Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
SEPTEMBER 1 MARKS THE BEGINNING of the Byzantine Church Year. An important part of this annual cycle of feasts and fasts is the sequence of the Twelve Great Feasts which, together with the “Feast of Feasts,” Pascha, commemorates the major events in the life of Christ.

The first of the feasts in this annual cycle is observed on September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos. Our “life of Christ,” then begins with the birth of His Mother, just as it concludes with the commemoration of her Dormition. “This day is for us the beginning of all holy days” (St Andrew of Crete) because the birth of Mary is the overture to the coming of Christ. The Church Year thereby affirms that one cannot glorify Christ apart from His Mother nor can we honor the Theotokos apart from her Son.

This connection is made clear in the troparion of the feast, which moves quickly from honoring Mary to proclaiming Christ: “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.”

The Source of Our Celebrations

The Gospels do not record anything about the Holy Virgin prior to the Annunciation. The account of her birth on which our feast is based is found in the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century collection of “infancy narratives,” stories describing the births of Jesus and Mary. The first part - which early manuscripts call The Story of the Birth of Saint Mary, Mother of God –describes her nativity and her dedication to the temple, an event which we also celebrate in our Church Year (November 21).

Written in Greek, the Protoevangelium was translated into a number of languages and was known throughout the early Christian world. In the early third century, the Alexandrian scholar Origen referred to it as a dubious and recent composition, despite its claim to have been written by James, the brother of the Lord. Today it is thought that the Protoevangelium contains a mixture of apostolic traditions coming down from the first Christians along with narrative embellishments to “fill in the blanks” in the stories of the Lord and His Mother.

This desire to shed light on the hidden lives of Christ and His Mother is especially evident in another work popular in the first millennium, known as The Book of the Nativity of Mary and the Childhood of the Savior or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew. It combines the story of Mary from the Protoevangelium and apocryphal stories of Jesus from the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The Story of Mary’s Birth

The tradition preserved in the Protoevangelium is that Mary was the daughter of Joachim and Ann, born to them late in life. The literary embellishment in this work tells tell how Joachim, although a generous donor to the temple, was mocked for being childless. Recalling how Abraham had been given a child in his old age, Joachim retired to the wilderness to pray for a similar blessing. In response angels appeared to Joachim and Ann promising that their prayers have been heard and that Ann would conceive. Our feast of the Maternity of St Ann (December 9) recalls her conception of the Virgin Mary.

Then, “When her time was fulfilled, in the ninth month, Ann gave birth. And she said to the midwife: ‘What have I brought forth?’ And she said: ‘A girl’. Then Ann said: ‘My soul has been magnified this day.’ … when the days were fulfilled, Ann was purified, and gave her breast to the child, and called her name Mary” (Protoevangelium 5).

The Place of Mary’s Birth

The Protoevangelium does not identify the place where Mary was born. Different local traditions claim at least two possible locations: the village of Sepphoris, a few miles from Nazareth, and the neighborhood of the “shepherd’s pool” in the old city of Jerusalem. Byzantine basilicas were constructed in both places in the fifth century with the Jerusalem basilica designated as “the place where Mary was born.”

Mary’s birth is celebrated by most of the historic Churches on September 8 (Copts and Ethiopians observe it on May 9). The first mention of this feast is at the beginning of the sixth century when a new church, dedicated to St Ann, replaced the basilica at the Shepherds’ Pool. The present Church of St Ann, constructed by Crusaders in the twelfth century, occupies this site today. A shrine in the church’s crypt commemorates the conception and birth of Mary.

Our Celebration of This Feast

The principal theme of our feast is that “Today grace begins to bear fruit, showing forth to the world the Mother of God, through whom earth is united to Heaven for the salvation of our souls” (vespers).

Other than the names of Mary’s parents, almost none of the narrative details from the Protoevangelium find their way into the hymns of this feast. Rather the focus of our prayer is that now the mystery of our salvation in Christ is beginning to unfold. “Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin, the Gate of God, comes forth… Today ends our nature’s barrenness” (Orthros). Mary will become the one through whom the ancient prophecies will be fulfilled when Christ is incarnate in her. As St Andrew of Crete (650-740) expressed it: “Today’s solemnity is a line of demarcation, separating the truth from its prefigurative symbol, and ushering in the new in place of the old… This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth. Today an inspired Temple is provided for the Creator of all, and creation prepares itself to become the divine dwelling place of its Creator.”

