September 8th, The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Nine months after the celebration of her Immaculate Conception, the Church honors our Lady’s Immaculate Birth. In fact, the Nativity of Mary is historically prior in the Church to her Immaculate Conception. Long before there was consensus among theologians regarding whether Mary was conceived without sin, nearly all agreed that she was at least born without sin. The Feast our Lady’s Nativity is more ancient than that of her conception, and this later feast’s date was determined by the date of her birth – much like the feast of the Annunciation was set according to the feast of Christmas.
How pleasing it is to consider the order of revelation and the order of history: Though Mary had been preserved from sin from the moment of her conception, the Church first recognized the holiness of Anne’s daughter in birth and only later came to understand that her sanctification came at the first moment of her existence. As Christmas is a higher feast than the Annunciation, so too, Mary’s Nativity was a feast long before the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Perhaps someday, her Nativity will again rise to prominence.
Immaculate in her nativity
What was it that convinced theologians that Mary had to have been sanctified before her birth? It is true, as St. Thomas Aquinas admitted, that there is nothing in the Canonical Scriptures regarding her Immaculate Conception or sanctification before birth. Yet, though we cannot invoke the immediate authority of Sacred Scripture, we may nevertheless appeal to the authority of Sacred Tradition. The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary may have originated in either Syria or Palestine in the sixth century, though the church of Angers in France claims that St. Maurilius instated the feast in about 430 – it is from this tradition that the date of September 8th has been set. The feast has been celebrated throughout the Church (both in the east and in the west) from the seventh century. From this liturgical witness, St. Thomas draws his sed contra authority (ST III, q.27, a.1): “The Church celebrates the feast of our Lady’s Nativity. Now the Church does not celebrate feasts except of those who are holy. Therefore, even in her birth the Blessed Virgin was holy. Therefore, she was sanctified in the womb.” – a wonderful example of lex orandi legem statuit credendi.
In addition to the liturgical tradition and the witness of the Fathers of the Church (and St. Augustine in particular), St. Thomas offers theological reasons for Mary’s pre-natal sanctification. First, the fact that this sanctification is not mentioned in the Scriptures should not give us alarm; neither is her Assumption related directly in the Sacred Books, but we are bound to believe that she was taken up body and soul to heaven.
Second, as the Mother of God, it is reasonable to believe that Mary was given greater privileges of grace than all others, thus the angel greeted Mary, “Hail, full of grace!” (Luke 1:28) Moreover, others had been sanctified in the womb – Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5, “Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you”) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15, “He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb”) – therefore, it is reasonable to think that Mary was sanctified in an even more precious way before her birth.
In what did this sanctification consist?
Mary, before her birth, was entirely cleansed of original sin, so that even the fomes (that is, the tendencies toward sin) were fettered or even entirely taken away [St. Thomas, holds for the former view – with the benefit of the Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception, we maintain the latter]. This means that Mary experienced no inordinate desires, no inclination to evil, no temptation of the flesh, and no lustful impulses. This DOES NOT mean that Mary would never suffer temptations – she could be tempted externally, but she never was inclined internally to follow these temptations.
A natural consequent of her being completely purified from the fomes, the inclination to sin, is that Mary was completely free from all actual sin, whether venial or mortal. Mary never sinned in her whole life – this is a grace which extended from her sanctification in the womb before her birth. Born without sin, Mary was to remain without sin through her entire life.
However, St. Thomas makes a very important point when he states: “The Blessed Virgin was sanctified in the womb from original sin, as to the personal stain; but she was not freed from the guilt to which the whole human nature is subject, so as to enter into Paradise otherwise than through the Sacrifice of Christ.” The point here is that Mary, though conceived and born without original sin, still required the Savior and his saving death. Though she was completely free from original sin, she was not free from the guilt incumbent upon the whole human nature – this is what separated Mary from the Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ was free from original sin both as to the personal stain and as to the guilt – Jesus owed no debt to sin, he required no savior, he was conceived and born in the state of original justice exactly as Adam had been. This is why Christ alone is our Savior and Redeemer, this is why he alone could pay the price. Mary, the Immaculate Mother of our Lord, by reason of her intimate union with Christ in his saving mysteries, may well one day be proclaimed Co-Redemptrix – this would in no way denigrate from the central, necessary, and unique Mediation of her son, Christ our Lord.