Celebrated by Christian churches of the east and west. this feast originated in Jerusalem after the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land in the 4th and 5th centuries. Christian pilgrims, after experiencing the feast there, began celebrating it in their own churches back home.
In the 5th century the feast was celebrated in a church built over the ancient pool of Bethesda, near the Gate of St. Stephen, just north of the Jewish temple. Here Jesus healed a paralyzed man, John’s gospel says: “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, honoring pagan gods like Asclepius and Serapis Jesus healed a paralyzed man.
The church over the healing pool became associated early on with Mary, the mother of Jesus; third century Christian writings placed her family in this area of Jerusalem. Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here.
Early stories said that Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, were faithful Jews waiting for the One who was to come. They were old and childless. Joachim supplied sheep for the temple sacrifices, but was looked down upon because he was childless. Then, angels announced to the two of them that they were to conceive a daughter. Their faith, like that of Abraham and Sarah, was miraculously rewarded.
The feast of Mary’s parents is celebrated September 9 by the Greek Church. The Roman Church celebrates their feast July 27th.
The Feast of the Birth of Mary and stories of her childhood associated with it influenced the liturgy and devotional life of all the early Christian churches. The crusaders, after conquering the Holy Land in the 11th century, rebuilt the small church over the healing pool, fallen into ruins, and also built a 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.
The readings for this feast present Mary representing all her ancestors. The gospel is St.Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, starting with Abraham. Mary fulfills the hopes of generations before her, indeed the hopes of the whole human race. “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) The birth of Mary prepares for the birth of Jesus Christ.
“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)
The Orthodox Church in its 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.
The Orthodox calendar year begins on this feast of Mary and ends with the feast of her Dormition, on August 15th.