The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Happy Birthday to Our Lady!
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8 is usually the feast day that many schools and homeschooling families use as a pivotal feast to mark the beginning of their school year.
And what can be more universally appealing (especially to children) than celebrating a birthday? I thought I would share some thoughts and ideas on how to celebrate this feast.
This is one of the three birthdays celebrated in the Liturgical Year: Jesus on December 25, St. John the Baptist on June 24, and the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8. All three persons came into this world without Original Sin.
The feast on this date has been celebrated since before the sixth century, with origins from Syria and Palestine, although it is unknown why this particular date. The Roman Church accepted it and spread throughout the rest of Europe, with it becoming one of the major feasts of Mary celebrated throughout the universal church by the twelfth century. September 8 was a holyday of obligation until 1918.
In a simple view, we honor Our Lady today because it is her birthday, but it helps to sometimes ponder the richness of why she is so deserving of this honor.
From Pope St. John Paul II in his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, March 25, 1987:
The circumstance which now moves me to take up this subject once more is the prospect of the year 2000, now drawing near, in which the Bimillennial Jubilee of the birth of Jesus Christ at the same time directs our gaze towards his Mother. In recent years, various opinions have been voiced suggesting that it would be fitting to precede that anniversary by a similar Jubilee in celebration of the birth of Mary.
In fact, even though it is not possible to establish an exact chronological point for identifying the date of Mary’s birth, the Church has constantly been aware that Mary appeared on the horizon of salvation history before Christ. It is a fact that when “the fullness of time” was definitively drawing near—the saving advent of Emmanuel—he who was from eternity destined to be his Mother already existed on earth. The fact that she “preceded” the coming of Christ is reflected every year in the liturgy of Advent. Therefore, if to that ancient historical expectation of the Savior we compare these years which are bringing us closer to the end of the second Millennium after Christ and to the beginning of the third, it becomes fully comprehensible that in this present period we wish to turn in a special way to her, the one who in the “night” of the Advent expectation began to shine like a true “Morning Star” (Stella Matutina). For just as this star, together with the “dawn,” precedes the rising of the sun, so Mary from the time of her Immaculate Conception preceded the coming of the Savior, the rising of the “Sun of Justice” in the history of the human race.
Her presence in the midst of Israel—a presence so discreet as to pass almost unnoticed by the eyes of her contemporaries—shone very clearly before the Eternal One, who had associated this hidden “daughter of Sion” (cf. Zeph 3:14; Zeph 2:10) with the plan of salvation embracing the whole history of humanity.
Jesus and Mary, Truly Human
In the younger years of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (ages 0-6) there is an emphasis on experience and reality to learn about the Faith. This starts in the home or Domestic Church. A mother can present the Faith to a young child just through direct experience. Maria Montessori called it the “Absorbent Mind” of the child.
The mother takes her baby, while still an infant, to church. There she surrounds the child with incense, flowers, lights and colors. It is a Montessorian principle that the child’s mind unconsciously absorbs all these realities and they help him prepare effectively for the knowledge of the Mass and divine worship, which comes at a much later age.
Most parents who observe their child with any interest are aware that long before the age of reason the child has a keen sensitivity to color, sound, shape, smell and texture. Dr. Montessori significantly refers to this period as the beginning of the life of the soul.
Coinciding with this development through the senses, the child is also highly alert to his own physical actions. In her book The Child in the Church, Dr. Montessori points out that during this time—long before they are able to master the catechism—children learn most easily and accurately how to assist at Mass, how to walk quietly in church, to make the sign of the cross, to genuflect and to light a votive candle. This is during the two and one-half to six-year-old span in the child’s growth. Commenting on the results of this type of training, she says, “A master of ceremonies at a big court or an ecclesiastical function could not be more exact or exacting.”
In reality, this is basic Catholic philosophy in action. Teaching in this framework is the natural-law approach, which directs men to act in accordance with their true natures. It should be a matter of conscience for each and every parent to provide a form for teaching religious truths easily assimilable by the young child, as well as the older ones. Learning is a very real thing when communicated to the child on his own level.
Mother Isabel Eugenie, R.A., working in the Montessori class at the Academy of the Assumption in Philadelphia, emphasizes the child’s natural tendency to absorb the environment in which he lives. She says, “There should, therefore, be religion in the home—family prayers, the rosary, and holy water. The attitude of the parents in joy, sorrow, and stress, their love and union, their faith and trust, all form the child’s attitude to religion. God should be a Person familiar to the child, as One Who loves and forgives, helps and protects.”—from Liturgy for the Home by Magdalen Wise Tuomey, 1965
I’ve been thinking about this quote the last couple of weeks, and the Birthday of Mary is a perfect example of providing a tangible experience in a way that makes an impression and teaches without being overt or teaching by rote.
