Nine months ago, Mary was immaculately conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, by her father St. Joachim. The Feast of that Immaculate Conception, 8 December, is a much greater Feast than today's (it's a Holy Day of Obligation, in fact); but we recall Mary's birthday, too -- the birth of the woman destined by God from the beginning of time to be born of the House of David and the Tribe of Judah, the women whose enmity toward Satan was spoken of as far back as Genesis, the woman whom St. John saw crowned with stars and with the moon at her feet, the woman whom God chose to bear His Son and bring life to the world. With today's Feast, the line between the Old and New Testaments has been crossed; the New Covenant is imminent!
Today's Feast is one of the only three birthdays honored in the liturgical year (the others being that of St. John the Baptist and that of Jesus Christ Himself, all three born without original sin, though only Mary and Jesus were free from sin at the moments of their conceptions). We know little about Mary's birth and youth, most of our information coming from the apocryphal Gospel of the Nativity of Mary (translated from the Hebrew by St. Jerome, A.D. 340-420), the Protevangelium of St. James (dated to ca. A.D. 125), and the visions of various mystics through the years.
There are no specific traditions today, aside from those offered on all Marian Feasts, such as a recitation of the Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Litany of Loreto (You can download this Litany, in Microsoft Word .doc format, in English or in Latin). Having a birthday cake for Mary is a lovely idea, though!
As to prayer, this one to Maria Bambina (the Baby Mary) is most apt:
Hail, Infant Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou forever, and blessed are thy holy parents Joachim and Anne, of whom thou wast miraculously born. Mother of God, intercede for us.
We fly to thy patronage, holy and amiable Child Mary, despise not our prayers in our necessities, but deliver us from all dangers, glorious and blessed Virgin.
V. Pray for us, holy Child Mary.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us Pray: O almighty and merciful God, Who through the cooperation of the Holy Ghost, didst prepare the body and soul of the Immaculate Infant Mary that she might be the worthy Mother of Thy Son, and didst preserve her from all stain, grant that we who venerate with all our hearts her most holy childhood, may be freed, through her merits and intercession, from all uncleanness of mind and body, and be able to imitate her perfect humility, obedience and charity. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
There is also this marvelous prayer in honour of Our Lady's Nativity, written by St. Anselm:
Vouchsafe that I may praise thee, O sacred Virgin; give me strength against thine enemies, and against the enemy of the whole human race. Give me strength humbly to pray to thee. Give me strength to praise thee in prayer with all my powers, through the merits of thy most sacred nativity, which for the entire Christian world was a birth of joy, the hope and solace of its life.
When thou wast born, O most holy Virgin, then was the world made light.
Happy is thy stock, holy thy root, and blessed thy fruit, for thou alone as a virgin, filled with the Holy Spirit, didst merit to conceive thy God, as a virgin to bear Thy God, as a virgin to bring Him forth, and after His birth to remain a virgin.
Have mercy therefore upon me a sinner, and give me aid, O Lady, so that just as thy nativity, glorious from the seed of Abraham, sprung from the tribe of Juda, illustrious from the stock of David, didst announce joy to the entire world, so may it fill me with true joy and cleanse me from every sin.
Pray for me, O Virgin most prudent, that the gladsome joys of thy most helpful nativity may put a cloak over all my sins.
O holy Mother of God, flowering as the lily, pray to thy sweet Son for me, a wretched sinner. Amen.
Sermon I on the Dormition of Mary
By St. John Damascene (John of Damascus), (A.D. 676 - 754/787)
The birth of her, whose Child was marvellous, was above nature and understanding, and it was salvation to the world; her death was glorious, and truly a sacred feast. The Father predestined her, the prophets foretold her through the Holy Ghost. His sanctifying power overshadowed her, cleansed and made her holy, and, as it were, predestined her. Then Thou, Word of the Father, not dwelling in place, didst invite the lowliness of our nature to be united to the immeasurable greatness of Thy inscrutable Godhead. Thou, who didst take flesh of the Blessed Virgin, vivified by a reasoning soul, having first abided in her undefiled and immaculate womb, creating Thyself, and causing her to exist in Thee, didst become perfect man,, not ceasing to be perfect God, equal to Thy Father, but taking upon Thyself our weakness through ineffable goodness. Through it Thou art one Christ, one Lord, one Son of God, and man at the same time, perfect God and perfect man, wholly God and wholly man, one Substance from two perfect natures, the Godhead and the manhood. And in two perfect natures, the divine and the human, God is not pure God, nor the man only man, but the Son of God and the Incarnate God are one and the same God and man without confusion or division, uniting in Himself substantially the attributes of both natures. Thus, He is at once uncreated and created, mortal and immortal, visible and invisible, in place and not in place. He has a divine will and a human will, a divine action and a human also, two powers of choosing divine and human. He shows forth divine wonders and human affections--natural, I mean, and pure. Thou hast taken upon Thyself, Lord, of Thy great mercy, the state of Adam as he was before the fall, body, soul, and mind, and all that they involve physically, so as to give me a perfect salvation. It is true indeed that what was not assumed was not healed. Having thus become the mediator between God and man, Thou didst destroy enmity, and lead back to Thy Father those who had deserted Him, wanderers to their home, and those in darkness to the light. Thou didst bring pardon to the contrite, and didst change mortality into immortality. Thou didst deliver the world from the aberration of many gods, and didst make men the children of God, partakers of Thy divine glory. Thou didst raise the human race, which was condemned to bell, above all power and majesty, and in Thy person it is seated on the King's eternal throne. Who was the instrument of these infinite benefits exceeding all mind and comprehension, if not the Mother ever Virgin who bore Thee?
