and retreat to the winter valleys, parading in caravans with flowers, ribbons, evergreen wreaths and bells.
Even if you don’t live in the Alps, you can chant this English rendition of a traditional Austrian rhyme today:
“It’s Blessed Virgin’s Birthday
The swallows do depart;
Far to the South they fly away,
And sadness fills my heart.
But after snow and ice and rain
They will in March return again.”