Do you like Birthdays? (Who doesn’t?) Do you like Mary, Jesus’ Mother? (Who doesn’t?) Well, then you are in luck because tomorrow is the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Happy Birthday, Mary! It is not polite form to ask a lady her age, but I can assure you that it would have to be a very large cake to hold all the candles. And in any case we don’t know exactly what year, much less the exact date, on which she was born. Traditionally her parents are known as Anna and Joachim, though there is nothing in Scripture that tells us this.
So why do we celebrate this feast on September 8? Because it is exactly nine months after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (which is all about Mary being conceived in the womb of her mother, Anna, NOT about the conception of Jesus. That is the Feast of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas on March 25).
Historically, Mary, or Miriam as she was originally known, was poor (almost everyone then was), part of a conquered people, a rural peasant of Galilee. She never went to school and was most probably illiterate. This did not stop her from having a very full and deep life of faith.
Over the years the paucity of historical information we have about Mary has caused her to be cast in a great variety of roles. In the 4th Century, in the controversy over the relation of the divine and human natures in Christ, Mary was named “Theotokos,” Greek for “God bearer,” or as we say, “Mother of God.” This was to emphasize how close the two natures in the one person of Jesus are. You can even accurately say that Mary is not just mother of the human Jesus, but truly “Mother of God.”
Later, in the Middle Ages, the peasant woman Mary was given all the pomp and circumstance of royalty and courts. Mary was known as Queen of Angels, Queen of Apostles, Queen of All Saints, and Queen of just about anything else that was holy. Mary was never called “Lady” in her lifetime, but she was always referred to later as “Our Lady.”
In Mexico Mary became protectress of conquered and displaced peoples, appearing to Juan Diego as “La Virgin Morena” or the brown virgin, identifying herself not with the European conquerors but with the vanquished Indians. Even today Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe inspires great devotion among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
In the early 20th Century, as the Church battled atheistic Communism around the world, Mary became a warrior princess. Children in Catholic School up to my time joined the “Blue Army,” and later the “Legion of Mary,” military images to maintain the struggle as we prayed for the conversion of Russia, meaning the Soviet Union.
Nowadays the trend is to return Mary to her roots, a representative of conquered and oppressed peoples, someone who can identify with poverty because she lived it, someone who was a refugee and political exile (the Flight into Egypt) and mother of a man condemned and executed by the state.
Mary has been called on to serve many roles over the centuries, but always they center on compassion, tenderness and care. This has tremendous appeal and staying power. As the Italian atheist says, “there is no god, and Mary is his mother!” So Happy Birthday, Mary!