Realise, Beloved in the Lord, the grace of today, and its wondrous solemnity. Its mysteries are not terrible, nor do they inspire awe. Blessed are they who have eyes to see. Blessed are they who see with spiritual eyes. This night shines as the day. What countless angels acclaim the death of the life-giving Mother! How the eloquence of apostles blesses the departure of this body which was the receptacle of God. How the Word of God, who deigned in His mercy to become her Son, ministering with His divine hands to this immaculate and divine being, as His mother, receives her holy soul. O wondrous Law-giver, fulfilling the law which He bad Himself laid down, not being bound by it, for it was He who enjoined children to show reverence to their parents. "Honour thy father and thy mother," He says. The truth of this is apparent to every one, calling to mind even dimly the words of holy Scripture. If according to it the souls of the just are in the hands of God, how much more is her soul in the hands of her Son and her God. This is indisputable. Let us consider who she is and whence she came, how she, the greatest and dearest of all God's gifts, was given to this world. Let us examine what her life was, and the mysteries in which she took part. Heathens in the use of funeral orations most carefully brought forward anything which could be turned to praise of the deceased, and at the same time encourage the living to virtue, drawing generally upon fable and fiction, not having fact to go upon. How then, shall we not deserve scorn if we bury in silence that which is most true and sacred, and in very deed the source of praise and salvation to all ? Shall we not receive the same punishment as the man who hid his master's talent ? Let us adapt our subject to the needs of those who listen, as food is suited to the body.
Joachim and Anne were the parents of Mary. Joachim kept as strict a watch over his thoughts as a shepherd over his flock, having them entirely under his control. For the Lord God led him as a sheep, and he wanted for none of the best things. When I say best, let no one think I mean what is commonly acceptable to the multitude, that upon which greedy minds are fixed, the pleasures of life that can neither endure nor make their possessors better, nor confer real strength. They follow the downward course of human life and cease all in a moment, even if they abounded before. Far be it from us to cherish these things, nor is this the portion of those who fear God. But the good things which are a matter of desire to those who possess true knowledge, delighting God, and fruitful to their possessors, namely, virtues, bearing fruit in due season, that is, in eternity, will reward with eternal life those who have laboured worthily and have persevered in their acquisition as far as possible. The labour goes before, eternal happiness follows. Joachim ever shepherded his thoughts. In the place of pastures, dwelling by contemplation on the words of sacred Scripture, made glad on the restful waters of divine grace, withdrawn from foolishness, he walked in the path of justice. And Anne, whose name means grace, was no less a companion in her life than a wife, blessed with all good gifts, though afflicted for a mystical reason with sterility. Grace in very truth remained sterile, not being able to produce fruit in the souls of men. Therefore, men declined from good and degenerated; there was not one of understanding nor one who sought after God. Then His divine goodness, taking pity on the work of His hands, and wishing to save it, put an end to that mystical barrenness, that of holy Anne, I mean, and she gave birth to a child, whose equal had never been created and never can be. The end of barrenness proved clearly that the world's sterility would cease and that the withered trunk would be crowned with vigorous and mystical life.
Hence the Mother of our Lord is announced. An angel foretells her birth. It was fitting that in this, too, she, who was to be the human Mother of the one true and living God, should be marked out above every one else. Then she was offered in God's holy temple, and remained there, showing to all a great example of zeal and holiness, withdrawn from frivolous society. When, however, she reached full age and the law required that she should leave the temple, she was entrusted by the priests to Joseph, her bridegroom, as the guardian of her virginity, a steadfast observer of the law from his youth. Mary, the holy and undefiled, went to Joseph, contenting herself with her household matters, and knowing nothing beyond her four walls.
