Today the Universal Church commemorates the feast of the Birth of Our Lady, nine months after we celebrated the Immaculate Conception (8 December). This is not to be confused with Jesus’ virginal birth. The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary being conceived and born from a pure and holy birth. The feast of the Birth of Our Lady pays tribute to the essential role Mary had in salvation history. Her womb of mercy bought forth the Lord our Saviour and this feast emphasises that she was pure from the very beginning.
In the Gospels we are introduced to Mary at the Annunciation. We learn nothing about Mary’s early life. Much of the Church tradition regarding Mary has come from the Protoevangelium of James. The text includes many details about Mary including her parents Anna and Youwakim.
This is a apocryphal book and was written sometime in the second century (parts of it maybe earlier). It has not been approved as canonical by the Church which means the Church does not regard it as inspired by God. However, it remains of great historical value and demonstrates that the very earliest Christian’s recognised and respected the central role of Mary.
The Protoevangelium of James establishes Mary’s honour from the very beginning starting with her parents, Anna and Joachim. They are nobel and righteous people. They had not been blessed with any children. Like Abraham and Sara, they asked and God blessed them with a child.
Reminiscent of the Annunciation, the first part of Protoevangelium of James explains the miraculous birth of Mary. An angel of God appears to Anna and says:
“Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer. You will conceive and give birth and your offspring will be spoken of throughout the whole world” (IV, 1).
Anna promises that the fruit of her womb, be it a boy or a girl, would be consecrated to the Lord. At the delivery Anna exclaims, “My soul exalts this day!” (V, 2). Anna promises to consecrate her daughter to the Lord and at the age of three takes Mary to the temple.
Reminiscent of the Visitation we are told:
The priest received her and, after kissing her, blessed her saying, “The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations; through you the Lord will reveal deliverance to the children of Israel in the last days” (VII, 2).
The Protoevangelium emphasises the perpetual virginity and purity of Mary. It emphasis the honour that the early Christians had for Mary. The emphasis on Mary’s purity and virginity, before and after her conception and also after the birth of Jesus, recognises that Mary was always intended to be the Mother of God.
On this blessed feast let us pray in the words of the anonymous Syriac poet:
“Blessed are you, Mary, born in poverty,
you became mother of the Lord of Kings:
He whose glory filled the heavens
Dwelt in your womb in sacred fashion.
Blessed are your breasts which lovingly suckled Him,
Blessed your tongue that eagerly sang to Him,
Your arms clasped Him, and you became the chariot
Conveying the Fiery One!”
(Prayer from Sebastian Brock, Bride of Light – Hymns on Mary from the Syriac Churches)
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