Dear Father, in our family we celebrate the birthday of Our Lady in a special way to teach the children love for their heavenly mother. Sometimes they ask me about her birth and how we come to celebrate the feast, but I don’t know the answers. Can you help me?
There is, of course, nothing in the Scriptures about Our Lady’s birth, so what we know comes from pious traditions.
One of the sources is the second century apocryphal writing, the Protoevangelium of James, a work whose historical accuracy is not the least bit certain.
It is from that work that we obtain the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, whose feast we celebrate on 26 July.
Another source is the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), related in her work The Life of Jesus Christ (TAN, Rockford Illinois 1986).
It gives the same names for Mary’s parents. According to this work, St Anne was the second child of Eliud and Ismeria.
The first child, also a girl, was named Sobe. Sobe gave birth to a daughter named Mary Salome, who married Zebedee, and from this couple were born the apostles James and John.
Thus St Anne would have been the great aunt of the apostles and Jesus their second cousin.
According to the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine, 18 years after the birth of Sobe St Anne was born.
At the age of 18 she married Joachim, who was of the house of David and a relative of St Joseph.
Sometime later they had a daughter whom they named Mary, although this was not the Blessed Virgin.
Mary Heli, as she was known, later married Cleophas, or Clopas, and she was at the foot of the cross when Jesus died.
Thus St John records in his gospel that “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas” (Jn 19:25).
After the birth of Mary Heli 19 years passed without Joachim and Anne having any more children.
During this time they endured the taunts of their servants and
other acquaintances for their sterility.
Finally, after much prayer and penance, an angel appeared separately to both Joachim and Anne to announce that their prayers had been answered and they would have another child.
This was Mary, the Blessed Virgin.
When the time came for Anne to give birth, she asked three women to be with her, among whom were another sister Maraha and her niece Salome, the wife of Zebedee.
The apostles James and John had not yet been born. While awaiting the birth these women accompanied Anne in prayer, using some of the psalms.
Just before Mary was born a great light surrounded Anne in the form of the burning bush on Mt Horeb.
The burning bush is often seen as a figure of Mary, who gave birth without loss of her virginity, just as the bush gave off fire without being consumed.
When Mary finally came into the world, St Anne and the other women gave praise to God. Angels also appeared, announcing that the baby girl was to be called Mary.
All of these details come from the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich.
We cannot be certain of their historical accuracy but they are at least plausible and consistent with the Scriptures.
When did the Church begin to celebrate this feast?
It appears to have originated in Jerusalem in the fifth century in
association with the dedication of the Basilica Sanctae Mariae ubi nata est, the basilica of Holy Mary where she was born.
The basilica, now known as the Basilica of St Anne, is believed to be on the spot where Sts Joachim and Anne lived.
In the seventh century the feast was celebrated in the East as the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In Rome the feast came to be celebrated towards the end of the seventh century, havinmg been taken there by monks from the East. It gradually spread to other parts of the West over the following centuries.
It has been celebrated on 8 September for many centuries in both East and West.
That date led to the celebration of Mary’s Immaculate Conception on 8 December, nine months earlier.