In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Why do we celebrate Mary’s birthday?
It may on the face of it seem to be a silly question. We celebrate Mary’s birthday because we are S. Mary’s Church. But celebrating the birthdays of saints is actually pretty unusual. Usually we celebrate the day of their death – or their heavenly birthday, to put it another way. The only other saint that I can think of whose earthly birthday we celebrate is S. John the Baptist, whose feast day is 24th June.
The major feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary is 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, marking the end of her earthly life. The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth, kept either in May or July, is another. There are of course many other days in the Christian calendar closely associated with Our Lady. Christmas Day of course has a lot to do with Mary; likewise the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated for obvious reasons nine months before Christmas on 25th March, and of course Candlemas. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer brought about a radical purge of saints’ days, including those of the Blessed Virgin Mary; but the 1922 revision of the calendar brought back into use the feast of her birthday which we celebrate today.
So I suppose that is one answer to the question, why do we celebrate Mary’s birthday – because it is in the church’s calendar. That may sound superficial, but it is not: the life of the church here in earth is lived out in time, and that time is ordered for us according to the great seasons of the Christian year, of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, of Lent and Easter, and punctuated throughout by the feasts of the saints. The doctrines and the characters of our faith and our history are brought to life in our minds and in our day-to-day lives as we commemorate them together at the Eucharist – and one of the great losses of the period of lockdown was our inability to share together in the feasts and fasts of the church.
So that is one answer to the question, why do we celebrate Mary’s birthday. But of course there is much more that we could say.
Some of you may have noticed how inconveniently placed many of the feast days associated with Mary are in the calendar. The feast of the Visitation usually falls during the late May half-term; the feast of the Assumption falls in August, when many people in normal circumstances would be on holiday. The feast of the Annunciation often clashes with Holy Week and so has to move around, and also often clashes with school holidays. And so another answer to the question, why do we celebrate Mary’s birthday, is simply that it is a much more convenient day for bringing people together for a joyful celebration than the other obvious candidates for our Patronal Festival. Again, this may seem superficial, but on reflection it is not: to mark our Patronal Festival on day when we have a realistic possibility of gathering together our regular congregation is important. And again, the Covid-19 lockdown and our inability to meet together has only served to make this more poignant.
But of course, there is still much more that we could say in answer to the question, why do we celebrate Mary’s birthday.
Theologically, the basic reason for celebrating anything to do with Mary is the Incarnation. In Jesus, the eternally-begotten Word of God, the One who was with God in the beginning and who was God and through whom all things were made, in Jesus the Word is made flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. It is the union of God and humanity in the man Jesus that is the source of our hope and our life and our joy. And Mary has a pivotal part in this union. Her motherhood is the guarantee of the reality of Jesus’ humanity. God is made flesh and has a mother. Mary’s womb is not a mere vehicle to carry the divine Word for a term; it is from Mary that Jesus receives His human nature, and it is within Mary that the incomprehensible and glorious union of God and humanity takes place. Mary’s “yes” to God at the Annunciation nullifies centuries of humanity’s defiant “no” to God’s loving purposes, and can only have been possible through a unique act of God’s grace. And Mary’s “yes” to God is the model for each of our “yeses” to God as we commit ourselves to God formally at our baptism and confirmation, and devotionally whenever we open our hearts to God and whenever we receive Jesus in the Eucharist. The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is ultimately a celebration of the Incarnation and Mary’s role in it; we are reminded that Jesus is not God dressing up as a human being, but a genuine union of God and humanity; we are reminded that in Jesus God became a real person with a real mother with a real birthday, and we rejoice with Mary in God’s goodness and mercy and love.
So that is another reason for celebrating Mary’s birthday. But there is still more that we can say.
There is still more that we can see, but here I warn you that you will need to hold on tight, for we are going to explore realms of thought that are at the outer boundaries of human comprehensibility.
We have spoken already of the Church’s year, the marking out in earthly time of the heavenly realities, and we have spoken of the way in which this shapes our earthly lives, bounded as they are in time and space. And we have spoken too of Jesus the Word of God made flesh; of the mystery of One unbounded by either time or space made present within the womb of the Blessed Virgin: the Creator enclosed within the womb of the creature. In Jesus there is a union of God and man, in Jesus there is a union of time and eternity, in Jesus bounded space and the unbounded infinite combine. We catch a glimpse of this same breaking of eternity into time in the Church’s calendar and this is most especially and obviously true of those feast days directly connected with the mystery of the Incarnation.
From a human point-of-view, the Incarnation happened at a particular time. We celebrate it every Christmas. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, as the Christmas gospel tells us. We may not be able to date it with precision, but we know that it happened at a time of day, on a day of a year. But Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. As a man, he has a birthday; as a man, the Incarnation began at a specific time. But from God’s point-of-view – insofar as it makes any sense even to speak in those terms – from God’s point-of-view it all looks very different. We tend to think of eternity as being a very very very long time, and we tend to think of God as eternal as being very very very old. But of course no such thing is true. Eternity is not a very long time. It is altogether beyond time, and likewise it is no more true to say that God is old than it is to say that God is young: God is both ancient and young, new and old, God is beyond time, God is the One in whom all times are held. So whilst Jesus as a man has a birthday, and whilst Jesus as fully human became incarnate at a particular time, Jesus as fully divine is unbounded by time, and so the Incarnation too is something that stands outside of time.
This is mind-bending stuff, but it is beautiful to contemplate.
S. Paul is probing the same territory in his epistle to the Romans. He writes: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” S. Paul is struggling as I have struggled to use human language, to use language that is fundamentally limited by time and space, to explore the things of eternity.
From a human point-of-view, the Word became flesh at a particular moment, or to put it another way, Mary became a mother at a particular moment. But from a divine point-of-view, from the point-of-view of eternity, the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, and likewise the motherhood of Mary, is something that stands outside of time, it is something that stands rather within the eternal mysterious loving purposes of God. And to speak of a divine point-of-view over against a human point-of-view is ultimately meaningless: the divine perspective is not just one other perspective amongst many; if we can speak of such a thing as a divine perspective at all, it is only as the purest apprehension of deepest reality, and even this is inadequate.
And if we can say this of the Incarnation, if we can say this of Mary’s motherhood, if we can say this of Mary’s “yes” to God, if we can say that for God these things stand outside of time, then so too our own “yeses” to God: as S. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans, God’s call to us and our response are held deep within the eternal loving divine purpose.
And so that is why we celebrate Mary’s birthday. We celebrate Mary’s birthday because from a human time-bound perspective we see in it a breaking into our time-bound world a shard of God’s eternal loving purposes. We are reminded that God’s purposes for Mary did not begin with the message of the Angel Gabriel but were at work in her from her beginning, and in God, from eternity. And so we are assured too that God’s loving purposes for us, and that our “yeses” to God, are held in God from eternity. And we rightly celebrate these wonderful mysteries with the Church’s great sacrifice of thanks and praise, in which the eternal and unbounded realities of God break into our time- and space- bounded world, and we join with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints and angels in the unending song of praise to the Blessed and Glorious Trinity, to whom be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.