"Let us celebrate the Nativity of the Virgin Mary; let us adore Her Son, Christ Our Lord." Such is the invitation addressed to us today by the Church. Let us hearken to Her call; let us enter Her overflowing joy. Let us understand the Church, when, even on this day, She proclaims Thy Divine Maternity and unites in Her chants of praise the Birth of Emmanuel and Thine own, O Mother of fair love and of holy hope. He Who, being Son of God by essence, willed to be also Son of man, had, before all other designs, decreed that He would have a Mother. Such consequently, was the character of that title of Mother, that, in the eternal decree, it was one with the very being of the chosen creature, the motive and cause of Her existence, as well as the source of all Her perfections, natural and supernatural. We too, then, must recognize Thee as His and our Mother, even from Thy very cradle, and must celebrate Thy birthday by adoring Thy Son our Lord.
Inasmuch as it embraces all the brethren of the Man-God, Thy Blessed Maternity sheds its rays upon all time, both before and after this happy day. "God is our King before ages: He hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth" (Ps. 73:12). "The midst of the earth," says St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "admirably represents Mary. Mary is the center of the universe, the ark of God, the cause of creation, the focus of ages. Towards Her turn the inhabitants of Heaven and the dwellers in the place of expiation, the men that have gone before us, and we that are now living, those who are to follow us, our children's children and their descendants. Those in Heaven look to Her to have their ranks filled; those in Purgatory look to Her for their deliverance; the men of the first ages, that they may be found faithful prophets; those who come after, that they may obtain eternal happiness. Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Sovereign of the world, all generations shall call Thee blessed, for Thou hast brought forth life and glory for all. In Thee the angels ever find their joy, the just find grace, sinners pardon; in Thee, and by Thee, and from Thee, the merciful Hand of the Almighty has reformed the first creation" (Sermon 2 for Pentecost, 4).
Andrew of Crete calls this day a solemnity of entrance, a feast of beginning, whose end is the union of the Word with our flesh; a virginal feast, full of joy and confidence for all (Oration 1 for the Nativity of the Mother of God, 1). "All ye nations, come hither," cries St. John Damascene; "come every race and tongue, every age and every dignity, let us joyfully celebrate the birthday of the world's gladness" (Homily 1 for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary). "It is the beginning of salvation, the origin of every feast," says St. Peter Damian, "for behold! The Mother of the Bridegroom is born. With good reason does the whole world rejoice today; and the Church, beside Herself, bids Her choirs sing wedding songs" (Sermon 45, on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
Not only do the Doctors of East and West use similar language in praise of Mary's birth, but moreover the Latin and Greek Churches sing, each in its own tongue, the same beautiful formula, to close the Office of the Feast: "Thy birth, O Virgin Mother of God, brought joy to the whole world: for out of Thee arose the Sun of Justice, Christ Our God: Who, taking off the curse, hath bestowed blessing; and defeating death, hath given us life everlasting."
This union of Rome and Byzantium in the celebration of today's Festival, dates back as far as the 7th century at least. It is believed that it originated at Angers, towards the year 430, by an apparition of Our Lady to the holy Bishop Maurillus in the fields of Marillais; and hence the name of Notre Dame Angevine often given to the Feast. In the 11th century Chartres, the "city of Mary," claims for its own Bishop Fulbert, together with King Robert the Pious, a principal share in the spreading of the glorious solemnity throughout France. It is well known how intimate the Bishop was with the King; and how the latter himself set to music the three admirable responsories composed by Fulbert, wherein he celebrates the rising of the mysterious star that was to give birth to the Sun; the branch springing from the Rod of Jesse, and producing the Flower whereon the Holy Ghost was to rest; and the merciful power which caused Mary to blossom in Judea like the rose on the thorn.
In the year 1245, in the third session of the First Council of Lyon (the same session which deposed Frederick II from the Empire), Pope Innocent IV established for the whole Church, not the Feast which was already kept everywhere, but the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the accomplishment of a vow made by him and the other Cardinals during the Church's widowhood, which through the intrigues of the crafty Emperor, lasted 19 months after the death of Pope Celestine IV, and which was brought to a close by the election of Sinibaldo Fieschi, under the name of Innocent IV.
In 1377, the great Pope Gregory XI, who broke the chains of captivity in Avignon, wished to add a vigil to the solemnity of Our Lady's birthday. But whether he merely expressed a desire to this effect, or whether for some other reason, the intentions of the holy Pope were carried out for only a short time during the years of trouble that followed his death.
