Nativity of Mary: Eastern and Western Christians celebrate a holy birth

Full white statue of adult Virgin Mary holding out hands

A statue of the Virgin Mary in New York. Photo by Slice of NYC, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: The Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrate Mary’s birth on the Nativity of Mary. Down through many centuries, churches honored three figures on both their birthdays and death anniversaries: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians know her as the Virgin Mary and she remains the only woman in Christian history to receive the honor of a holy birth (i.e. Immaculate Conception). 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. (Readings for the day and more are at USCCB.org.) The Church holds that the Virgin Mary was born without Original Sin, to Sts. Anne and Joachim in Jerusalem.

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. For Eastern Orthodox Christian, September brings the first month of the Ecclesiastical Year. In France, the grape harvest is at a peak, and winegrowers refer to the Nativity of Mary as “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest.” (Wikipedia has details.) Prime grapes are brought to a local church to be blessed, and in some regions, bunches of grapes are attached to the hands of statues of Mary.

NEWS: APPARITIONS & A VATICAN REPORT

On a scale that has garnered attention from the Vatican, the small town of Medjugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been the site of mass tourism since the report of six youths over three decades ago that the Virgin Mary appeared to them. (New York Times has the story.) Unlike most apparitions, this one is reported to have lasted for 34 years—and continues today. Millions have traveled to Medjugorje with dozens of reports of miraculous healings and conversions, though the Vatican has exercised caution and is expected to soon make public its findings on the investigations concerning the apparitions.

 

Nativity of the Virgin, Birthday of the Theotokos: Christians honor Mary

Depiction on wood of woman in bed holding baby, women gathered around to assist the new mother, pouring water and folding items

The Birth of Mary, artwork circa 1470. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: From East to West, most of the world’s Christians wish “happy birthday” to the person whom Catholic and Othodox Christians believe links the divine to humanity: today is the Nativity of the Theotokos, or the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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. Unlike most saints’ days in the Western Christian Church, only three figures are commemorated on the day of their birth, thereby indicating their pivotal role in salvation: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

THE STORY OF MARY’S LIFE: FROM UNKNOWN TO RENOWNED

As this traditional Christian story goes: 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.

No record of Mary’s birth or childhood exists in the Gospels, but is found in later Christian works. Because these details are not in the New Testament, most Protestants do not observe the holiday. In fact, Eastern and Western Christians also diverge in their understanding of Mary’s birth. 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.

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

Closeup of clump of green and purple grapes hanging from vine

In France, winegrowers bring their best grapes to church for a blessing on the Nativity of Mary. Photo courtesy of Flickr

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST
& OTHER IDEAS FOR CELEBRATION

In several regions of the world, Mary’s Nativity is marked with seasonal customs and the start of the Indian summer, or “after-summer.” The winegrowers of France regard today as the Our Lady of Grape Harvest, bringing their best crop to the local church to be blessed; seeds for winter crop are blessed in many churches across Europe; 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. (Wikipedia has more.) In some areas of Austria, milk from these cattle and sheep is given to the poor, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Some Catholic groups, including Women for Faith and Family, suggest ways that families can celebrate today:

  • Bake Mary a birthday cake, with white and blue icing to symbolize her purity and fidelity. Place a small figure of the Virgin Mary in the center of the cake.
  • Eat foods containing blueberries or anything else blue, as blue is the common Marian color.
  • Decorate a Marian altar at home.
  • Learn and sing hymns to Mary, such as the Immaculate Mary and ‘Hail Holy Queen.’

PLANS FOR A MOVIE? Hollywood interest in biblical stories is rising, experts report. Christian Science Monitor has the story. A new movie about Mary’s early life reportedly is in production for 2014 release, called Mary, Mother of Christ. Israeli-born Odeya Rush is slated to star as Mary. Other stars booked for the production include Peter O’Toole and Ben Kingsley.