The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
~ Dom Prosper Gueranger
Let us celebrate the Nativity of the Virgin, Mary; let us adore her Son, Christ our Lord (Invitatory of the Feast). Such is the invitation addressed to us today by the Church. Let us hearken to her call; let us enter into her overflowing joy. The Bridegroom is at hand, for His throne is now set up on earth; yet a little while, and He will appear in the diadem of our human nature, wherewith His Mother is to crown Him on the day of the joy of His heart, and of ours. Today, as on the glorious Assumption, the sacred Canticle is heard (Lessons of the 1st Nocturn); but this time it belongs more to earth than to heaven.
Truly a better Paradise than the first is given us at this hour. Eden, fear no more that man will endeavour to enter thee; thy Cherubim may leave the gates and return to heaven. What are thy beautiful fruits to us, since we cannot touch them without dying? Death is now for those who will not eat of the fruit so soon to appear amid the flowers of the virgin earth to which our God has led us.
Hail, new world, far surpassing in magnificence the first creation! Hail blessed haven, where we find a calm after so many storms! Aurora dawns; the rainbow glitters in the heavens; the dove comes forth; the ark rests upon the earth, offering new destinies to the world. The haven, the aurora, the rainbow, the dove, the ark of salvation, the Paradise of the heavenly Adam, the creation whereof the former was but a shadow: all this art thou, sweet infant, in whom already dwell all grace, all truth, all life.
Thou art the little cloud, which the father of prophets in the suppliant anguish of his soul awaited; and thou bringest refreshment to the parched earth. Under the weakness of thy fragile form, appears the Mother of fair love and of holy hope. Thou art that other light cloud of exquisite fragrance, which our desert sends up to heaven. In the incomparable humility of thy soul, which knows not itself, the Angels, standing like armed warriors around thy cradle, recognize their Queen. O Tower of the true David; citadel withstanding the first shock of Satan's attack, and breaking all his power; true Sion, founded on the holy mountains, the highest summits of virtue; temple and palace, feebly foreshadowed by those of Solomon; house built by Eternal Wisdom for herself: the faultless lines of thy fair architecture were planned from all eternity. Together with Emmanuel, who predestined thee for His home of delights, thou art thyself, O blessed child, the crowning point of creation, the divine ideal fully realized on earth. Let us, then, understand the Church, when, even on this day, she proclaims thy divine maternity, and unites in her chants of praise the birth of Emmanuel and thine own. He who, being Son of God by essence, willed to be also Son of man, had, before all other designs, decreed that he would have a Mother. Such, consequently, was the primordial, absolute character of that title of mother, that, in the eternal decree, it was one with the very being of the chosen creature, the motive and cause of her existence, as well as the source of all her perfections natural and supernatural. We too, then, must recognize thee as Mother, even from thy very cradle, and must celebrate thy birthday by adoring thy Son our Lord.
Inasmuch as it embraces all the brethren of the Man-God, thy blessed maternity sheds its rays upon all time, both before and after this happy day. God is our king before ages: He hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth (Psalm, lxxiii. 12). "The midst of the earth," says the Abbot of Clairvaux, "admirably represents Mary. Mary is the centre of the universe, the ark of God, the cause of creation, the business of ages. Towards her turn the inhabitants of heaven and the dwellers in the place of expiation, the men that have gone before us, and we that are now living, those that are to follow us, our children's children and their descendants. Those in heaven look to her to have their ranks filled up; those in purgatory look for their deliverance; the men of the first ages, that they may be found faithful prophets; those that come after, that they may obtain eternal happiness. Mother of God, Queen of heaven, Sovereign of the world, all generations shall call thee blessed, for thou hast brought forth life and glory for all. In thee the Angels ever find their joy, the just find grace, sinners pardon; in thee, and by thee, and from thee, the merciful hand of the Almighty has reformed the first creation (Bern. in festo Pentecost. Sermo ii. 4)."
Andrew of Crete calls this day a solemnity of entrance, a feast of beginning, whose end is the union of the Word with our flesh; a virginal feast, full of joy and confidence for all (Oratio i, in Nativit. Deiparae, 1). "All ye nations, come hither," cries St. John Damascene; "come every race and every tongue, every age and every dignity, let us joyfully celebrate the birthday of the world's gladness (In Natal. B.M. Homilia 1)." "It is the beginning of salvation, the origin of every feast," says St. Peter Damian; " for behold! the Mother of the Bride-groom is born. With good reason does the whole world rejoice to-day; and the Church, beside herself, bids her choirs sing wedding songs (Sermo xlv, in Nativit. B.M.V)."
