The first major Feast day in the Orthodox Church year is the Nativity (Birth) of the Virgin Mary Theotokos on September 8. The Church year officially begins on September 1, the ancient beginning of the new year both Jewish (Rosh Hashanah) and Christian (as decreed by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century). Just as the Church year draws to a close with the Feast of the Dormition (lit., Falling-asleep, that is, bodily death) of the Theotokos and translation to heaven on August 15, so it begins with her birth in the flesh and entrance into the world. Thus the life of the Virgin Mary serves as the icon of the Church’s, and all faithful believers’, existence in history from beginning to end.
“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!...Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:28, 42, 45, 46-48) King David prophesied of the Theotokos’s central place as mother of all the faithful: “Listen, O daughter, behold and incline your ear; and forget your people and your father’s house; for the King desired your beauty, for He is your Lord…In place of your fathers, sons shall be born to you; you shall make them rulers over all the earth. They shall remember your name form generation to generation; therefore, peoples shall give thanks to you forever and unto ages of ages.” (Ps. 44:11-12, 17-18; cf. Jn. 19:26-27 & Rev. 12:1-2, 17)
First, the details of the Virgin Mary’s life are not written in what we call the canonical Scriptures, or Bible; rather, her life is retained primarily in the liturgical tradition of the Church, in its hymns and prayers. Several details of her life are contained in the second-century document known as the Protevangelium of James, and this is regarded in the Church as a reliable source as the Fathers of the Church since that time have attested.
However, the significance of the Virgin Mary – her conception, birth, life, death, and translation to heaven – has always been “unwritten,” that is, intrinsic and organic within the Body of Christian believers. The Church simply knows and sings about these mysteries because they go beyond facts of scholarly study or dispute. These mysteries form the ongoing life of the faithful manifested through experience in humility and prayer (see Luke 2:19, 51; 11:27-28). In keeping the feasts of the Virgin Mary, the Church is imitating the Virgin Mary herself who epitomizes the basic principle of Christian life: lex orandi, lex credendi – the rule of praying is the rule of believing.
Thus the manner of the Virgin Mary’s birth is formative for every Christian’s beginning of communion with God in Christ. “By your nativity, O most pure Virgin, Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness; Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death. And we, thy people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you: The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the Nourisher of our Life” (Kontakion, hymn of the day). With the birth of the Virgin Mary, the barrenness, corruption, and guilt of sin and death are being undone according to God’s plan of salvation in the promise of her Son, Jesus Christ.
Mary’s parents, the elderly Joachim and Anna, were unable to have children. Yet because of their pious patience and hope they were blessed with a daughter whom they vowed to dedicate to God once born. Joachim and Anna are the last in a long line of physically barren yet hopeful parents whose expectation of God’s fulfillment of His promises in Christ was finally realized in the gift of their daughter Mary Theotokos (cf. Gen. 15-17 [Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac]; 1 Kgm.[Sam.] 1 [Hannah and Samuel]; Luke 1 [Zacharias, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist]).
Similarly and even more foundationally, the person of Mary Theotokos is the realization of the promise given to the first woman and mother Eve, that her seed – masculine singular: Male Child – would crush the head of Satan thereby bringing salvation to mankind trapped in bondage to sin and death (Gen. 3:15). As we read, this promise was not fulfilled in Eve’s initial sons Cain, Abel, or Seth and their immediate descendants (Gen. 4-5ff.). This promise is fulfilled in the Son born to Mary Theotokos (Matt. 1:21; Gal. 3:16; Heb. 2:14-15); thus we refer to the Virgin Mary as the New Eve.
In celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, we participate in the truth of our freedom from barrenness, corruption, and the guilt of sin and death because the Theotokos was born and then gave birth to God the Word. This same plan of salvation continuously unfolds each day, each week, each month in the Body/Church of Christ in the lives of each of its members.