Nativity of the Theotokos

Feast Day: September 8

Nativity of the TheotokosThere has been a lot of discussion about the "Eight Days Fast Commemorating the Nativity of the Theotokos'. Questions have been raised if this 'feast' is to be celebrated at all? Then, there are those that argue for and against the 'Eight Days Lent' that has picked up so much popularity in the Orthodox Churches in India.

The Nativity of the Theotokos is not a feast the Orthodox Church got from the Catholic church. This feast is celebrated by Byzantine Orthodox, some Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. This is a feast of the Church - it might not have come down to the Indian Orthodox Church through the West Syrian influence. That is no way means it is not Orthodox.

Abstaining from certain kinds of food is fasting. Even if believers partake of the Holy Qurbana during these 8 days and break their fast, but they abstain from certain kinds of food - it is considered fasting. Fasting is the expression of expectation, of the state of waiting and preparation.

With that said here is a brief overview on the 'Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos'.

The Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos is the first major feast of the new Church Year (Eastern Orthodox), which begins on September 1st. Why was this day selected since it is not in the Holy Scripture? History shows that St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, built a Church in Jerusalem, which was dedicated to the Nativity of our Lady. It was said to be consecrated on the date of her nativity: September 8th. The birth and early life of the Virgin Mary is not recorded in the Gospels or other books of the New Testament, however this information can be found in a work dating from the second century known as the Book of James or Protevangelion.[1]

According to the story found in this book, Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, were childless for many years. They remained faithful to God, but their prayers for a child were unanswered. One day, when Joachim came to the temple to make an offering, he was turned away by the High Priest who chastised him for his lack of children. To hide his shame, Joachim retreated to the hill country to live among the shepherds and their flocks. Joachim was frustrated that he was turned away by the High Priest in the temple but he submitted his emptiness to the Lord. At the same time his wife Anna also prayed at their house in Jerusalem. An angel appeared to both of them and announced that Anna would have a child whose name would be known throughout the world. Anna promised to offer her child as a gift to the Lord. Joachim returned home, and in due time Anna bore a daughter, Mary.[2] Joachim was of the lineage of David, and Anna of the lineage of Aaron. Thus, Mary was of royal birth by her father and of priestly birth by her mother. In this, Mary foreshadowed Christ who would be born of her as King and High Priest.

"Mary, Full of grace, Blessed among women, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Altar of the Living God, the Table of the Heavenly Bread, the Ark of God's Holiness, the Tree of the Sweetest Fruit, the Glory of the race of man, the Praise of womanhood, the Fount of virginity and purity - this was the daughter given by God to Joachim and Anna. She was born in Nazareth, and at the age of three, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem. In her young womanhood she returned again to Nazareth, and shortly thereafter heard the Annunciation of the Holy Archangel Gabriel concerning the birth of the Son of God, the Savior of the world, from her most-pure virgin body".[3]

Romanos, who lived in the 5th century, was a native of Syria and later a deacon of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. He is known to have composed and written many prayers and hymns now in use in the Eastern Church. He was probably the first one who brought this day to the attention of the Church leaders. He wrote a hymn in honor of her birth and spread the knowledge of it among the people. Both St. Andrew of Crete and St. John of Damascus also wrote much about this event. Andrew of Crete said: "This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth. Today is arranged for the Creator of all, an inspired Church and creation prepares itself to become the divine dwelling place of its Creator".[4] John of Damascus says, "The day of the Nativity of the Theotokos is the feast of joy for the whole world, because through the Theotokos the entire human race was renewed and the grief of the first mother Eve was changed into joy".[5]

The fact that there is no Biblical verification of Mary's birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the Theotokos, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents. The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore is a glorification of the miracle of Mary's birth, a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. "From Apostolic times and to our days all who truly love Christ give veneration to Her Who gave birth to Him, raised Him and protected Him in the days of His youth. If God the Father chose Her, God the Holy Spirit descended upon Her, and God the Son dwelt in Her, submitted to Her in the days of His youth, was concerned for Her when hanging on the Cross then should not everyone who confesses the Holy Trinity venerate Her?"[6]

"The Redeemer of the human race -- as I said -- willed to arrange a new birth and re-creation of mankind: like as under the first creation, taking dust from the virginal and pure earth, wherein He formed the first Adam, so also now, having arranged His Incarnation upon the earth, -- and so to speak, in place of dust -- He chooses from out of all the creation this Pure and Immaculate Virgin and, having re-created mankind within His Chosen-One from amidst mankind, the Creator of Adam is made the New Adam, in order to save the old".[7]

The Orthodox Church gives a special place to the honor and veneration of the Virgin Mary the Mother of God. The Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus (431 A.D.) officially adopted the term Theotokos in her honor. There is a period of fasting (the first 14 days of August) and numerous feasts and hymns dedicated to her. Her image is traditionally painted above the Sanctuary and called "more spacious than the heavens" (Platytera). The Virgin Mary, being the mother of God, earnestly intercedes for us, for she gave her flesh to Christ in all humility and obedience, so that the Word of God could become man.[8]

The image of the Hodegetria holds a privileged place in the iconography of the Mother of God. "Hodegetria" means "She who shows the Way".[9] Mary, the Mother of God always shows us the way to God. May the prayers of the Theotokos be a stronghold to us.

Written by Tenny Thomas

[1] Maria Vassilakis, Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, Burlington. VT: Ashgate Pub. 2005.
[2] Ibid.
[3] St Nikolai Velimirovich, Bishop of Zica, The Prologue from Ohrid: Lives of Saints. Also refer to Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, (Yale University Press, 2009).
[4] Andrew of Crete, “Homily on the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God” in Luigi Gambero and Thomas Buffer, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: the Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought.
[5] Andrew Louth, St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology, (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).
[6] Fr. Seraphim Rose, The Orthodox Theology of John Maximovitch, (San Francisco, 1997).
[7] Andrew of Crete, “Homily on the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God” in Luigi Gambero and Thomas Buffer, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: the Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought.
[8] Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, (Yale University Press, 2009).
[9] Linda Murray, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture, (Oxford, 1996).