Most of what we know about Our Lady's birthday is from the Protoevangelium of James which has been dated by historians to the early second century. The earliest reference to the feast day itself comes from the sixth century. Most scholars believe that the feast originated in Jerusalem because of the existence of a church dedicated to St Anne dating from in the fifth century and considered to be the location of Mary's birth. Historians generally accept that September 8 was chosen for this feast day on account of the beginning of the civil year in Constantinople on September 1, emphasising that the birthday of Mary is the "beginning" of the work of salvation.
This feast day was introduced in Rome from the Eastern Church in the seventh century. It became a holy day of obligation throughout the west by the year 1007.
I share with you today two very different readings. The first, by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), is from his well known sermon for this feast. The second, a poem by Thomas Merton (1915-1968) explores the symbolic significance of our Lord's genealogy.
JOHN MASON NEALE PREACHING ON
OUR LADY'S BIRTHDAY
OUR LADY'S BIRTHDAY
“THE LORD, WHOM YE SEEK, SHALL SUDDENLY COME TO HIS TEMPLE.” - MALACHI III. 1.
THERE is no festival of S. Mary which has not also to do with our LORD. How should it be otherwise? She who was so closely and so wonderfully connected with Him as Man, so that He was bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh, she cannot be divided in our thoughts from Him now. He is still Man, as truly as He ever was; He still has the flesh which He took of her; the same in which He suffered, the same in which He died, the same in which He rose again from the dead.
This text has, then, to do both with our LORD and with His Blessed Mother; and we may also apply it to ourselves, and say that it has to do with us.
“The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His Temple.” First of all, this prophecy was fulfilled when the Archangel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth with the most wonderful message that was ever heard on earth. “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour with GOD. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son, and shalt call His Name JESUS.” The womb of S. Mary was the temple into which our LORD at that moment entered. There it was that He, Who was the Desire of all nations, -He, Who even then might have said, “The earth is weak, and all the inhabiters thereof: I bear up the pillars of it,”- He, Whom the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain,-there He lay hid for all those long months, until the fulness of the time came, and GOD was born into the world. David, in the Psalms, represents our LORD as anxious to find out this temple for Himself: “I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids, neither shall the temples of my head take any rest: until I find out a place for the temple of the LORD, an habitation for the mighty GOD of Jacob.” This place, this habitation, He did find out, when the HOLY GHOST came upon S. Mary, and the power of the Highest overshadowed her, and the Word of the FATHER took flesh in her womb.
“The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” And this promise was fulfilled the second time when our LORD was presented in the temple, at the Purification of His Blessed Mother,--in memory of which we keep Candlemas-day. It was His temple, though the Jews little knew it: He, then an infant six weeks old, was the one true Priest, though the High Priest little thought it; He was LORD of the countless armies of angels, and of all the tribes of men, though He had so few that were truly waiting for Him. “The LORD, Whom ye seek.” How many were those that sought Him then? If I count rightly, four only. See if I am wrong. S. Luke tells us that Anna the prophetess “coming in that instant, gave thanks likewise to the LORD, and spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” All, then, that looked for redemption in Jerusalem were at that moment in the temple--there were none others besides; and for all that appears, they were only S. Anna herself, S. Mary, and S. Joseph, and Simeon. Pour courtiers to wait on such a King!
“The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” This Scripture is fulfilled before us every day; for every day the HOLY GHOST comes down into His temples, the bodies of those who are baptized: He comes suddenly, He comes without preparation,--a few words, a little water,--and His temple is consecrated to Him for ever. As S. Paul tells us, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the HOLY GHOST?” and again, “Know ye not, that ye are the temple of GOD, and that the Spirit of GOD dwelleth in you?”
But those temples must, little by little, day by day, fall to pieces and perish. “This earthly house of our tabernacle must be dissolved,” says S. Paul. And when it shall have been,--when earth shall have returned to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,--then also this text shall be fulfilled; “The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” He shall come to it, to raise it up again from the earth, and--if it has been His true temple--to make it His glorious dwelling for ever. And this shall be suddenly, too, as S. Paul also tells us: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
That will be the last time that our LORD will come to His temple; for afterwards He shall abide in it for ever. The LORD GOD Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of that Holy City, New Jerusalem, which S. John saw, and which we also some day hope to see: according to that saying, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My GOD, and he shall go no more out.”
Now, what we are to notice in all these comings of our LORD to His temple, is their suddenness. “The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” In one moment He was conceived in the womb of S. Mary; in one moment He turns the heart of an infant, from being the abode and the den of Satan, into His own holy temple; in one moment He will raise up these bodies of ours, turning them from mortal to immortal, from corruptible to incorruptible. GOD does not stand in need of time to do His wonderful works. One day is with the LORD as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
But we may take this verse in yet one more sense. “The LORD shall suddenly come to His temple,” when He comes to each of you at death. Long or short as your last illness may be, still the LORD’S coming will be sudden. There is one point, one moment of time, at which you will leave the world and go to Him. Then all our happiness depends on whether the first part of the verse be true: “the LORD, Whom ye seek.” If so, all is well. Then His Coming, though it must be dreadful, will also be glorious; then we may make answer with S. John, “He Which testifieth these things, saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen: even so come, LORD JESUS.”
But suppose the LORD, Whom ye do not seek, should suddenly come to His temple?
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.
Now the lean children of the God of armies
(Their feet command the quaking earth)
Rise in the desert, and divide old Jordan
To crown this city with a ring of drums.
(But see this signal, like a crimson scar
Bleeding on Rahab's window-sill,
Spelling her safety with the red of our Redemption.)
The trumpets scare the valley with their sudden anger,
And thunderheads lean down to understand the nodding ark,
While Joshua's friend, the frowning sun,
Rises to burn the drunken houses with his look.
(But far more red upon the wall
Is Rahab's rescue than his scarlet threat.)
The clarions bind the bastions with their silver treble,
Shiver the city with their golden shout:
(Wells dry up, and stars fly back,
The eyes of Jericho go out,)
The drums around the reeling ark
Shatter the ramparts with a ring of thunder.
The kings that sat
On gilded chairs,
The princes and the great
Only a harlot and her fearful kindred
Fly like sparrows from that sudden grin of fire.
It is the flowers that will one day rise from Rahab's earth,
That have redeemed them from the hell of Jericho.
A rod will grow
From Jesse's tree,
Among her sons, the lords of Bethlehem,
And flower into Paradise.
Look at the gentle irises admiring one another by the water,
Under the leafy shadows of the Virgin's mercy,
And all the primroses and laughing flags
Bowing before Our Lady Mary in the Eden of her intercession,
And praising her, because they see the generations
Fly like a hundred thousand swallows into heaven,
Out of the jaws of Jericho,
Because it was the Son of God
Whose crimson signal wounded Rahab's wall,
Uttered our rescue in a figure of His Blood.