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