Together with the Church, let us ask, as the fruit of this sweet Feast, for that peace which seems to flee ever farther and farther from our unhappy times. Our Lady was born during the second of the three periods of universal peace during the reign of Augustus, the last of which ushered in the Prince of Peace Himself. The temple of Janus is closed; in the eternal city a mysterious fountain of oil has sprung up from the spot where the first sanctuary of the Mother of God is one day to be built (Santa Maria in Trastevere); signs and portents are multiplied; the whole world is in expectation. In Judea, two obscure descendants of David, Joachim and Anne, are thanking God for having blessed their long-barren union.
The days, then, are accomplished. Ever since the hour when the Eternal Trinity came forth from Their repose to create Heaven and Earth, all generations have been in labor to bring forth the day which is to give a Mother to the Son of God. Parallel with the direct line from Abraham and David to the Messias, all human genealogies have been preparing for Mary, their Mother, the generation of adopted sons whom Jesus is to make His brethren.
At length, O Mary, our Earth possesses Thee! Thy birth reveals to it the secret of its destiny, the secret of that love which called it from nothingness, that it might become the palace of the God Who dwells above the heavens. But what a mystery, that poor, weak humanity, inferior to the angels by nature, should be chosen to give to the angels their King and their Queen! Their King they will soon adore, a new-born Babe in Thine arms; their Queen they reverence today, admiring Thee in Thy cradle as only angels can admire. In the beginning these morning stars, these noble spirits, contemplated the manifestations of almighty power, and praised the Most High; yet never did their eager gaze discover such a marvel as that which delights their eyes at this hour: God, more purely imaged under a corporal veil, under the fragile form of a newborn infant, than in all the strength and all the beauty of their nine angelic choirs; God, so captivated by such weakness united, by His grace, to such love, that He made it the culminating point of His work by determining to manifest His Son therein!
Queen of Angels, Thou art our Queen also; accept us as Thy servants. On this day, when the first movement of Thy holy soul was towards God, and the first smile of Thy lovely eyes was for Thy happy parents, may holy Anne allow us to kneel and kiss Thy little hand, already filled with the divine bounties of which Thou art the predestined dispenser. And now, grow up, sweet little one! Let Thy feet be strengthened to crush the serpent, and Thy arms to carry the treasure of the world! Angels and men, the whole of nature, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, all are awaiting the solemn moment, when Gabriel may fly down from Heaven to hail Thee full of grace, and bring Thee the message of eternal love.
An illustrious martyr watches with the angels over the cradle of the Mother of God. On Earth, he was an officer of the guards in the court of an emperor; in Heaven he holds the same title under the Queen of the Universe. Nicomedia was the scene of Hadrian's combat; but his body was taken thence first to Byzantium, and afterwards to the eternal city. Having on this day received the precious relics, Rome knew how to unite with her homage to Mary the honor due to the heroic soldier. In the 7th century, St. Hadrian's church was appointed as the starting-place for the solemn litany or procession, which went from the Forum to St. Mary Major, on this Feast of the Nativity, and afterwards on those of the Annunciation and Assumption.
The Acts of St. Hadrian's martyrdom are now recognized as incontestable. The part played therein by his young wife St. Natalia, (Feast-December 1) lends them a charm of heroic sweetness. Unknown to her pagan husband, she had been a Christian from infancy. When she heard that Hadrian had been converted by witnessing the constancy of the confessors, and in the fervor of his generosity had asked to share their captivity, she hastened to him in a transport of joy, and kissing his chains, cried out, "Blessed art thou, my lord Hadrian!"
Though she was left free by the jailers, Natalia would not quit her husband's side, now that he was far more glorious in her eyes than he had ever been in fighting under Caesar's standard. Sitting at his feet in the prison, or accompanying him to the pretorium, she had no other thought but to encourage the neophyte, under the pressure of his tortures, to the height of his vocation to martyrdom; bidding him have no solicitude about earthly things. Upon herself, about to be left alone though scarcely more than a child, she made no reflection; except that, on the eve of the sacrifice, she let fall these words: "Remember thy co-operatrix in martyrdom; pray that I may die with thee, that other women may learn how to behave towards their husbands, on seeing thy love for me." At length the hour had come. Maintaining, in the simplicity of her pure heart, a fidelity whose heroism did not destroy its exquisite tenderness, she herself placed upon the anvil, whereon they were to be crushed, the feet of her beloved husband. And as after this awful torture the martyr was still breathing, he stretched out his hand to Natalia, that she might offer it to the executioner to be cut off. Then he died; and remembering the prayer of his faithful companion, he soon called her after him to Heaven.
Our Emmanuel, on the night of His Birth, gave a share in His honors to the holy widow Anastasia; so now, with sweet motherly thoughtfulness, the Virgin of Virgins inspired the Church to associate with the joys of Her happy Birthday the glorification of the heroic spouse of St. Natalia.
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