Beginning with the youngest child in the Atrium, one aspect that is presented to the child is that Jesus was an historical and real person on earth. At first this is demonstrated in different works of geography of the Land of Israel that show the real place that Jesus lived. Then there are works that read along the Scripture about the Infancy Narratives—the stories of Christ’s life as a child. Then later are the Passion Narratives which illustrate the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. Jesus was both God and man. He was alive at a particular time and walked this earth.
Not as prominently displayed, but inherently within these presentations is the fact that Jesus had a Mother. And she was real and alive at the same time as Jesus. The children recognize and embrace this. With this kind of foundation, it is not a stretch for a little child who knows that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday to want to celebrate His Mother’s birthday, also.
There are no rules for a birthday party, but in our family I tended to try to keep to our own family traditions and replicate them for Jesus’ and Mary’s birthdays. We always have cake and light candles and sing “Happy Birthday,” which is what we repeated on Christmas and Mary’s birthday. These were simple gestures that made lasting impressions.
Liturgical Clues for Further Inspiration
Other inspiration on how to celebrate this day can come from the liturgy of the Church. This would be another of the Harvest Feasts of Thanksgiving. Coming on the heels of the Assumption and the Blessing of Fruits and Herbs, September 8 had the Blessing of Seeds, Seedlings and Flowers in the Roman Ritual. It was traditional to present the winter wheat seed at this feast for a blessing.
The prayer of blessing spoke of the harvest in relation to Moses, who counseled the people to offer their firstfruits upon entering the Promised Land. Otherwise, the blessing begged God to protect the seeds from harm and allow them to germinate and grow. The second part of the blessing said essentially the same thing, calling on God the “Sower and Tiller of the heavenly word, who cultivates the soil of our hearts with heavenly tools…” to protect the crop and make it fruitful (Cultivating Soil and Soul: Twentieth-Century Catholic Agrarians Embrace the Liturgical Movement, Michael J. Woods, 2010).
Father Francis Weiser, SJ, in his Holyday Book explains the connection with the grape harvest on this feast (see also Atlas Obscura):
In the wine-growing sections of France, September 8 is the day of the grape harvest festival. The owners of vineyards bring their best grapes to church to have them blessed, and afterward tie some of them to the hands of the statue of the Virgin. The Feast of Mary’s Nativity is called “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest” in those sections, and a festive meal is held at which the first grapes of the new harvest are consumed.
Adult celebrations could include wine, to celebrate Our Lady of the Grape Harvest. But grapes and seeds (especially wheat) could be tied in with decorations and food for the birthday celebration.
Father Weiser also mentions that the swallows often leave central and northern Europe on this day. He shares this translated little rhyme of the Austria children:
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.
The birds flying south points to the end of the summer and another sign of harvest time.
In looking at artistic renditions of the scene of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I find it quite a contrast to the scenes of the Nativity of Christ on Christmas. It is pious tradition that St. Anne was past her childbearing years, so she is depicted as older. She is usually portrayed as tired, needing to rest, and surrounded by many helpful women giving her support, one of them holding the beautiful infant Mary. It is not the Virgin Birth (which would be the birth of Jesus to Mary), but the birth of the Virgin. Thinking of the majority of depictions of Christmas night, Mary and Joseph are alone with the Infant Jesus, in a stable or cave for animals, or surrounded by shepherds and animals. Even if there are people depicted in the scene, adoring Jesus, they are all strangers to Mary and Joseph.
Although the artists of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary are mostly male, I find the depictions appealing to me as a woman and a mother. So much raw humanity is portrayed. I love seeing St. Anne being lovingly supported by family and friends. I look at the comfortable setting in the home, in the cozy bedchambers—this is how a birth would be. Just comparing to Christmas, it makes me realize even more the hardships of Our Lady that night.
So often this feast is often considered from the viewpoint of children, celebrating Mary’s birthday. But in this artistic context, I feel a close kinship to St. Anne. This is a feast also for mothers.
Praise to Mary
Several years ago I highlighted some of my favorite Marian hymns in Singing Our Lady’s Praises, which could be incorporated into the birthday celebration for Mary. Over the years I have used poetry for copywork for school (and practicing calligraphy) and for meditation. So I will close with this poem from the Jesuit Robert Southwell:
Our Lady’s Nativitye
Joye in the risinge of our orient starr,
That shall bringe forth the Sunne that lent her light;
Joy in the peace that shall conclude our warr,
And soone rebate the edge of Satan’s spight;
Load-starr of all engolfd in worldly waves,
The card and compasse that from shipwracke saves.
The patriark and prophettes were the floures
Which Tyme by course of ages did distill,
And culld into this little cloude the shoures
Whose gracious droppes the world with joy shall fill;
Whose moysture suppleth every soule with grace,
And bringeth life to Adam’s dyinge race.
For God, on Earth, she is the royall throne,
The chosen cloth to make His mortall weede;
The quarry to cutt out our Corner-stone,
Soyle full of fruite, yet free from mortall seede;
For heavenly floure she is the Jesse rodd
The childe of man, the parent of God.
by Robert Southwell S.J. (1560-1595)