Fr Thomas Hopko teaches about the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos by looking at the hymnology associated with the feast
The first great liturgical celebration, Church feast, of the ecclesiastical year that begins in September in the Orthodox Church is the festival of the Nativity, the birthday of the Virgin Mary, of Christ’s mother, the Theotokos, Virgin Mary. This festival is on the 21st of September.
It’s fitting that the very first great feast of the Church year would be Mary’s birthday especially as we recall that the last great festival of the ecclesiastical year in August is Mary’s entrance into eternal life; her kimesis, her falling asleep, her dormition. So we end the year with the Dormition of Mary and we begin the year with the birth of Mary.
Now in the Orthodox Church most of the saints, in fact, I would say virtually all of them, are not celebrated or remembered on their birthday. In fact probably we wouldn’t know the birthdays of most of them. But they are virtually all celebrated on their death-day; their birthday into everlasting life; their completion of their new birth in baptism by entering into the everlasting life of God’s coming Kingdom. Especially this is the case of the martyrs, but not only the martyrs: for example, the festival for St. Herman, St. Innocent, the American saints; their festival day (sometimes there’s more than one) was surely the day that they died. The day that they died in this world and entered into everlasting life, passed from death into life, is the day that they are celebrated in the Church.
And there are even some Orthodox Christians, kind of zealous Orthodox Christians, who even think that perhaps Christians should not celebrate birthdays. They should have name-days to celebrate the day of their saint. And of course it would be kind of hard to celebrate a person’s death-day… although it certainly is an Orthodox Christian custom that at the day of the funeral of any Christian who passes into everlasting life, there’s always a funeral meal. A meal of love; a banquet meal to celebrate the person’s life and to celebrate their entrance into everlasting life.
However, there are some celebrations, three of them, of birthdays. We have the birthday of St. John the Baptist. We have the birthday of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ. And of course we have Christ’s own birthday, Christmas, on the 7th of January.
Well, on the 21st of September we celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary. Now, the account of Mary’s birth is not in the Bible. It’s not part of Scripture. And whenever I have the opportunity I always like to stress a conviction of mine that Mary, the preaching of Mary, is not part of the preaching of the Gospel. Mary is not an element in the Gospel that is preached. In some sense even the Virgin Birth of Christ is not essentially part of the proclamation, although we have it in Matthew and Luke, but we have it because of the central proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is the suffering servant, the anointed Messiah, who enters into his glory through his crucifixion and death by which he is then glorified and exalted and made the head over all things for the sake of his Church. But we have the birth of the Virgin Mary given to us in the tradition of our faith. The birth of John the Baptist is in Scripture, Christ’s birth, of course, is in Scripture, but Mary’s is not.
However there is this document that provides a lot of inspiration for the Church festivals concerning Mary. It’s called The Protoevangelium of James. It’s kind of a Jewish-Christian document centering totally on Mary, from her conception and her birth and her childhood and, virtually, her life, where Mary is contemplated, vis-à-vis the Jerusalem Temple, as the living temple of God. And all the events, including her birth, are contemplated in the light of the fact that she will become the living temple of God. She will become the means of the ultimate and final divine epiphany on earth; the revelation of God in his own flesh as a human being.
So you have this text, this document, material about the birth of Mary. However, I think it is totally accurate to say that if we never had that document, if The Protoevangelium of James did not exist, a contemplation of Mary’s birth would still be a part of the Christian tradition. And a celebration of her birthday would definitely fit into the whole life of the Christian Church. Because if Jesus of Nazareth, her child, is the incarnate son of God, the divine Logos in human flesh, who is born of her as a virgin, from the Holy Spirit, then the Christians would definitely contemplate Mary’s own birth. They would celebrate the fact that she was born; there would be many, many things that would be able to be said about her even if absolutely nothing was known. Even if her parent’s names were not known, even if nothing was known, many, many things could be proclaimed and celebrated just because of what we do know about her. Namely that she is the Mother of Jesus the Christ, the Saviour, the Son of God, the Messiah, God’s own Word and Image in human flesh. And therefore she is a woman competent of that, filled with grace, totally believing. The quintessential human, the quintessential Christian, the person who is really, as it says very often in the Fathers and the Liturgy: “after God the closest to God.” That she is that particular person.
