The Feast of Mary’s Birth has been celebrated by churches of the east and west since the 4th and 5th centuries, when the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land. Christian pilgrims, after experiencing feasts in these churches, began celebrating them in their own churches back home.
The feast of Mary’s Birth was celebrated in a church built in the 5th century over the ancient pool of Bethesda, near the Gate of St. Stephen, just north of the Jewish temple. John’s gospel recognized this place: “Now there was in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate, a pool in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of the blind, lame and crippled,” (John 5,2) At this healing place, where pagan gods like Asclepius and Serapis were honored, Jesus healed a paralyzed man.
Early on, the church over the ancient healing pool became associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Traditions from the 3rd century placed her home in this area of Jerusalem, and so Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here.
Mary’s mother was Anne and her father Joachim, who provided sheep for the temple sacrifices, early traditions said. But they were looked down upon, because they were old and childless. Then, angels told them they were to conceive a daughter. Their faith, like that of Abraham and Sarah, was miraculously rewarded.
The Birth of Mary and stories of her childhood strongly influenced the spirituality and devotional life of all the early Christian churches. Mary’s birth is celebrated September 8 in the churches of east and west. Her parents are honored September 9 by the Greek Church. The Roman Church celebrates their feast July 27th.
When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the small church over the healing pool, fallen into ruins, and built a new, larger church honoring St. Anne, the mother of Mary, southeast of the pool.
The present Church of St. Ann, today one of the most beautiful of Jerusalem’s churches, stands overlooking the remains of the old church and the healing pool, a favorite destination for pilgrims today.
Readings for the feast of Mary’s Birth see her birth awaited by all her ancestors. The gospel, St.Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, begins with Abraham. Mary fulfilled his hopes and the hopes of generations before him by bringing Jesus Christ into the world.. “We commemorate the birth of the blessed Virgin Mary, a descendant of Abraham, born of the tribe of Judah and of David’s seed,” (Antiphon, 1st Vespers, Roman rite)
“This feast of the birth of the Mother of God is the prelude, while the final act is the foreordained union of the Word with flesh. Today, the Virgin is born, tended and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God, who is the universal King of the ages…
Today the created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
(St. Andrew of Crete, bishop, Office of Readings, Roman rite)
This feast of Mary is the first great feast of the Orthodox year, which begins in September. Their calendar ends with the feast of Mary’s Dormition, on August 15th.
The Orthodox liturgy sees Mary as the mysterious ladder that Jacob saw in a dream reaching from earth to heaven. (Genesis 28,10-17) She is the way the Word comes down to earth’s lowest point, death itself, and returns to heaven having redeemed humanity. The Orthodox liturgy also associates Mary with the miracle of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda. She has a role in healing our paralyzed humanity.