Andrew’s contemporary, St John of Damascus (676-749) says, “The day of the Nativity of the Theotokos is the feast of joy for the whole world, because through the Theotokos the entire human race was renewed and the grief of the first mother Eve was changed into joy.”

Hymns of Mary’s Nativity

Today, God who dominates the Spiritual Thrones of Heaven, welcomes on earth the holy throne which He had prepared for Himself. In His love for mankind, He who established the heavens in wisdom had fashioned a living heaven. From a barren stem He has brought forth for us His Mother as a branch full of life. O God of miracles, and hope of those who have no hope, Lord, glory to You!

Today glad tidings go forth to the whole world. Today sweet fragrance is wafted forth by the proclamation of salvation. Today is the end of the barrenness of our nature, for the barren one becomes a mother, the mother of the one who by nature will not cease to be a virgin, even after giving birth to the One who by nature is Creator and God. He it is who took from her His flesh by which He wrought salvation for the lost: He, the Christ, the Lover of Mankind and Savior of our souls! (Stichera at Vespers)
 
SEPTEMBER 1 MARKS THE BEGINNING of the Byzantine Church Year. An important part of this annual cycle of feasts and fasts is the sequence of the Twelve Great Feasts which, together with the “Feast of Feasts,” Pascha, commemorates the major events in the life of Christ.

The first of the feasts in this annual cycle is observed on September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos. Our “life of Christ,” then begins with the birth of His Mother, just as it concludes with the commemoration of her Dormition. “This day is for us the beginning of all holy days” (St Andrew of Crete) because the birth of Mary is the overture to the coming of Christ. The Church Year thereby affirms that one cannot glorify Christ apart from His Mother nor can we honor the Theotokos apart from her Son.

This connection is made clear in the troparion of the feast which passes quickly from honoring Mary to proclaiming Christ: “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.”

The Source of Our Celebrations

The Gospels do not record anything about the Holy Virgin prior to the Annunciation. The account of her birth on which our feast is based is found in the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century collection of “infancy narratives,” stories describing the births or Jesus and Mary. The first part, which early manuscripts call The Story of the Birth of Saint Mary, Mother of God describes her nativity and her dedication to the temple, an event which we also celebrate in our Church Year (November 21).

Written in Greek, the Protoevangelium was translated into a number of languages and was known throughout the early Christian world. In the early third century, the Alexandrian scholar Origen referred to it as a dubious and recent composition, despite its claim to have been written by James, the brother of the Lord. Today it is thought that the Protoevangelium contains a mixture of apostolic traditions coming down from the first Christians along with narrative embellishments to “fill in the blanks” in the stories of the Lord and His Mother.

This desire to shed light on the hidden lives of Christ and His Mother is especially evident in another work popular in the first millennium, known as The Book of the Nativity of Mary and the Childhood of the Savior or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew. It combines the story of Mary from the Protoevangelium and apocryphal stories of Jesus from the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The Story of Mary’s Birth

The tradition preserved in the Protoevangelium is that Mary was the daughter of Joachim and Ann, born to them late in life. The literary embellishment in this work tells tell how Joachim, although a generous donor to the temple, was mocked for being childless. Recalling how Abraham had been given a child in his old age, Joachim retired to the wilderness to pray for a similar blessing. In response angels appeared to Joachim and Ann promising that their prayers have been heard and that Ann would conceive. Our feast of the Maternity of St Ann (December 9) recalls her conception of the Virgin Mary.

Then, “When her time was fulfilled, in the ninth month, Ann gave birth. And she said to the midwife: ‘What have I brought forth?’ And she said: ‘A girl’. Then Ann said: ‘My soul has been magnified this day.’ … when the days were fulfilled, Ann was purified, and gave her breast to the child, and called her name Mary” (Protoevangelium 5).

