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.

Assumption of the Virgin & Dormition of the Theotokos: A Christian feast for Mary

Painting of tiers of heaven, Jesus and Mary at top, apostles below looking at Mary's empty casket

Francesco Botticini’s The Ascension of the Virgin, 1475-1476 CE. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, AUGUST 15:  Orthodox Christians have been fasting in preparation for the past two weeks; for Western Christians, today’s solemnity emphasizes an infallible dogma: for the billions of Christians worldwide, today is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven (or, the Dormition of the Theotokos).

Shared historically by Eastern and Western branches of Christianity is the belief that the Virgin Mary was bodily taken into Heaven at the end of her life on earth. As her son ascended to Heaven after his earthly death, so Mary was assumed into Heaven following her “falling asleep.” Starting August 1, Orthodox Christians began the strict Dormition Fast, in honor of today’s feast; in Eastern Christianity, Mary is often referred to as the Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” Both Eastern and Western Christians popularly observe today’s feast as Mary’s heavenly birthday, while religious parades and festivals celebrate the day. (Wikipedia has details.) In Costa Rica and parts of Belgium, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is combined with Mother’s Day.

AN ANCIENT STORY

Apocryphal accounts of the assumption of Mary into Heaven have circulated since the 4th century CE, and although the Catholic Church interprets chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation as referring to this event, there is no specific Scriptural account. Tradition points to Jerusalem as the most likely place of Mary’s death, though at no time in history has Christendom venerated a tomb of the Virgin Mary. In addition, no relic of Mary has ever been found or claimed.

In Catholicism: The Assumption of Mary was widespread belief in Christianity for centuries before being dogmatically defined for Catholicism by Pope Pius XII, in November of 1950. In Pope Pius XII’s Munifecentissiumus Deus, it was declared that the Assumption of Mary was dogma; still, the question of whether or not Mary had died before her Assumption was left unanswered. In Catholicism, either belief—that Mary died before her Assumption, or that she did not—is acceptable. (Get a Catholic perspective from Catholic Culture and Global Catholic Network.)

Did you know? In 588 CE, the Emperor Maurice officially adopted the commemoration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin) into the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Empire.

In Orthodox Christianity: Eastern Christians believe that Mary died a natural death, and that afterward, Christ received her soul. On the third day after death, Mary’s body was resurrected. In Orthodox tradition, the Dormition of Mary is not defined in dogma, but rather liturgically and mystically. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.) In some churches, the service of the “Burial of the Theotokos” is celebrated during an All-Night Vigil.

Interested in prayers, devotions and family-centered activities for today’s feast? Find related items at Women for Faith and Family.

Dormition Fast: Orthodox Christians fast for Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos)

Gold background foreground painting of icon of Virgin Mary holding child, halos around their heads

Painting of an Orthodox Christian icon of the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos. Photo by Duckmarx, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, AUGUST 1: As Orthodox Christians look to the Feast of the Dormition, millions enter a fasting period stricter even than that before the Nativity (Christmas).

For Eastern Christians, including many families in the U.S., the two weeks prior to the feast recalling the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary are focused on prayers to the Theotokos (“God-bearer”). In this fast, the observant abstain from red meat, poultry, dairy products, fish, oil and wine. The Dormition Fast continues until the Feast of the Dormition, on August 15. (Note: Certain restrictions of the fast are lifted on the Feast of the Transfiguration, on August 6).

The first day of the Dormition Fast hosts the Procession of the Cross, during which an outdoor procession complements the Lesser Blessing of Water.

END OF MARY’S LIFE

The first four centuries of Christianity lack notable reference to the end of Mary’s life, and in most manuscripts, it wasn’t until the 5th century that Dormition traditions begin getting mention. (Wikipedia has details.) Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died a natural death and that her soul was received by Christ upon her death; that her body alone was taken into heaven by Christ on the third day after her death. While some Roman Catholics agree with this belief—as was confirmed by Pope John Paul II, during a General Audience in June 1997—others hold that the Virgin Mary did not experience death and was, instead, assumed into heaven in bodily form.

Did you know? Jerusalem houses Mary’s Tomb and the Basilica of the Dormition.

Christian tradition holds that after Mary spent years serving and raising awareness of the new Church, she received a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, who told her that her death would occur in three days. It is believed that the apostles—many who were not in Jerusalem at the time, but preaching abroad—were miraculously transported to Mary near the time of her death. (Learn more from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) Three days after her death, her body was gone and a sweet fragrance was emitted from the tomb. In many regions, it is still custom to bless fragrant herbs on the Feast of the Dormition.

IN THE NEWS: A MIRACLE?

Claims for miracles associated with Mary surface in news publications frequently, and recently, churchgoers in Sydney, Australia have been posting videos and talking about a painted portrait whose lips moved with the congregation’s recited prayers. (ChristianToday has the story.) The painting, depicting the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her arms, is reported as having moved under various lighting; the Catholic Church has reaffirmed that only the bishop of a diocese can officially declare it a miracle.

