Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why we celebrate Mary's birth

September 8th, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Generally the feast day of a saint is held upon the occasion of his death. Indeed, in the Roman Martyrology, the day of death is often called the natalicia or birthday – referring to the saint’s birth into heaven.
However, there are three feast days which commemorate a birth. The first and most prominent is, of course, Christmas – the Nativity of our Savior Jesus Christ. The second is the Nativity of our Lady. The third is the birth of St. John the Baptist. These three – Jesus, Mary and John – were born without original sin (having been sanctified even before birth), and hence these three are honored with feasts commemorating their earthly births.
Today we consider Mary’s birth, which is not contained in Scripture, but the sanctity of which is attested by the words of the angel Gabriel.

John the Baptist and Jeremiah
Both John the Baptist and (most probably) Jeremiah were born without original sin, according to the testimony of Sacred Scripture. The Bible verses are: Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you (Jeremiah 1:5, for the prophet Jeremiah) and He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15, for the Baptist).
St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes this tradition in Summa Theologica III, q.27, a.6 and cites St. Augustine as the primary patristic authority.
The Blessed Virgin Mary
Of course, the Mother of God was sanctified before her birth – indeed, she was wholly preserved from original sin. Thus, she was holy in her birth in a pre-eminent manner (far exalted above both Jeremiah and John the Baptist).
The Immaculate Conception preserved our Lady from all sin and raised her up in a most excellent grace. This mystery is contained in the words of St. Gabriel: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! (Luke 1:28)
The Greek word for full of grace is κεχαριτωμένη – which means not only that Mary was filled with grace at the moment of the angelic salutation, but that she has already been filled with grace from some point in the past. Indeed, the Greek could well be translated as “Hail, you who have been and are highly favored, the Lord is with thee!”
Our point here is to stress that the Scriptures hint to the fact of the Immaculate Conception, for Gabriel does not set any time in which our Lady had been sanctified and filled with grace, but simply states that she has been and is filled with grace. It is as though she were conceived in grace, by a most marvelous and immaculate conception.
Are others born without original sin?
Today there is a tendency to presume that God regularly remits original sin in children either while they are in the womb or immediately after their birth. It is quite rare to hear priests or catechists affirm that children are conceived and born in original sin – and that sanctifying grace is granted to infants only through baptism.
Particularly in the case of infants who die without baptism, many (even many “conservative”) Catholics insist that these children must have been freed of original sin either in the womb or immediately after birth and without the sacrament of baptism. However, would this not tend to equate the billions of miscarried and aborted children with Jeremiah and John the Baptist? Would this not even tend to encroach upon the unique graces given to our Lady?
In this matter, we must recall that the Church is aware of only four individuals who were in the state of grace as infants without having received the sacrament of Baptism (or, at least, the baptism of blood): Jeremiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Christ Jesus. For all the rest we can only hope in the mercy of God and affirm that, according to Scripture and Tradition, we know of no other means besides baptism by which an infant may be saved.


A Sinner said...

I've never heard anyone claim they were sanctified in the womb or at birth in a John the Baptist fashion. In "the moment before death," perhaps, when all chance of water baptism had run out, maybe. But I don't think people ever specify the timing in the way you're imagining, I think that's an assumption you're jumping to for some reason.

Also, I would question the statement, "the Church is aware of only four individuals who were in the state of grace as infants without having received the sacrament of Baptism (or, at least, the baptism of blood): Jeremiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Christ Jesus."

Aquinas seems to teach that circumcision effected justification (though heaven was not yet open) for infant Jewish males, and the faith of the parents for infant females, and faith in general for people before Abraham, etc. It's not the most elegant article in the Summa, but it's there.

Given that Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Our Lady were all born under the Old Dispensation anyway...I'm not really sure if we should apply the same logic to them as we would apply now. Likewise, I see no need to plea "baptism of blood" for the Holy Innocents, as they were born before the Crucifixion and were circumcised Jewish infants, so there is no need to find a way to explain their justification with reference to the new dispensation...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

A Sinner,
I think you are pretty well correct in your reading of St. Thomas ... more on that later ... :-)

I would point out that there is a real similarity to the idea that God saves the unborn children who die and the graces given to John and Jeremiah ... they were sanctified in the womb without receiving a sacrament (not even of a sacrament of the Old Testament which pointed toward baptism) ... to claim that others are "sanctified in the womb" seems to me to equate these with John and Jeremiah and (to some slight extent) also with our Lady.