The Place of Mary’s Birth

The Protoevangelium does not identify the place where Mary was born. Different local traditions claim at least two possible locations: the village of Sepphoris, a few miles from Nazareth, and the neighborhood of the “shepherd’s pool” in the old city of Jerusalem. Byzantine basilicas were constructed in both places in the fifth century with the Jerusalem basilica designated as “the place where Mary was born.”

Mary’s birth is celebrated by most of the historic Churches on September 8 (Copts and Ethiopians observe it on May 9). The first mention of this feast is at the beginning of the sixth century when a new church, dedicated to St Ann, replaced the basilica at the Shepherds’ Pool. The present Church of St Ann, constructed by Crusaders in the twelfth century, occupies this site today. A shrine in the church’s crypt commemorates the conception and birth of Mary.

Our Celebration of This Feast

The principal theme of our feast is that “Today grace begins to bear fruit, showing forth to the world the Mother of God, through whom earth is united to Heaven for the salvation of our souls” (vespers).

Other than the names of Mary’s parents, almost none of the narrative details from the Protoevangelium find their way into the hymns of this feast. Rather the focus of our prayer is that now the mystery of our salvation in Christ is beginning to unfold. “Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin, the Gate of God, comes forth… Today ends our nature’s barrenness” (Orthros). Mary will become the one through whom the ancient prophecies will be fulfilled when Christ is incarnate in her. As St Andrew of Crete (650-740) expressed it: “Today’s solemnity is a line of demarcation, separating the truth from its prefigurative symbol, and ushering in the new in place of the old… This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth. Today an inspired Temple is provided for the Creator of all, and creation prepares itself to become the divine dwelling place of its Creator.”

Andrew’s contemporary, St John of Damascus (676-749) says, “The day of the Nativity of the Theotokos is the feast of joy for the whole world, because through the Theotokos the entire human race was renewed and the grief of the first mother Eve was changed into joy.”

From the Canon of the Feast

Third Ode

O LORD, WHO TOOK AWAY OUR SINS on the Cross, strengthen our hearts in Your love and implant a reverence for Your Name in the hearts of those who praise You.

~Having lived without reproach before God, the parents of the one who would give birth to our divine Creator have brought forth the salvation of all.

~The Lord, who makes life pour forth for all, has brought forth the Virgin from a barren woman. In her He takes up His dwelling, preserving her virginity inviolate after childbirth.

~Today holy Ann offers a fruit, who is Mary, the woman who brought forth the life-giving Cluster; let us sing to her as the Mother of God, the help and protection of all.

~O only ever-virgin Mother, unwedded, you became the golden censer for Christ, the living Coal. Pour out your fragrance over my soiled heart.
 
FOR MANY CHRISTIANS THE GOSPEL can be summarized in the passage read on this Sunday: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In it we see God’s character (love) and His motivation (to provide eternal life for those who believe in Him), but especially His action: the giving of His only-begotten Son. With this gift God steps into our age, transcending it by His loving action. He interrupts the cycle of our days and years with an event of “God-time” that in fact transforms our human time into a celebration of His loving presence.

God-Time in Our Time: the Eucharist

In the ancient Churches of East and West this blessed “intrusion” of God into our days is made present again in three ways which have become important moments for us to experience the everlasting life God means for us to have. The gift of Christ and His saving work for us is at the heart of the Liturgy, the Church’s cycle of feasts and fasts, and every week of our Christian life. The most ancient and the most grace-giving way in which we encounter God-in-our-age is the Divine Liturgy. In the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, at the point introducing the story of the Lord’s Supper, John’s profession of faith in the depths of God’s love for us is quoted. Introduced with the words of John’s Gospel, the anaphora is climaxed as the priest offers the holy gifts to the Father, saying:
“Remembering … everything that was done for our sake: His cross, His tomb, His resurrection on the third day, His ascension into heaven, His sitting at Your right and His second and glorious coming, we offer to You your own of what is your own in all and for the sake of all.”
The cross, the tomb and the resurrection are not the end of the story – we remember that the risen Christ ascended in glory and that He will come again to us in the time determined by the Father. In the Liturgy we unite ourselves with Christ in all of this, joining our own sacrifice of praise to His life-giving gift of Himself.