In the fulness of time, as the divine apostle says, the angel Gabriel was sent to this true child of God, and saluted her in the words, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee." Beautiful is the angel's salutation to her who is greater than an angel. He is the bearer of joy to the whole world. She was troubled at his words, not being used to speak with men, for she had resolved to keep her virginity unsullied. She pondered in herself what this greeting might be. Then the angel said to her: "Fear not, Mary. Thou hast found grace before God." In very deed, she who was worthy of grace had found it. She found grace who had done the deeds of race, and had reaped its fulness. She found grace who brought forth the source of grace, and was a rich harvest of grace. She found an abyss of grace who kept undefiled her double virginity, her virginal soul no less spotless than her body; hence her perfect virginity. "Thou shalt bring forth a Son," he said, "and shalt call His name Jesus" (Jesus is interpreted Saviour). "He shall save His people from their sins." What did she, who is true wisdom, reply? She does not imitate our first mother Eve, but rather improves upon her incautiousness, and calling in nature to support her, thus answers the angel: "How is this to be, since I know not man? What you say is impossible, for it goes beyond the natural laws laid down by the Creator. I will not be called a second Eve and disobey the will of my God. If you are not speaking godless things, explain the mystery by saying how it is to be accomplished." Then the messenger of truth answered her: "The Holy Spirit shall come to thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. Therefore He who is born to thee shall be called the Son of God." That which is foretold is not subservient to the laws of nature. For God, the Creator of nature, can alter its laws. And she, listening in holy reverence to that sacred name, which she had ever desired, signified her obedience in words full of humility and joy: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word."
"O the depth of the riches, of the wisdom, and of the knowledge of God," I will exclaim in the apostle's words. "How incomprehensible are His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways." O inexhaustible goodness of God! O boundless goodness! He who called what was not into being, and filled heaven and earth, whose throne is heaven, and whose footstool is the earth, a spacious dwelling-place, made the womb of His own servant, and in it the mystery of mysteries is accomplished. Being God He becomes man, and is marvellously brought forth without detriment to the virginity of His Mother. And He is lifted up as a baby in earthly arms, who is the brightness of eternal glory, the form of the Father's substance, by the word of whose mouth all created things exist. O truly divine wonder! O mystery transcending all nature and understanding! O marvellous virginity! What, O holy Mother and Virgin, is this great mystery accomplished in thee? Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Thou art blessed from generation to generation, thou who alone art worthy of being blessed. Behold all generations shall call thee blessed as thou hast said. The daughters of Jerusalem, I mean, of the Church, saw thee. Queens have blessed thee, that is, the spirits of the just, and they shall praise thee for ever. Thou art the royal throne which angels surround, seeing upon it their very King and Lord. Thou art a spiritual Eden, holier and diviner than Eden of old. That Eden was the abode of the mortal Adam, whilst the Lord came from heaven to dwell in thee. The ark foreshadowed thee who hast kept the seed of the new world. Thou didst bring forth Christ, the salvation of the world, who destroyed sin and its angry waves. The burning bush was a figure of thee, and the tablets of the law, and the ark of the testament. The golden urn and candelabra, the table and the flowering rod of Aaron were significant types of thee. From thee arose the splendour of the Godhead, the eternal Word of the Father, the most sweet and heavenly Manna, the sacred Name above every name, the Light which was from the beginning. The heavenly Bread of Life, the Fruit without seed, took flesh of thee. Did not that flame foreshadow thee with its burning fire an image of the divine fire within thee? And Abraham's tent most clearly pointed to thee. By the Word of God dwelling in thee human nature produced the bread made of ashes, its first fruits, from thy most pure womb, the first fruits kneaded into bread and cooked by divine fire, becoming His divine person, and His true substance of a living body quickened by a reasoning and intelligent soul.* I had nearly forgotten Jacob's ladder. Is it not evident to every one that it prefigured thee, and is not the type easily recognised ? just as Jacob saw the ladder bringing together heaven and earth, and on it angels coming down and going up, and the truly strong and invulnerable God wrestling mystically with himself, so art thou placed between us, and art become the ladder of God's intercourse with us, of Him who took upon Himself our weakness, uniting us to Himself, and enabling man to see God. Thou hast brought together what was parted. Hence angels descended to Him, ministering to Him as their God and Lord, and men, adopting the life of angels, are carried up to heaven.
How shall I understand the prediction of prophets ? Shall I not refer them to thee, as we can prove them to be true? What is the fleece of David which receives the Son of the Almighty God, co-eternal and co-equal with His Father, as rain falls upon the soil? Does it not signify thee in thy bright shining? Who is the virgin foretold by Isaias who should conceive and bear a Son, God ever present with us, that is, who being born a man should remain God? What is Daniel's mountain from which arose Christ, the Corner-Stone, not made by the hand of man ? Is it not thee, conceiving without man and still remaining a virgin? Let the inspired Ezechiel come forth and show us the closed gate, sealed by the Lord, and not yielding, according to his prophecy -- let him point to its fulfilment in thee. The Lord of all came to thee, and taking flesh did not open the door of thy virginity. The seal remains intact. The prophets, then, foretell thee. Angels and apostles minister to thee, O Mother of God, ever Virgin, and John the virgin apostle. Angels and the spirits of the just, patriarchs and prophets surround thee to-day in thy departure to thy Son. Apostles watched over the countless host of the just who were gathered together from every corner of the earth by the divine commands, as a cloud around the divine and living Jerusalem, singing hymns of praise to thee, the author of our Lord's life-giving body.