Today, the Catholic Church celebrates Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Canon of Scripture does not record Mary’s birth. The earliest known account of Mary’s birth is found in the Protoevangelium of James (5:2), an non-biblical text from the late second century, with her parents known as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim. The book works its way to being an infancy gospel telling of the miraculous conception of the Virgin Mary, her upbringing and marriage to Joseph, the journey of the holy couple to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, and events immediately following.
The feast day, September 8, is selected as being 9 months after the celebration of the Immaculate Conception (Dec 8). The first known celebration of the feast dates to the 7th century in the West and perhaps a century earlier in the East.The Protoevangelium of James is the source of more than one legend about Mary. The book was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405 and rejected by the Gelasian Decree around 500 – nonetheless the legends persist.
In the Protoevangelium, Mary is presented as an extraordinary child destined for great things from the moment of her conception. Her parents, the wealthy Joachim and his wife Anna (or Anne), are distressed that they have no children, and Joachim goes into the wilderness to pray, leaving Anna to lament her childless state. God hears Anna’s prayer, angels announce the coming child, and in the seventh month of Anna’s pregnancy (underlining the exceptional nature of Mary’s future life) she is born. Anna dedicates the child to God and vows that it shall be raised in the Temple. Joachim and Anna name the child Mary, and when she is three years old they send her to the Temple, where she is fed each day by an angel. When Mary approaches her twelfth year the priests decide that she can no longer stay in the Temple lest her menstrual blood render it unclean, and God finds a widower, Joseph, to act as her guardian: Joseph is depicted as elderly and the father of grown sons; he has no desire for sexual relations with Mary. He leaves on business, and Mary is called to the Temple to help weave the temple curtain, where one day an angel appears and tells her that she has been chosen to conceive Jesus the Saviour, but that she will not give birth as other women do. Joseph returns and finds Mary six months pregnant, and rebukes her, fearing that the priests will assume that he is the guilty party. They do, but the chastity of both is proven through the “test of bitter waters”.
From the above description of the Protoevangelium, you can see several of legends that many Catholics perpetuate: raised in the Temple, fed by angels, and more. But in musing about this article, I was also captured by the “test of the bitter waters.” In case you too were wondering, in the test “the woman drinks a concoction administered by the priest in which water from the basin of the Tabernacle is mixed with earth from the floor. Added to this is the ink from the oath the priest writes in which God’s name is invoked.
“If she is guilty, the water will have an effect on her body. Her belly will swell, her thigh will “fall” and she will stand as cursed among the people. If she is innocent, she will conceive, in contrast to the guilty wife. In either case, the husband is cleared of guilt so that even if his accusations prove false, he suffers no consequence for wasting the time of the priest, humiliating his wife or causing God’s name to be erased in vain.
“However, the entire passage is one of the most enigmatic in the Torah and has inspired enormous efforts at interpretation extending from rabbinic to contemporary times. Some consider the ritual to be misogynistic, demonstrating the vulnerability of women and the privileged position of men in ancient Israel. Others believe this ritual works to protect accused women by preventing the eruption of violence at the hands of a husband or patriarchal society. Still others believe this is a way of reestablishing marital harmony when irreparable rupture has threatened to break the couple apart.” (Jerusalem Post, May 27, 2020)
All that being said, Christians can accept (or not) the traditions around the nativity of Mary, but this we know: Mary’s singular mission in salvation history as the mother of Jesus, echoes throughout the ages.