Eastern and Western Christians observe Birth of Mary, Nativity of Theotokos

“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.”
An Austrian children’s rhyme, for September 8

Painting of women in fancy room, gathered around woman with young baby, one woman pouring water into a bowl

Birth of Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1486-1490 CE. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Most of the world’s 2 billion Christians rejoice today in recalling the birth of Mary. In traditional Catholic and Orthodox teaching, Mary is regarded as a figure foretold in passages as ancient as Genesis. And this holiday is known as the Birth of the Virgin Mary among Western Christians, as well as the Nativity of the Theotokos among Eastern Christians.

Though the Bible contains no record of Mary’s birth, the Protoevangelium of James—an apocryphal writing from the second century—describes Mary’s birth, as well as the story of her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. (Learn more from Catholic Culture and Fish Eaters.) Accounts detail that St. Anne and St. Joachim, though faithful and pious, were without children. Anne and Joachim prayed for a child; though older, they conceived a child, whom they would call Mary. Tradition tells that Mary was born in Jerusalem.

Did you know? The birth of Mary also is included in the Quran. She is a major figure in Islam. (Wikipedia has more about Mary in Islam.)

The feast for Mary’s Nativity originated in Jerusalem, in the fifth century, and records point next to Syria and other parts of ancient Palestine, both of which were observing a feast for Mary’s birth by the sixth century. By the end of the seventh century, the feast was accepted by the Roman Church, and it slowly spread through Europe. By the 12th century, Mary’s birth was observed in all Christian countries. (Get the Eastern Orthodox perspective from Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

The Christian Church marks most saints’ feasts on the date of their death, or return to God. To this rule, there are three exceptions: Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, as they are recognized in the Church on both their death date and their birth date.

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST,
‘DOWN-DRIVING’ & THANKSGIVING

In the wine-growing regions of France, Mary’s birthday is affectionately called “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest,” when the best grapes are brought to the local church for blessings and bunches of grapes are tied onto the hands of Mary statues. In the Alps, September 8 begins “down-driving,” when cattle and sheep are led from their summer pastures, down the mountain slopes, to their winter residence in the valleys and stables. In several regions of central and eastern Europe, the Feast of Mary is associated with harvest, fall planting and thanksgiving.

Christian: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dormition of the Theotokos

Painting of woman in sky, crowd of people beneath her

The Assumption of the Virgin, a painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast has ended, and Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul. Whether or not Mary died before being assumed does vary by tradition—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

No evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, yet the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. With no scriptural evidence, the Church points, instead, to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those fallen asleep after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

THE ASSUMPTION: THROUGH THE CENTURIES

Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. (Wikipedia has details.) Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 63 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.

EAST AND WEST: THE DORMITION VS. THE ASSUMPTION

In the East: Eastern Christians believe that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, and that her soul was received by Christ upon death. Three days following, Mary’s body was resurrected, and she was taken up into heaven, bodily. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Orthodox Church in America.)

In the West: Catholics are divided in thought as to whether or not Mary died, bodily, as this theory has not been dogmatically defined either way. (Global Catholic Network has more.)

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

No details suggest the day or year of Mary’s Assumption, though it is believed that when Mary died, the Apostles flocked to her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended, and carried her soul to Heaven.

Orthodox Christians begin fast in honor of Holy Mother of Jesus

Icon of Virgin Mary holding infant Jesus

An Orthodox icon of the Theotokos and infant Jesus, as blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 1: Jesus’s mother Mary is a major figure for most of the world’s 2 billion Christians who are either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, however, Eastern Christians have a more extensive and enduring tradition of fasting throughout the Christian year. In the opening 14 days of August, Orthodox Christians look ahead to the August 15 Great Feast of the Dormition (or the “falling asleep” or death) of the Theotokos. The title Theotokos refers to Jesus’s mother and is Greek for “birth-giver” or “bearer of God.”

Unlike Western Christians, observant Orthodox families spend a little over half of each year living with some form of dietary limitation, described in general as fasting. The two-week fast in early August is sometimes called the Dormition Fast and bars consumption of red meat, poultry, dairy products including eggs, fish, oil and wine.

1,025TH ANNIVERSARY
OF KIEVAN RUS

Orthodox Christian headlines have been rising in importance in the West in recent years, especially because of the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. The New York Times is one of the main U.S. news organizations reporting on the close ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and some leaders within Russian Orthodoxy. The most significant controversy arose after the 2011 arrest of members from a Russian feminist punk band, following a protest in a Moscow church. Western celebrities and activists—including Paul McCartney, Madonna, Elijah Wood and peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi—are all on record as condemning the punk band’s treatment. In 2012, the New York Times reported on provocative ties between Putin and a media-savvy Russian monk. The Times’s opening paragraph explained: “the Russian Orthodox Church continues its ascent as a political force.”

That’s why the exceptional events involving Putin and the 1,025th anniversary of the Christianization of Kievan Rus have attracted journalists. Wikipedia has a lengthy article on this complex conversion story, which boils down to a celebration of the whole Russian region associating itself with Christianity.

American-sponsored Radio Free Europe reported Sunday on: Commemorations taking place in Ukraine to mark the 1,025th anniversary of the conversion to Christianity of Kievan Rus, the medieval Slavic state that laid the Orthodox foundations for modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. On July 28, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in the consecration of a new bell at a church near the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol at the Vladimir Cathedral in Chersonesus Taurica, which is located on the site where, according to legend, Prince Vladimir the Great was baptized into Orthodox Christianity in 988.