Nativity of Mary, Theotokos: Eastern & Western Christians observe birthday

Mosaic of man and woman huddled over baby

A mosaic of Anna, Joachim and Mary, at Chora Church, in Istanbul. Photo by Nick Thompson, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Western and Eastern Christians celebrate Mary’s birth today, on the Nativity of Mary (or, as she is known in Orthodox Christianity, the Theotokos). Through many centuries, Christian churches have honored just three figures on both their birth and death anniversaries: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

Known in both Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity as the Virgin Mary, Madonna is the only woman in Christian history to be given the honor of a holy birth. Eastern and Western Christians diverge in their understanding of Mary’s birth, however: for Catholics, Mary’s birth is connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma formally established by the Vatican in 1854; Eastern Christians believe that while Mary wasn’t without original sin, she was spared actual sin by God’s grace. It is agreed that Mary was born to Sts. Anne and Joachim in Jerusalem.

Ironically, the modern canon of scripture gives no mention of exact details concerning Mary’s birth, as the earliest known account is contained in an apocryphal text from the second century (for this reason, Protestants do not observe the holiday). Christian tradition tells that Mary’s life began piously in Galilee, Nazareth, as a baby born to elderly and previously barren parents. Though they remained faithful to God, Joachim and Anna were without children for many years—a characteristic regarded, at the time, as a punishment for sin. One fateful day, when Joachim had traveled to the temple to make an offering, he was chastised by the High Priest for being childless; his offering was turned away. The distraught husband and wife prayed to God, and the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them, promising a child whose name would be known throughout the world. In nine months, Anna bore a child.

MARY’S NATIVITY FEAST: AROUND THE WORLD

One of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a liturgical feast in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, the Nativity of Mary has been celebrated from the earliest centuries of Christianity: a feast for the Nativity of Mary began in the fifth century, and by the seventh century, it was recognized by Byzantine Christians to the East. In France, the grape harvest is at a peak, and winegrowers often refer to the Nativity of Mary as “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest.” Prime grapes are customarily brought to a local church to be blessed, and in some regions, bunches of grapes are attached to the hands of statues of Mary.

Note: For those following the Julian Calendar, this feast day falls on September 21 of the Gregorian Calendar.

In several regions of the world, Mary’s Nativity is marked with seasonal customs and the start of the Indian summer, or “after-summer.” Seeds for winter crop are blessed in many churches across Europe, and in the Alps, cattle and sheep are herded in grand procession from their summer pastures down to the valleys and stables, where they will reside for the cold season. In some areas of Austria, milk from these cattle and sheep is given to the poor, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

IN THE NEWS: MARY SPARED DURING HARVEY

A multitude of news publications is reporting the story of a family whose homes burned down during Hurricane Harvey, only to find that a lone statue of the Virgin Mary stands amidst the rubble. (Read more, and watch a news clip, here.) The two homes, which housed extended family members, burned while the owners had evacuated; upon return, the Blessed Mother statue was found unburied amid the destruction. The family reports that the Virgin Mary is a figure of great importance in their faith and life.

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