God-Time in Our Time: the Church Year

In the ancient Churches of East and West this gift of Christ is also celebrated in the liturgical year. Specific aspects of the mystery of the incarnation and the redemption are remembered throughout the year, making of the entire year a kind of Eucharistic prayer glorifying God in Christ. The oldest part of the Church year – almost as old as the Liturgy and our written Gospels – is the weekly commemoration of the paschal mystery. Every Wednesday in the Eastern Churches is kept as a remembrance of Christ’s betrayal by Judas. Every Friday recalls the Lord’s crucifixion, death and burial. These days are observed by fasting in recognition of man’s part in the death of God. These remembrances make every week a little Holy Week, with every Sunday as a little Pascha as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ by joining with the Church in offering the Divine Liturgy. Since fasting is the principal observance of Wednesdays and Fridays, all Christians can easily observe these commemorations in whatever station of life they may find themselves. In families, for example, meals can become times for teaching how God’s love for the world played out during the week of Christ’s passion. Coming together with other believers for the Sunday Liturgy we partake of the fruit of His passion, the banquet of the Kingdom.

Our Yearly Observances

In the first years of the Church the principal festivals of society were agricultural – praying for and then celebrating the harvest – or honoring the local divinities and their shrines. As the Church grew it began its own annual observances, geared to the celebration of the mystery of Christ. Most of our Church’s principal feasts can be traced to the first 500 years of Christianity. In all the Churches there are two dimensions to the liturgical year. The paschal cycle, focused on Pascha and Pentecost, is based on the date of Pascha, varying each year. Other commemorations such as Christmas occur on the same fixed dates every year. Together they form the annual observance of all that has been done for us. In the Byzantine Churches the cycle of fixed feasts begins on September 1. At one time this was a civil observance; even today the fall marks the academic, judicial, musical and social new years. While every day there are commemorations of saints, icons, or historical events in the life of the Church, our principal celebrations are the Twelve Great Feasts celebrating the mystery of the incarnation in the lives of Christ and the Theotokos. The first celebration in this yearly cycle is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8). Along with the feasts of her conception in the womb of St Ann (December 9) and her entrance into the temple (November 21) this feast tell us that Christ’s coming is at hand. The birth of Mary is a prelude to the coming of Christ who took flesh in her womb. The birth and early years of the Virgin’s life were described in the Protoevangelium of James, a 2nd-century ‘prequel’ to the Gospel events, as we might call it today. The hymns of this feast often refer to the story in the Protoevangelium (e.g. the barrenness of Ann, the angel’s message that she would give birth, and so on). More fundamental to our celebration of the birth of the Theotokos is the simple fact that the mother of the Savior is at last with us, beginning our journey to Bethlehem and the celebration of Christ’s birth,
Hymns of Mary’s Nativity


Today, God who dominates the Spiritual Thrones of Heaven, welcomes on earth the holy throne which He had prepared from Himself. In His love for mankind, He who established the heavens in wisdom had fashioned a living heaven. From a barren stem He has brought forth for us His Mother as a branch full of life. O God of miracles, and hope of those who have no hope, Lord, glory to You!

Today glad tidings go forth to the whole world. Today sweet fragrance is wafted forth by the proclamation of salvation. Today is the end of the barrenness of our nature, for the barren one becomes a mother, the mother of the one who by nature will not cease to be a virgin, even after giving birth to the One who by nature is Creator and God. He it is who took from her His flesh by which He wrought salvation for the lost: He, the Christ, the Lover of Mankind and Savior of our souls! (Stichera at Vespers)

Adam is freed and Eve dances with joy. They say to you in spirit, O Mother of God, “In you we are delivered from the original curse by the coming of your Son!” (St Andrew of Crete, Canon, Ode 7)

O marvelous wonder! The source of Life is born from a barren woman; grace begins to grant its radiant fruit! Rejoice, O Joachim, who begot the Mother of God: there is no earthly father like you, O divinely inspired, for through you we have been given the Virgin who bore God, His divine tabernacle, His holy mountain. (Praises at Orthros)

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