The whole point is that the Church only celebrates the birth of John, Mary, and Jesus ... because these are the only persons of the New Covenant whom we know to have been free from original sin while still in the womb.

Peace! +
[i'll write more on St. Thomas later!]

Anonymous said...

In my simple faith, I believe that babies who die, whether through miscarriage or abortion or before baptism, do go to heaven. I am not in a position to second guess God on the issue of original sin on these babies, but knowing how much God loves us, I just cannot imagine Him not taking these babies into Heaven.

Patricius said...

This is the first I have heard of St John the Baptist being preserved from Original Sin!

A Seminarian said...

Could you please direct me to where I might find the official Church teaching that Jeremiah and John the Baptist were born without original sin?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

There is no such official proclamation, as far as I am aware.
However, the fact that we have the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist implies this teaching.

Jeremiah is more a matter of tradition ... it was held by all the Fathers and Doctors who wrote on the subject (at least, I have never found evidence to the contrary).

Peace! +

Michelangelo said...

Father Ryan,

Thank you, a beautiful reflection on the great grace accorded to the Blessed Mother of Our Lord, and our Mother. I very much appreciate your technical writing ability to power down the deep theological truth contained in the celebration of Our Lady's Birthday, and the analysis of the important Greek terms. God bless, Father.

Patricius said...

We do not celebrate the conception of St John the Baptist and only Our Lady is referred to as "the Immaculate Conception". Indeed at Lourdes she is reported to have said "I am the Immaculate Conception" using the definite article.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm sorry, but your comment doesn't seem to fit with this article ...

Neither I nor any other has claimed that we do celebrate the conception of St. John the Baptist ... we do however celebrate his birth.
[which points out that he was sanctified while yet in the womb]

There is certainly an analogy between the sanctification of John and that of Mary ... Mary's Immaculate Conception is (for example) more like John's post-conception sanctification than like Jesus' conception without sin.

Peace. +

a spyder said...

Feast days, I do understand. But birthdays, have they been assigned or derived from Tradition. I am also quite curious as to how Mary's parents, Joachim and Anne, achieved sainthood.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

For a history of the feast, see the article from the Catholic Encyclopedia --

It is at least as early as the 6th Century. Yes, it does come from Tradition.

On Joachim and Anne, see:

Fr. Adrian said...

Dear Fr. Ryan,
You said that "all the church fathers and doctors who wrote on the subject" have agreed with Jeremiah's sanctification in his mother's womb.
Could you please mention any church fathers who would support the doctrine of the sinless birth of John the Baptist and Jeremiah? Thank you.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr Adrian,
While both Sts. Augustine (Ep 57) and Jerome (In Jerem. I) speak doubtfully about the pre-natal sanctification of these two ... Fr Cornelius a' Lapide (commenting on Luke 1:15) points to the following authors in support of the teaching: Sts. Anthasius, Cyprius, Ambrose, Gregory, and Bernard. (and he calls this the "common opinion of the Fathers")

Unfortunately, the Jesuit scholar does not give the references to the patristic works.

It is a bit ironic that the Church uses a sermon from St. Augustine on the feast of the birth of John the Baptist ... "For when yet unborn, he leapt in his mother’s womb at the arrival of blessed Mary. In that womb he had already been designated a prophet, even before he was born." ... but, in fact, it is not clear what exactly the Doctor of Grace believed about the state of the infant John before birth.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr Adrian,
You have probably already noticed ... but the Office of Readings for the Memorial of St Cyril of Alexandria (LoH) today has a nice affirmation of this tradition -- Cyril reference Athanasius, quoting the tradition as though everyone already knows and agrees ...
"There have been many holy men, free from all sin. Jeremiah was sanctified in his mother's womb, and John while still in the womb leaped for joy at the voice of Mary, the Mother of God." (Epist. 1)

Hope that helps! +

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