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The Great Feasts: The Nativity of the Theotokos

September 7th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Back in June (2010) we began a series on the categories of Marian icons. That seemed to be well received so I’m thinking we might enjoy taking a look at the icons of the Orthodox or Eastern Catholic Churches that represent the Great Feasts of the Eastern Church: the Nativity of the Theotokos, the Exaltation of the Cross, the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), the Theophany (Baptism of Christ -Epiphany), Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Annunciation, Pascha (Easter), the Ascension of Christ, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, and the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos (celebrated as the Assumption in the Western Church. The Orthodox Church generally believes in the Assumption of Mary -body and soul- into heaven but it is not a defined doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Churches).

The Great Feasts are twelve in number. Three of them –Pascha, Ascension, and Pentecost– are called the Movable Feasts because the dates of their celebration vary from year to year depending upon the date of Pascha. The other Feasts are referred to as the Fixed Feasts because they are celebrated on the same dates every year.

(Click on the pictures to see clearer images.)

Icon of The Nativity of the Theotokos

Troparion “Your nativity, O Mother of God, heralded joy to the whole universe, for from you rose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God, taking away the curse, He imparted the blessings, and by abolishing death, He gave us everlasting life.”

Kontakion “Through your holy birth, O Immaculate One, Joachim and Anne were delivered from shame of childlessness, and Adam and Eve from the corruption of death. Your people, redeemed from the debt of their sins, cry out to you to honor your birth: ‘The barren one gives birth to the Mother of God the Sustainer of our life!'”

The first Great Feast of the Eastern Liturgical year is the Nativity of the Theotokos and so the year begins with a story about Mary. The year will end with another story about Mary, her Dormition or ‘falling asleep’ (as in “Mary fell asleep at the end of her earthly life.” The Orthodox Church generally believes in the Assumption of Mary -body and soul- into heaven but it is not a defined doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.)

The Nativity of Mary icon always reminds me of the Nativity of Jesus icon for they have similar details. When we examine the Nativity of Jesus icon I think you will see what I mean.

The story behind the Nativity of Mary icon comes to us not from the canon of the New Testament but from the apocryphal book called the Protevangelium of St. James. It goes like this: The parents of Mary, St. Anne and St. Joachim, reached old age without producing any children. Anne was now barren. One day, Joachim went to the Temple to make an offering but he overheard someone ridiculing him for not being able to father a child. Ashamed, Joachim headed to the hill country to hide among the shepherds and their flocks and there he cried to God over his disappointment. At the same time, Anne was praying back home in Jerusalem. An angel appeared to the both of them at the same time and announced that Anne would give birth to a girl child whose name would be revered around the world.

There are more interesting details to the story but that’s the basic lead-up to the birth of Mary.

The icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos (God-bearer) shows St. Anne reclining on a couch having just been delivered of the baby, Mary. She is attended by servants. The environment suggests an upscale house which indicates that Anne and Joachim were fairly wealthy. In fact they were, but they divided their wealth in a most admirable way: one third went to the Temple and its staff while another third went to strangers and the poor. The remaining third was used by the family. In the foreground of the icon a midwife prepares to give the baby Mary a bath.  Joachim, the husband of Anne is usually depicted in another part of the house or at some distance from Anne. Later icons show the two together caressing the baby or pointing to her as she lies in the crib. The largest figure in the icon is Anne although sometimes Joachim is just as large.

As Adam and Eve were the parents of a fallen humanity, Joachim and Anne are the grandparents of the Redeemer of that humanity –the ‘new’ man:

The name “Mary” or “Miriam” was given by the angel when he announced to Joachim and Anne that they would have the child they had prayed for.  Only one other Old Testament person bore the name Mary or Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron.  Mary means “hope” and so Miriam was the “hope” of the liberation of the Israelites because she saved Moses who would become liberator and savior of her people Israel  (Exodus 2:4-8).  Like the nativity of John the Baptist and the birth of Isaac from the sterile Sarah, the nativity of the Mother of God was considered to be a prefiguring of the Resurrection.*

“But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure, for in the person of St. Anna-a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate-it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace.” **


*from a Meditation by Mary Grace Ritchey

**The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky

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One Response to “The Great Feasts: The Nativity of the Theotokos”

  1. Bernie says:

    The Nativity of Mary is celebrated in both the Eastern and Western Church on September 8 each year.

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