As with any family stories, some of the best family stories of our faith are embroideries, fashioned from tradition, love, and a longing for closeness with those who went before us. They tell us as much about ourselves as they do about our ancestors in faith.
Today, September 8, the universal Church—East and West—celebrates Mary’s birthday. The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (the Great Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, the God-Bearer, in Orthodoxy) is one of the oldest feasts of the Church, with evidence that it was celebrated in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century. Though the date falls precisely nine months after December 8, the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, that feast is a later addition to the calendar (the doctrine itself not being officially proclaimed until the 19th century), and was backdated from today. So, unlike many other details about Mary’ life, there may be solid evidence from tradition that she was born around this time of year.
As we do whenever birthdays are celebrated, today’s a good time to get out the family albums—in this case, the wealth of religious art from both East and West that explores the events surrounding Mary’s birth and her childhood. Look, there are her parents, St Joachim and St Anne: sad in the earliest pictures, because although they are pious they are childless, a terrible grief in that time when each Jewish child might certainly be the long-awaited Messiah.
There’s poor St Joachim having his offering rejected at the Temple because he could raise up no child for Israel. And then (gather around, children, everyone loves this part!) God hears the prayers of this faithful couple. Angels appear to Joachim and Anne separately, announcing the birth of a child who will help to bring about God’s plan of salvation. Anne (named for her biblical foremother Hannah, who suffered the same plague of barrenness) probably responded with a song of joy as glorious as Hannah’s in 1 Samuel 2:
My heart exults in the LORD, my horn is exalted by my God . . .
The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry no longer have to toil.
The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes.
The LORD puts to death and gives life, casts down to Sheol and brings up again.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich, humbles, and also exalts.
He raises the needy from the dust; from the ash heap lifts up the poor,
To seat them with nobles and make a glorious throne their heritage . . .
You know she had to have memorized Hannah’s song, and taught it to her daughter, who would sing her own version of it years later. We know Mary’s song as the Magnificat.
The angels tell Anne and Joachim to hasten to the entrance to Jerusalem known as the Golden Gate. There are whole pages of our family album devoted to their meeting there, their old bodies made youthful and graceful again in an embrace of spontaneous pleasure and delight. That evening, the family stories say, Mary was conceived of their joyful married love, and kept free of the inheritance of original sin by God as a promise of the restoration to grace that would be wrought through her Fiat.
Here are the first pictures of little Mary (Maryam, in Aramaic, meaning “bitter tears”; there were so many girls named Mary at this time in Judea because of the bitterness of Roman oppression): bathed by her nursemaids, wrapped in swaddling clothes the neighbors donated at the last minute (because who would believe old Anne would need them?), presented proudly to her mother by the midwife while Papa Joachim looks on from a far tower or behind a curtain. Many of these pictures contain funny little anachronisms—a crucifix on the wall of Anne’s birthing-room, a bas relief carving of Christ the Pantocrator, flanked by angels, in the eves of the house. We love looking for these holy puzzles, these signs that kairos—sacred time—is not linear or bounded, but moves in a dance of overlapping dimensions. (Kathy Schiffer has a nice reflection on Giotto’s fresco of the Nativity of Mary, here, that points out how the picture compresses time.)
There is little Mary with her mother, learning as a gifted toddler to read (more anachronisms here; what she reads is a Book of Hours, a breviary) and to weave splendid curtains for the Temple. For Anne, like Hannah with her son Samuel, has dedicated her child to the service of the Lord.
And there is Mary being presented at the Temple for that service, in pictures that always choke us up. Such a little girl, climbing such big steps all alone, with her aged parents weeping at the bottom and the bejeweled High Priest and his attendants waiting at at the top. Mary carries a lighted candle, a symbol of her virginity (and you know she is being very careful to hold it steady and not to let it go out), but she glows from within, too. Her father, close to death, may never see her again; he is absent from the later pages of the album, when Anne sits with Mary and dandles her grandson Jesus on her knee.
We know these pictures so well, have told the stories so often, that we forget there’s no basis for any of this in Scripture or history. Jewish tradition, for example, makes no provision for dedicating girls to Temple service; it would have been prohibited for a female child to dwell in the Temple precincts. We don’t even know the names of Mary’s parents. All these stories come to us from traditions included in a second-century apocryphal gospel known as the Protoevangelium—literally “prequel to the Gospels”—of James. The tales of Mary’s childhood, of her marriage to Joseph, and of the childhood of Jesus were embellished even further by the medieval Golden Legend, a collection of fabulous saints’ stories and biblical legends, and were a popular subject for religious artists for centuries. The Council of Trent put the kibosh on these apocryphal stories, returning the emphasis to Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
But popular devotion doesn’t disappear that easily. We still have churches dedicated to Sts Joachim and Anne, the patrons of grandparents and of couples dealing with infertility. We still “know” these stories by heart . . . literally. They emerged in the first place from the curiosity of love, that wants to know every detail of the beloved’s life. And if the details are embroidered and exaggerated over the years, the truths behind them—Mary as an especially longed-for child in a time when all Jewish children were especially longed for, the delights of married love, Mary’s self-dedication to God’s will—are just as true.
We can’t judge our ancestors in faith harshly for performing this kind of Christian midrash, this reading between the lines of Scripture to flesh out the family tree of Jesus’ Mother, who is our Mother, too. The popularity of sites like ancestry.com (which was initially driven by the Mormon practice of baptizing retroactively, but has since caught on with everybody and their uncle-by-marriage-on-their-mother’s-side) and of TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots means we’re all interested in retelling family stories. And we’re not above indulging in a tendency toward the exotic apocryphal: Elizabeth Warren and President Obama are by no means alone in claiming descent from “a Cherokee princess,” even though the Cherokee were nowhere nearby and don’t have princesses.
So tell the stories. Look at the pictures. Rejoice in the family connections of faith, even when we have to fill in the blanks with sacred imagination. And put a candle on a cake for little Maryam, who glows brighter than ever today. Happy Birthday, Mary!
UPDATE: Frank Weathers has more fun with Mary’s family tree—including an ancestor named Panther!