Celebrating the Nativity of Mary: Her Life, Vocation, and Fiat
On the eighth of September, the Catholic Church celebrates one of the most well-known feasts of the liturgical year: the feast of the Nativity of Mary, the Mother of God. This feast provides us with a wonderful opportunity to consider the meaning of Mary’s life. While we can consider the feast in terms of the event of Mary’s birth in and of itself, we can also take this opportunity to think about the meaning of Mary’s life, of her vocation, and ultimately of her fiat.
We can also take time to reflect on the connection of Mary’s birth to the rest of salvation history. There are a number of parallels between Mary’s birth and the birth of her Son, as well as parallels between her birth and the birth of her relative St. John the Baptist. Noticing the ways in which these events are similar to one another and the ways in which they are intertwined can give us some thought-provoking insight into the significance of Mary and the significance of her willingness to live her life according to God’s will.
Why Do We Celebrate the Nativity of Mary?
Perhaps one of the first things that we find striking about this particular feast day is the fact that Mary is prominently celebrated on the day of her birth, rather than on the day of her death. Throughout the Catholic liturgical calendar, saints are almost always celebrated on the days on which they died rather than the days on which they were born. Traditionally, the Church has considered the days of their deaths most significant. This is because death marks their entrance into eternal life rather than their entrance into the life we lead here on earth.
Entering into eternal life is seen as one’s true entrance into life because of the presence of original sin on earth. When a person is born on earth, however innocent they may be in all other respects, the presence of original sin exists and must be washed away by the sacrament of Baptism. This means that although they may be born fully alive in the physical sense of the word, the sacrament of Baptism is necessary to give the possibility of full life in Christ.
Given this information, we can see why the Nativity of Mary is celebrated in the Church. The fact that she was given the privilege to enter into life without bearing the stain of original sin means that she would enter the world on earth just as she would enter into eternal life. In this way, her birth as one immaculately conceived sets the stage for the unfolding of the Incarnation, of God made man. Mary’s subsequent fiat, her saying “yes” to carrying and giving birth to the Son of God, makes her of the utmost importance in the scope of salvation history. Her own birth as a person with a soul without stain is a precursor to her motherhood of the Word made flesh.
Parallels Between Mary, St. John the Baptist and Jesus
These three figures with their stories woven together can give us a beautiful portrait of the presence of Divine Love in the history of the world. While we consider the Nativity of Mary, it is intriguing to compare the announcement of her birth and the following circumstances with the stories of St. John the Baptist and of Jesus Himself.
If we begin with the story of Mary’s entrance into the world, there are a number of facets of her story that are familiar and striking. From an account of the Nativity of Mary, we hear that the lives of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, were holy and good, and they were beloved by God and respected by men. Joachim and Anne, however, had not yet been blessed with children even as they approached old age. It is said that Joachim was spurned by a high priest while presenting offerings at the temple, and his gifts were deemed unacceptable to God by the priest since it was said that God had not seen him and his wife fit to have a child. Joachim left, ashamed, and retreated.
Following Joachim’s retreat into solitude, an angel appeared to Joachim and Anne individually, saying that they would conceive a daughter who would live her life in service of the Lord. It is also said that the angel spoke of Mary’s holiness, saying that she from the time of her beginning would be filled with the Holy Spirit (a Biblical term for living without the presence of original sin). Eventually Anne conceived and, three years after Mary had been born, Anne and Joachim presented her at the temple, and Mary grew in age and holiness.
The story of St. John the Baptist is similar. While Zechariah, a priest, was performing his duties in the temple, an angel appeared to him and foretold the birth of John. This news was a great surprise to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who were approaching old age without having had children, just like Joachim and Anne. After John was conceived according to the prophecy of the angel, Mary set out to visit Elizabeth (said to be her relative or cousin) as she herself was pregnant with the Child Jesus. It is said in the Book of Luke that upon Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting, John leapt in his mother’s womb and was filled with the Holy Spirit, indicating that John too would be born without original sin even though he had not been conceived without it.
There is little need to recount the full story of the birth of Jesus, as it is one of the most known and retold stories in the Christian tradition. We can see several parallels between it and the stories of the conceptions and births of St. John the Baptist and of Mary. Each of these births were foretold by angels, each to a set of parents who were either barren or would not conceive otherwise (such as Mary and Joseph, who were to remain virgins throughout their marriage). The angels spoke of each of them by name and foretold of their greatness. Most uniquely, these three are the only three in history to have been born without original sin.
Mary’s Fiat and Following Our Own Vocations
The celebration of the Nativity of Mary together with the story of her life on earth shows us the relation between our vocation and our willingness to accept it. From even before her birth, Mary is set on a path unlike any other person in the whole of salvation history. One could view this fact in a somewhat hopeless way and suggest that people are limited to living a fixed life without a choice. However, if we consider the Annunciation and the exchange between Mary and the angel Gabriel, we can find a much more hopeful view that can inspire us to say “yes” to God in our own lives. Their exchange closes not with a command from God given to Mary by Gabriel, but rather with her trusting acceptance of her vocation: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.” Knowing that our own lives are of importance to God can inspire us to fully live out our vocations by offering our own fiats daily.
As we celebrate the feast of the Nativity of Mary this year, may we trust in the grace of God and, like Mary from the time of her birth, seek to live out the vocations to which we are called each day.