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Mary & The Christmas Liturgy

The following article is an excerpt from the recently published Marian anthology, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, Seat of Wisdom Books, A Division of Queenship, 2008. Fifteen international Mariology experts contributed to the text. To obtain a copy, visit our store.

-Asst. Ed.

The liturgical cult of Mary began in Jerusalem, where August 15 marked the particular feast day of the Theotókos. According to a legend in circulation as early as the mid-second century, the Blessed Virgin en route to Bethlehem, where she would be delivered of the infant Christ, had paused for a rest. In the early fifth century, a woman named Ikelia built an oratory to identify this resting place. This chapel saw the first liturgical celebration of the Mother of God. The name of the feast, Kathisma, means the sitting- or resting-place. Around 450, the venue of the celebration shifted to Jerusalem, specifically Gethsemane, a spot then supposed to be Mary’s final resting place on earth. Here, in a basilica which enshrined her reputed tomb, the feast became known as the Anapausis (“falling asleep”) or Dormition of the Mother of God.

At the end of the sixth century, Emperor Maurice (reigned 582-602) extended this feast throughout the empire. By the seventh century, it had reached Rome, where it was known first as the Dormition or Pausatio. In the eighth century, the Sacramentary of Pope Hadrian referred to it as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Adsumptio sanctae Mariae). The earliest Jerusalem feast of Our Lady, then, comprised elements of Mary’s motherhood and her dormition, with a resting-place as the common denominator.

At the beginning of the sixth century, a church north of the ruined Temple of Jerusalem became associated with Mary’s nativity. This is likely the source of the feast of her birth observed on September 8.

A third church dedicated to Mary arose in the middle of the sixth century. Built on what had once been the Temple square, the Nea or New St. Mary’s afforded the faithful the opportunity to commemorate the presentation of the child Mary in the Temple mentioned in the fourth chapter of the Protoevangelium of James. The anniversary of its dedication on November 21, 543, gave rise to the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin in the Temple.

The Marian feasts established in Jerusalem spread throughout the East. In connection with Christmas, a separate commemoration of Mary’s divine motherhood served to pay due reverence to the Mother shortly after the birth of the Son. In East Syria, such a feast, called the Congratulation of the Mother of God, fell on the day after Christmas (December 26). Again in direct, even literal, reference to the birth of Christ, two further feasts emerged. The Annunciation, on March 25 (nine months before Christmas), commemorated the message of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and Our Lady’s consent to become the Mother of the Word incarnate. On February 2, forty days after the Lord’s nativity, the liturgy marked his presentation in the Temple. The feast originally was called Hypapante or the “Meeting” between Christ and Simeon.

Mary and the Roman Calendar

a. Natale s. Mariae: January 1

The first Marian feast of the Roman liturgy, observed on January 1, first came in the seventh century. Originally called Natale S. Mariae, it served as the Roman counterpart of the Eastern feasts extending congratulations to the Blessed Virgin on the occasion of Christ’s birth. Owing, however, to the feast’s occurrence on the octave day of Christmas, the Marian character of that day eventually gave way to a focus rather on the circumcision of the Lord. As the feasts of the Annunciation (March 25) and the Hypapante (February 2) gradually made their way onto the Roman calendar by the seventh century, they retained a distinctly and indeed increasingly Marian character, even in nomenclature, until the liturgical reform of Paul VI in 1970.

Exclusively Marian feasts, like the Nativity of Mary (September 8) and the Assumption (August 15), grew in prominence and overshadowed the original Roman feast of Mary on January 1. By the mid-seventh century, however, a pre-Christmas commemoration found its way onto the Roman calendar, as it had done likewise on other Western calendars, thereby compensating for the diminution of the Marian character of January 1. Moreover, two readings on the Ember days following the third Sunday of Advent refer to Mary’s participation in the events leading to the Lord’s birth. The Lucan account of the Annunciation was read on that Wednesday, and the account of Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth occurred on that Friday.

b. Mary and Christmas

Mary’s role in the celebration of Christmas in Rome was given sharper focus upon the erection near or in St. Mary Major of an oratory dedicated specifically to the Nativity of the Lord sometime between the pontificate of St. Leo I (440-461) and that of St. Gregory I (590-604). Of the three Masses celebrated by the pope at Christmas, this oratory became the venue for the first, that at midnight. By the twelfth century, the daytime Mass, too, had been transferred to St. Mary Major, again underscoring in topographical terms Our Lady’s part in the birth of Christ.

The earliest extant Roman euchological texts of Christmas present Mary in close association with the Savior’s birth. Collects found in both the “Old” Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries attest to Mary’s presence in the liturgy of Christmas:

Deus, qui per beatae Mariae sacrae uirginis partum, sine humana concupiscentia procreatum, in filii tui membra uenientis paternis fecisti praeiudiciis non teneri: praesta, quaesumus, ut huius creaturae nouitate suscepta uetustatis antiquae contagiis exuamur: per eundem Dominum

O God, who through the offspring of the holy Virgin St. Mary, begotten without human concupiscence, didst cause the members of thy coming Son not to be bound by the condemnation of their fathers, grant, we implore, that we who have been taken up by the newness of this creation, may put off the harmful influences of our former state. Through the same Lord.

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui hunc diem per incarnationem uerbi tui et partum beatae Mariae uirginis consecrasti, da populis tuis in hac caelebritate consortium, ut qui tua gratia sunt redempti, tua sint adoptione securi. Per

Almighty, everlasting God, who didst consecrate this day through the Incarnation of thy Word and the childbirth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grant to thy peoples a share in this festival, that those redeemed by thy grace may be saved by thine adoption. Through.

The Season of Christmas

The season of Christmas encompasses the birth of Christ, the solemnity of the Holy Family on the Sunday within the octave of Christmas, the solemnity of Mary Mother of God on January 1, and the Epiphany. It is worth mentioning that Mary figures in two stages or moments of Christ’s epiphany: the manifestation of his divinity to the Gentiles, and the revelation of his divine sonship to the disciples at Cana. Matthew records that the Magi, at the end of their journey from the East, entered the house and “saw the child with Mary his Mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (108). Early frescoes in the catacombs of St. Priscilla on the via Salaria depict Mary seated and in the act of presenting the Christ child to three figures dressed in Persian caps and offering gifts to the infant.

Mary does not appear in any of the scriptural accounts of Christ’s manifestation to the House of Israel on the banks of the Jordan. Instead, John the Baptist exercises his role as the precursor and baptizer of the Lord. Mary prepared a home for Christ; John prepared the people of Israel for him. Now, on the threshold of Christ’s public ministry, the Father and the Holy Spirit in a theophany present Jesus to Israel as the beloved Son sent to redeem the people from their sins.

Mary reappears at Cana, where Christ gives the first of his signs at her prompting. He thereby brings to a close the cycle of the three epiphanies: first to the Gentiles, then to the Israelites, and finally to the disciples. The appropriate response to the epiphany of divine glory is faith: “the disciples believed in him” (109). Christ then carries out his public ministry, and brings his messianic mission to its culmination in the Paschal Mystery.

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