If we do read and sing and celebrate the songs and the hymns that are sung on the feast of Mary’s birthday, on September 21st, we will see that this is so. In these hymns her parents are named and their names are Joachim and Anna. And Joachim and Anna, they are both, kind of, names that carry the name of God. Joachim and Anna: “grace of God”, “gift of God”, “victory of God” and so on. So that Mary is said to be born of this couple and then it’s said of her, in the typical biblical tropos (biblical mode), that they were elderly, they had no children, Anna was barren, they were righteous according to the Law of Moses. It says even that Joachim gave one third of his income to the poor, one third to the Temple and kept one third for him and his wife, Anna. And that in old age they prayed to God that she would have a baby; like Sarah and Abraham; like the mother of Samson, Manoah’s wife; like Hannah, the mother of Samuel; like Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.
So you have this teaching, again, very biblical teaching, to kind of show the special character, miraculous character of the one being born. That she was born of them in old age and the service stresses that the curse of barrenness is taken away from Anna. By the way, sometimes in the more, quote unquote, “politically correct” translations that you have in some churches, they’ll say “the barrenness of Joachim and Anna was removed,” but at the time they would never, people would never speak of the barrenness of the man. It’s the woman who’s barren. The fault of her barrenness may be her husband, and probably at that time they wouldn’t have known that, we know that now, but in any case it’s the woman’s calamity that she is not bearing a child, especially if that child could be a significant servant of God and perhaps might even be the Messiah himself.
So in Joachim and Anna, the story is, that they prayed and that they said if they had a child they would dedicate this child to God specifically, consecrate the child. And they conceive, in a totally pure, holy conception. We might call it an immaculate conception; there’s no stain in it at all. They pray to God, God blesses them, they come together, Anna becomes pregnant and her child is not a boy, it’s a girl. And it’s Mary. And Mary is accepted by them as a gift of God and then she is offered herself to God in the Temple (and that becomes a Church festival as well, celebrated in November) and she is then raised in the circles of holiness. Even, kind of, raised in the Temple, sometimes they would say, meaning, I would assume, in the aura of the temple, not literally inside the Holy of Holies, which would have been historically impossible. They would have killed her if she’d tried to enter there. But she is the holy one herself. She is the one raised, born according to the promise and as a blessing and raised to be the Messiah’s Mother.
So on the festival of the birth of Mary you have these kind of hymns being sung. And as I just said, even if we knew not anything at all, even if we had no Protoevangelium, even if we had not the tradition of her parents names, if we had nothing at all, we could still easily sing the hymns, like the following hymns that are sung, for example, at Vespers on the festival of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos.
Today God, who rests upon the spiritual thrones,
has made ready for himself a holy throne upon earth.
He who made firm the heavens in his wisdom,
has prepared a living heaven in his love for man;
for from a barren root he has made a life-bearing branch spring up for us,
even his very own Mother.
Oh God of wonders and hope of the hopeless,
glory be to thee, O Lord.
This is the day of the Lord!
Rejoice, oh you people,
for behold: the bridal chamber of the Light, the book of the Word of Life, has come forth from the womb!
And the gate facing the East, newly born,
awaits the entrance of the great High Priest.
She alone brings into the world the one and only Christ
for the salvation of our souls.
Here is another hymn:
Although, by the will of God, other women who were barren,
have brought forth famous offspring,
yet, among all such children, Mary has shone most brightly with divine glory.
For, herself born wondrously of a barren mother,
she bore in the flesh the God of all
in fashion surpassing nature, from a womb without human seed.
She is the only gateway of the only begotten son of God
who passed through this very gate
yet it was closed.
And having ordered all things in his own wisdom he has wrought salvation
for the whole of humanity.
Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin door of God comes forth.
Today grace begins to bear its first fruits,
making manifest to the world the Mother of God,
through whom things on earth are joined with things in heaven
for the salvation of our souls.
