Today the Church celebrates the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, although the literature around her birth is unfortunately scant. The canonical Gospels establish the facts of Mary’s virginity when she was with Joseph, that God selected her to birth Him, and that the Holy Spirit (somehow) made her pregnant. For what the Evangelists were concerned, Mary’s virginity was not only paramount to her role in Christ’s deliverance, but also to her incredible faith in God. As recorded in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s Canticle attests to her resounding trust that God not only will remain faithful to her, but also to His People:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Although her role in the Gospels is miniscule, the adoration of Mary in the early Church is quite profound. Famous theologians such as Sts. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Ignatius of Antioch, as well as Origen, Tertullian, and the Cappadocian Fathers, revered Mary as Blessed, the Virgin, and the Mother of God (as did Luke). Since today is the feast day of Mary’s birth, I want to focus on one Second-Century text which describes her nativity: The noncanonical Infancy Gospel of James.
The Gospel Unlike any Other
Compared to the traditional Gospels of the Christian canon, which describe Jesus’ baptism, ministry, death, and Resurrection at the very least, James’ Infancy Gospel covers the nativities of both Mary and Jesus, and that’s it. His surprising treatment of Mary’s birth, childhood, and adult life with Joseph is noteworthy, as it gives insight into the emergence of a Marian community early on in the life of the Church. As much of the protoevangelium can (and should) be disputed regarding its theology of each of the members of the Holy Family, I do want to faithfully treat this Gospel and its description of Mary’s birth and adolescence.
Like the predicament of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, Joachim and Anne find themselves aging and childless, and, again like their forebears, they cry out to God for assistance. Fully aware of this similarity, Joachim implores God to give them their own Isaac, a child whom they can call their own and whom will forever be in God’s hands (1:6-8). Joachim, with Anne, is even willing to “sacrifice” his child to God (i.e., send them off to the Temple to worship God forever) for this singular favor (4:2; 6:3; 7:4-10).
Separately, Anne laments her barrenness by comparing the fruitfulness of every species in existence to her inability to bear “fruit.” See, these species do not have to pray for divine assistance to procreate, yet Anne, a devout Jew, must (2:9-4:2). As Joachim likens his predicament to Abraham, Anne seems to compare herself to the fertility of the Creation in Genesis 1. All living things are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply,” including humans, but this human (Anne) fails at that simple task. Fortunately for both, God meets, and even exceeds, their expectations. Their child will forever be blessed and adored by many, as she is the one from whom the Messiah shall come.
After her third birthday, Mary’s parents uphold their promise to give their only child to God as a sort of sacrifice (cf. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac) and she spends the next decade and a half in the Temple obeying the Torah, its Commandments, and its God (7:4-10). As Isaac was almost stripped of his life as a test of Abraham’s faithfulness, Mary is robed with a new life as a result of her consecration to God. She spends her time in the Temple learning about God’s intervention in the world, His protection of His People, and the encroaching emergence of the Messiah (7:9-8:2). It should come to no surprise, then, that Mary’s lack of hesitation to being the Bearer of God (theotokos) later in life springs forth as a result of her lifelong devotion to the Holy One.
In closing, I want to reflect more on James’ integration of Genesis in the early life of Mary, its implications later in her life, and its role in the early “Christian” community. Anne’s initial infertility becomes transformed into the womb from which the Mother of God emerges and brings new life to all of humanity. From the miraculous birth of Mary to an aging yet devout couple comes the even more miraculous Birth of God in seemingly unlikely circumstances (i.e., Mary’s virginity) to another devout couple.
Furthermore, Mary becomes the mother of the new Israel as Isaac is the father of the original Israel. In other words, the early Church recognized the centrality of Mary in the expansion of God’s People: First, God claimed a family, then a tribe, then a nation, and now, the entire human race. This small yet profound connection to Genesis and to the People of Israel transforms the below prayer (the “Hail Mary”) into one that “‘magnifies’ the Lord for the ‘great things’ He did” and for the “the Mother of Jesus, because she now knows the humanity which, in her, the Son of God espoused” (CCC 2675).
Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with thee
Blessed art thou amongst women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners now
And at the hour of our death.