The Orthodox Church celebrates on September 8th the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. With the beginning of the Ecclesiastical New Year occurring last week on September 1st, the Nativity of the Theotokos marks the first major Feast Day of the year. The last major Feast of the Ecclesiastical Year is the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15th. Thus, the Ecclesiastical Year begins and ends with the Theotokos. That is how significant and sacred She is to the Orthodox Faith.
Mary was born to parents of advanced age but of great piety. Her father, Joachim, was of the lineage of King and Prophet David. Her mother, Anna, was of the lineage of Aaron.
Even though Joachim and Anna reached their senior years and Anna was barren, they never lost faith that one day they would have a child. Childlessness was considered among the Jews as a Divine punishment for sin.
Joachim and Anna faced a lot of scrutiny for not having a child. On one occasion, Joachim brought his sacrifice to offer to God at the Temple, however, the High Priest rejected it, considering him unworthy since he was childless.
Joachim and Anna believed that with God all things were possible. They even made a promise that if they are one day blessed with a child, they would dedicate it to God.
The Synaxis of Joachim and Anna is celebrated the day after the Nativity on the 9th of September. The day after a Feast is called a synaxis which honors the person or people who played a major role in that particular Feast. For example, the day after Annunciation is the Synaxis of Archangel Gabriel since he brought the Good News to Mary. Since Joachim and Anna gave birth to the Virgin Mary, they are honored the day after the Nativity.
Today let the barren and childless Anna clap her hands with splendor! Let those on earth bear lamps; kings leap for joy; let bishops be glad in blessing! Let the whole world keep the feast! For behold the Queen, the immaculate Bride of the Father, has come from the root of Jesse. No longer will women bear children in grief, for joy has blossomed forth and life lives in the world for all! No longer will the offerings of Joachim be rejected for the lamentation of Anna has been changed to joy! She cries: Rejoice with me, chosen Israel! For behold the Lord has given me the living palace of His divine glory for our common gladness and joy and for the salvation of our souls (Aposticha of Festal Vespers)!
One day, Archangel Gabriel appeared to Joachim and Anna with glad tidings, that they were to expect a daughter who would one day bear the Messiah. The source of the account of the Nativity of the Theotokos is not the four Gospels, rather the Protevangelium of James.
This is the Lord's Day, O people, be filled with gladness! Behold! The bridal chamber of the Light and the book of the Word of Life has come forth from the womb. The Temple Gate that faces east has been born, and she awaits the entry of the Great High Priest. She alone introduces the only Christ to the world, for the salvation of our souls (Sticheron of Festal Vespers).
The Protevangelium of James is a 2nd Century work known as an infancy gospel. The author is believed to be James, the Brother of the Lord (Ο ‘Aδελφόθεος). However, this has never been proven. The Protevangelium of James is known as pseudepigraphal or apocryphal literature. Both are Greek words: pseudepigraphal comes from ψευδεπίγραφος which means wrongly attributed to. Apocryphal comes from απόκρυφος which means mysterious or hidden.
Pseudepigraphal and apocryphal writings are types of esoteric writings that were respected at first, later tolerated and finally excluded. Although regarded worthy of study by the faithful, they are not considered divinely inspired.
The Protevangelium of James is a noncanonical and unauthentic work outside the accepted canon of Scripture. Its purpose was to enhance the importance of Mariology. The Protevangelium includes: the birth of Mary and Her life until Her betrothal to Joseph; the birth of Jesus and immediate aftermath; and the martyrdom of the Prophet Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father.
It may seem perplexing why the Orthodox Church would keep as part of its Tradition, the account of the birth of Mary and Her early life, if it is based on a noncanonical and unauthentic source? Nevertheless, the two dogmas concerning Mary are directly related to the Incarnation of Christ: Her Ever-virginity and Her name of Theotokos. These two dogmas are based on the Gospels of the New Testament which are a fulfillment of the Prophets of the Old Testament.
Although the conception, nativity and life of the Theotokos are important and there are Feast Days corresponding to these historical events, they are not as critical as the two aforementioned dogmas. What is essential is that: Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man without seed.
The Nativity of the Theotokos is a prelude to our salvation. The Virgin Mary is born so that She will one day give birth to the Savior, Jesus Christ. Similarly, John the Baptist is born so that one day he will prepare the people for the Coming of Christ in His earthly ministry. It is for this reason he is called the Forerunner. Both the Theotokos and the Forerunner are born from barren wombs, yet righteous parents. The significance of barrenness and age is that: the things which are impossible with men are possible with God (Lk 18:27).
Your Nativity, O Theotokos, imparted joy to the entire earth, for out of you has risen the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God. He nullified the curse and instead gave His blessing; and causing death to be neutralized, He granted us eternal life (Festal Apolytikion).
O Most Holy Theotokos, intercede for us all!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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