At the Vespers service there are three readings from the Old Testament which always are at a festival of the Church. At a vigil of a feast day we always have readings at Vespers and, unless it’s a feast day for apostles (like Peter and Paul, or John the Theologian), the readings are taken from the Old Testament. And here on this festival you have three readings, which are also on other festivals of Mary. On her Entrance to the Temple, on her Protection; they are, kind of, the Old Testament, the main Old Testament Mariological or Theotokian prefigurations. Things we’re supposed to contemplate.
The first reading is from Genesis, the twenty-eighth chapter, and it is telling about how:
Jacob went out from Beersheba, went towards Haran, lighted upon a certain place and stayed there for all night because the sun was setting. And how Jacob took stones and put them for his pillows and laid down and went to sleep. And he dreamed, and he saw a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.
And…the Lord stood above it and said: “I am the Lord God of Abraham, your father and the God of Isaac. The land where you lie I will give to you and to your seed (to your children). And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth and shall spread abroad to the West and the East and the North and the South and in you and in your seed shall all of the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you, I will keep you in all places, wherever you go and I will bring you again to this land. And I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.
And Jacob awoke out of his sleep and he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.”
He was afraid, and he said, “How dreadful is this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:13-17)
Now, that is read because Jacob’s Ladder, extending into heaven, where the angels of God are ascending and descending, that prefigures the holy Virgin Mary. Because Mary will be the one through whom the final epiphany of God on earth is made. That’s she’s, kind of, the ladder by which God descends into our earth, taking on human flesh. And, of course, in this particular dream of Jacob, who later has his name changed to Israel, in this vision, you have the prophecy, the promise to Jacob, to Israel, which was made to Abraham and Isaac. Namely, that in their seed (and St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians says that word sperma or semen in Latin, seed, is singular and it refers to Jesus Christ himself, St Paul says, in the letter to Galatians) that in their seed all of the families of the earth will finally be blessed and be saved. And that they will multiply and their children will be like stars in heaven and sand on a seashore. And that “children” means the children of faith, not just the biological children, but all those families of earth, all the gentiles who are blessed through that one seed that’s going to come from them, who is Mary’s child, Jesus Christ himself.
And so when Jacob wakes up from the dream he says, “This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.” And so Mary is called the House of God, Mary is called the Gate of Heaven, because she is the house in which God dwells, in her own body as a temple, as we’ll see, and that she is the gate that opens us into the kingdom of God and into the presence of God.
Now, those images of “house of God” and “gate of heaven”, they continue in the next two readings. The second reading at the Nativity of Mary, and on other feasts of Mary, is a reading from the prophet Ezekiel, forty third chapter. And this is what it says, it says: “It shall be that upon the eighth day,” (and the eighth day is a kind of day that symbolises the coming age, eight is that number) “and so forward, the priest shall make your burnt offerings upon the altar and your peace offerings and I shall accept you, says the Lord.” (Ezekiel 43:27)
Then it says that the Lord brings the prophet back the way of the gate of the outer sanctuary of the Temple, and the gate that is looking towards the East. That is, facing the East. And the gate is shut. The gate is shut. “Then the Lord said to me, “This gate shall be shut. It shall not be opened and no man shall enter in by it, because it was through that gate that the glory of the Lord entered into the temple of the Lord.” (Ezekiel 44:1-2)
It says: “No man shall enter in by it,” and not even the High Priest, the High Priest will have to go by the North door. So this gate facing the East is there, and actually if you read Ezekiel clearly, when the chabod, the glory of the Lord, enters through that gate, the gate is open. But once the glory passes through, then the gate is shut and sealed, never to be opened again. So it says:
“It shall be shut, because the Lord, the God of Israel has entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut. It is for the prince, the prince, he shall eat in it, to eat bread before the Lord. He shall enter by the way of the porch of that gate and he shall go out by the way of the same.” Then he brought me to the gate before the house and I looked and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. (Ezekiel 44:2-4)
Now, in the liturgical songs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the songs in many, many services on this festival and many festivals, and even in regular hymns of the regular Church year, Mary is often called “the Gate facing the East”. She’s called “the Living Temple of God”, the one in whom God’s glory dwelt. And Christ is the bearer of the glory of God. In fact, in the letter to the Hebrews, he is the Father’s glory, the apaugasma tes doxes autou, the radiance of the Father’s glory. He is the prince. He is the king. He enters by that gate facing East, and then that gate is sealed. And no-one else goes in and out. And that led the Church Fathers to defend the ever-virginity of the Virgin Mary, by saying once Christ passes through her and is born then she is sealed and no human being is ever conceived and born of her again. She is the Virgin Mother, she never has any other children, she is the unique House of God and she is the Gate Facing the East. And the term, “the East”, anatolia is one of the names of the Messiah in St. Luke’s gospel. The “Orient from on high”, “the Dayspring from on high” that passes through her. So East is a very important symbol in Scripture.