Not only do the Doctors of East and West use similar language in praise of Mary's birth, but moreover the Latin and Greek Churches sing, each in its own tongue, the same beautiful formula, to close the office of the Feast: " Thy birth, O Virgin Mother of God, brought joy to the whole world: for out of thee arose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God: Who, taking off the curse, hath bestowed blessing; and, defeating death, hath given us life everlasting (Trope of the dismissal in utroque Vespertino; Magnificat Ant. of 2nd Vespers)."
This union of Rome and Byzantium in the celebration of today's festival, dates back as far as the seventh century at least (Liber Pontific. in Sergio I); beyond that we cannot speak with anything like certitude, nor is it known when the feast was first instituted. It is supposed to have originated at Angers, towards the year 430, by an apparition of our Lady to the holy bishop Maurillus in the fields of Marillais; and hence the name of Notre Dame Angevine often given to the feast. In the eleventh century Chartres, the city of Mary, claims for its own Fulbert, together with Robert the Pious, a principal share in the spreading of the glorious solemnity throughout France. It is well known how intimate the bishop was with the king; and how the latter himself set to music the three admirable Responsories composed by Fulbert, wherein he celebrates the rising of the mysterious star that was to give birth to the Sun; the branch springing from the rod of Jesse, and producing the divine Flower whereon the Holy Spirit was to rest; and the merciful power which caused Mary to blossom in Judaea like the rose on the thorn.
In the year 1245, in the third Session of the first Council of Lyons, (the same session which deposed Frederick II. from the empire), Innocent IV. established for the whole Church, not the feast, which was already kept everywhere, but the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Mansi. xxiii, 612). It was the accomplishment of a vow made by him and the other Cardinals during the Church's widowhood, which, through the intrigues of the crafty emperor, lasted nineteen months after the death of Celestine IV., and which was brought to a close by the election of Sinibaldo Fieschi under the name of Innocent.
In 1377, the great Pope Gregory XI., who broke the chains of captivity in Avignon, wished to add a Vigil to the solemnity of our Lady's birthday. But, whether he merely expressed a desire to this effect, as did his successor Urban VI. with regard to a fast on the eve of the Visitation, or whether for some other reason, the intentions of the holy Pope were carried out for only a very short time during the years of trouble that fallowed his death. Together with the Church, let us ask, as the fruit of this sweet feast, for that peace which seems to flee ever farther and farther from our unhappy times. Our Lady was born during the second of the three periods of universal peace wherewith the reign of Augustus was blest, the last of which ushered in the Prince of peace Himself.
The temple of Janus is closed; in the eternal City a mysterious fountain of oil has sprung up from the spot where the first sanctuary of the Mother of God is one day to be built; signs and portents are multiplied; the whole world is in expectation; the poet has sung: "Behold the last age, foretold by the Sybil, is at hand; behold the great series of new worlds is beginning; behold the Virgin (Virg. Eclog. iv. Pollio)!"
In Judaea, the sceptre has been taken away from Juda; but the usurper of his power, Herod the Idumaean, is hastening to complete the splendid restoration, which will enable the second Temple worthily to receive within its walls the Ark of the New Covenant.
It is the sabbatical month, the first of the civil year, the seventh of the sacred cycle; the month of Tisri which begins the repose of each seventh year, and in which is announced the holy year of Jubilee; the most joyous of months, with its solemn Neomenia celebrated with trumpets and singing, its feast of Tabernacles, and the commemoration of the completion of Solomon's Temple. On earth, two obscure descendants of David, Joachim and Anne, are thanking God for having blessed their long barren union.
At length, O Mary, our earth possesses thee! Thy birth reveals to it the secret of its destiny, the Secret of that love which called it from nothingness, that it might become the palace of the God who dwelt above the heavens. But what a mystery, that poor, weak humanity, inferior to the Angels by nature, should be chosen to give to the Angels their King and their Queen! Their King they will soon adore, a new-born Babe in thine arms; their Queen they reverence today, admiring thee in thy cradle as only Angels can admire. In the beginning these morning stars, these noble spirits, contemplated the manifestations of Almighty Power, and praised the Most High; yet never did their eager gaze discover such a marvel as that which delights their eyes at this hour: God, more purely imaged under a corporeal veil, under the fragile form of an infant one day old, than in all the strength and all the beauty of their nine angelic choirs; God, so captivated by such weakness united, by His grace, to such love, that He made it the culminating point of His work by determining to manifest his Son therein.
Queen of Angels, thou art our Queen also; accept us as thy liegemen. On this day, when the first movement of thy holy soul was towards God, and the first smile of thy lovely eyes was for thy happy parents, may holy Anne allow us to kneel and kiss thy little hand, already filled with the divine bounties of which thou art the predestined dispenser. And now, grow up, sweet little one! Let thy feet be strengthened to crush the serpent, and thy arms to carry the treasure of the world! Angels and men, the whole of nature, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, all are awaiting the solemn moment, when Gabriel may fly down from heaven, to hail thee full of grace, and bring thee the message of Eternal Love.