What is the Nativity of Mary?
On September 8th we celebrate the birthday of Our Lady. It is liturgically fixed to this date because it comes 9 months after the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception being the Catholic dogma which states that Mary was conceived without sin as the child of Sts. Joachim and Anne. This holy couple was infertile but fervently prayed for a child when Anne received the promise that their child would play an integral role in salvation history. “The Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth, and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.”
Saint Augustine describes the Nativity of Mary by saying, "she is the flower of the field from whom bloomed the precious lily of the valley."
(Artwork: The Birth of Mary by Giotto, Circa 1303 AD)
The tradition that pours forth from this feast day is not found in Scripture, but rather is given to us by the living tradition of the faithful and the Protoevangelium of James, which we believe to have been written around the 2nd century. This is where we receive the story regarding the angelic apparition to Anne.
From this writing we also come to better know Anne & Joachim as parents and the intentional care that they gave to Mary. We see that everyone in this family is playing an important role in drawing themselves and their child in closeness to the Lord, knowing that she will carry out a great mission. In the Protoevangelium of James it describes how "Anne made a sanctuary” in Mary's room, and “allowed nothing common or unclean on account of the special holiness of the child." We can further read that in Mary's first year St. Joachim, “made a great feast, and invited the priests, and the scribes, and the elders, and all the people of Israel.” He also brought her to the priests who blessed her saying, "and they blessed her, saying: 'O God of our fathers, bless this child, and give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations' . . . And he brought her to the chief priests, and they blessed her, saying: 'O God most high, look upon this child, and bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be for ever." Anne, Joachim, and the priests then decided that they would offer her to God by consecrating her.
This feast day is particularly interesting because we don't usually see birthdays on the liturgical calendar, in fact there are only three: Jesus (December 25th), Mary (September 8th), and John the Baptist (June 24th). The Church began celebrating the Nativity of Mary around the 6th century and it became widely spread throughout the universal Church close to the 12th century. In fact, this used to be a holy day of obligation until around 1918 AD.
If you go to Mass today, and I highly encourage that you include this in your celebrations, pay attention to the opening prayer. It describes "the birth of Mary’s Son as the dawn of our salvation" and cries out for an increase of peace within our hearts. Remember here the message of the angel to Anne, her child plays a cooperative role in the salvation of mankind.
(Artwork: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Circa 1617-1682 AD)