And so it says: “The glory of the Lord fills the temple of the Lord,” and then it even says that the prophet fell upon his face in awe before this temple. So Mary is called in the services “the Living Temple”, she’s called “the Gate facing East”. So all these are prefigurations of the incarnation of the coming on earth of God himself, in the person of his son.
Then the third reading is from Proverbs, always read on Mary’s feasts, the ninth chapter. It begins:
Wisdom has built her house;
Wisdom has hewn out her seven pillars.
She has killed her beasts; she has mingled her wine,
she has furnished her table.
She has sent forth her maidens;
she cries upon the high places of the city:
“Who is simple, let him come here!”
As for him who desires understanding, she says,
“Come, eat of my bread, drink of my wine which I have mingled.
Forsake foolishness, live.
Go in the way of understanding.” (Proverbs 9: 1-6)
And then this text is saying that:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
the knowledge of the holy is understanding.
For by me, Wisdom, your days shall be multiplied,
and the years of your life shall be increased. (Proverbs 9: 10-11)
Now, this is read because Jesus is the Sophia theou. Jesus is the hokhmah of Yahweh. He is God’s wisdom. Wisdom in the Old Testament is spoken of, usually, with a feminine pronoun: “she”. Seek “her”, glorify “her”. But in the New Testament the wisdom of God, divine wisdom is Christ himself. But very often Mary is called “the Chair of Wisdom” or “the House that Wisdom built”. Sometimes she’s even called “Created Wisdom”; the wisdom shown in, simply, merely human form. Jesus is divine wisdom made man; Mary is human being made wisdom by the wisdom of God who is her son.
So you have, in these three readings, very interesting, one from the Law, one from the Prophets and one from the Wisdom literature. All prefiguring the incarnation of the Son of God, and the incarnation of the Son of God takes place through a woman, Mary, and it is she whose birthday is celebrated on the eighth of September.
So these are the kind of songs that we sing:
What is the sound of feasting that we hear?
Joachim and Anna mystically keep the festival.
“Oh, Adam and Eve,” they cry, “Rejoice with us today,
for if by your transgression you closed the gate of Paradise to those of old,
we have now been given a glorious fruit, Mary, the child of God,
who will open the gates of Paradise to us all.”
Then it also says:
She who was preordained to be the queen of all and the habitation of God,
the dwelling place of God,
she has come forth today from the barren womb of joyful Anna.
Anna’s child is the divine sanctuary of the eternal God.
Through her cruel Hades has been destroyed, trampled underfoot
and Eve, with all of her line, is established secure in life.
It is meet and right that we should cry loud to her:
“Blessed are you among women!
Blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
So this is how we celebrate the birth of Mary. And, in the Divine Liturgy, the main hymn of the feast, the main song of the festival, goes like this, the two of them, the Troparion and the Kontakion:
Your nativity, oh Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe.
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from you, oh Theotokos.
By annulling the curse, he bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death he has granted us eternal life.
This is patterned after the Nativity for Jesus himself. The hymn for the Nativity of Jesus says:
Thy nativity, oh Christ our God,
has shown to the world the light of wisdom,
for by it those who worshipped the stars,
were taught by a star to adore you, the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know you, the Orient from on high.
But about Mary, we sing:
Your nativity, oh Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe.
For The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has radiated, has shone forth from you, oh Theotokos.
By annulling the curse, he bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death he has granted us eternal life.
And then the Kontakion:
By your nativity, oh most pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin,
celebrate and sing to you:
“The barren woman gives birth to the birth-giver of God,
the nourisher of our life.”
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