Friday, September 07, 2018

The Vigil of the Nativity of the Virgin

The origin of the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity is a matter of speculation, and the reason for the choice of date is unknown. It was celebrated at Constantinople by the 530s, when St Romanus the Melodist composed a hymn for it; by the seventh century, it had passed to the West, and Pope St Sergius I (687-701) decreed that it be should celebrated with a procession from the church of St Adrian (who shares his feast day with the Birth of the Virgin) to St Mary Major. It would seem, however, that it was rather slower to be accepted than the other early Marian feasts, the Purification, Annunciation and Assumption, since it is not mentioned in some important early liturgical books. Thus we find it included in the oldest manuscript of the Gelasian Sacramentary in roughly 750 A.D., but missing from the calendar in some later books. The liturgical commentators of the High Middle Ages such as Sicard of Cremona and William Durandus were aware of that it was of later institution.

The Nativity of the Virgin, by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1335-42; originally painted for one the side-altars of the Cathedral of Siena, now in the Cathedral Museum.
By the time the feast was universally accepted, the Roman Rite had ceased to institute vigils for “new” celebrations; this holds true even for the medieval feast par excellence, Corpus Christi. (One exception of the later medieval period is the Visitation, but its vigil, which clashed with the octave day of St John the Baptist, was later abolished.) Thus, the Nativity of the Virgin was never kept with a vigil in the Roman Rite, i.e., a fast on the day before, accompanied by a Mass in violet after None, and without the Gloria in excelsis, Alleluia or Creed.

In the Ambrosian Rite, however, it is kept with such a vigil, as a feast of particular importance, the titular feast of the cathedral of Milan. On the façade over the central door is a large plaque with the two words “Mariae Nascenti - To Mary as She is born.”


On both the vigil and feast, the Ambrosian Mass reads a lesson which very cleverly links two Biblical passages traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary, the sixth chapter of the Song of Songs, and the twenty-fourth of Ecclesiasticus.

“Thus sayeth Wisdom: Song 6, 8-9 She is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her. The daughters saw her, and declared her most blessed: the queens and concubines, and they praised her. Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array? Sir. 24, 24-28 I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope. In me is all grace of the way and of the truth, in me is all hope of life and of virtue. Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits. For my spirit is sweet above honey, and my inheritance above honey and the honeycomb. My memory is unto everlasting generations.”

At the Mass of the vigil, the following Confractorium is sung; this is the antiphon that accompanies the Fraction rite, which is done immediately after the Canon, before the Lord’s Prayer.

Beatus ille venter qui te portavit, Christe, et beata ubera quæ te lactaverunt Dominum, et Salvatorem mundi, qui pro salute generis humani carnem assumere dignatus es. ~ Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, o Christ, and blessed are the breasts that bursed Thee, the Lord and Savior of the world, Who for the salvation of the human race deign to take on the flesh. (In the video below, this is the third piece, beginning at 1:10.)


In the same Mass, the Transitorium (the equivalent of the Roman Communio) was borrowed from the repertoire of processional chants used on the feast of the Purification, the first Marian feast to be accepted by the Ambrosian Rite in the post-Carolingian period. In this video, we hear it sung as part of that procession in the cathedral itself, starting at 1:22.

Magnificamus te, Dei Genitrix; quia ex te natus est Christus salvans omnes, qui te glorificant. Sancta Domina, Dei Genitrix, sanctificationes tuas transmitte nobis. ~ We magnify Thee, Mother of God, because from Thee was born Christ, who saveth all that glory Thee. Holy Lady, Mother of God, impart Thy sanctity to us.


The Byzantine tradition distinguishes twelve feasts, eight of Our Lord and four of Our Lady, as “Great Feasts”, with Easter in a category of its own as the Feast of Feasts. Whether by design or coincidence, the first of these in the liturgical year, which begins on September 1st, is the Birth of the Virgin, which is also the first historically. The Twelve Feasts also each have a Fore-feast, the Roman equivalent of a vigil, and an Afterfeast; the latter are like the octaves of the Roman Rite, but vary in length, and that of the Virgin’s Nativity is only 4 days long, ending on September 12th. A Fore-feast is a full liturgical day, and so unlike Roman vigils, which run from Matins to None, it begins at Vespers of the day which precedes it, in this case, on the evening of September 6th. Here is a selection of some of the hymns sung at that Vespers, followed by the proper hymns of the Divine Liturgy of the Forefeast on September 7th.

An icon of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, painted by Adrianoupolitis Konstantinos in the middle of the 18th century, now in the Benaki Museum in Athens. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
In Thy nativity, o Immaculate one, rays of joy dawned upon the minds of the whole world, foretelling to all the sun of Glory, Christ our God; for Thou were shown to be the mediatrix of true gladness and grace.

The glory of this Thy forefeast, o Immaculate one, foretells to all peoples the good deeds wrought by Thy favor; for Thou art the source of their present gladness, and the cause of the joy that shall come to us, the delight of divine happiness.

The maiden in whom God dwelt and pure Mother of God, the glory of prophets, the daughter of David, today is born of Joachim and the prudent Anne, and in Her birth, overthrows the curse of Adam that was against us.

Theotokion The multitudes of the Angels in heaven and the race of men upon the earth bless Thy all-venerable Nativity, a all-holy and pure Virgin, since Thou became the Mother of the Creator of all things, Christ our God. Ceasa Thou not, we pray, to supplicate Him for us, who after God, place our hopes in Thee, all-praised and undefiled Mother of God.

At the Divine Liturgy, the Troparion From the root of Jesse and from the loins of David, the godly child Mary is born to us today. Therefore, all creation rejoices and is renewed, together with heaven and earth rejoice. Praise Her, ye families of the nations; Joachim is gladdened, and Anna cries out in celebration: The barren woman gives birth to the Mother of God and the Sustainer of our Life.

The Kontakion Today, the Virgin and Mother of God Mary, the inviolate bridal chamber of the heavenly bridegroom, is born from a barren woman according to the divine plan to be made ready as the chariot of God’s Word; even for this was she predestined, the gateway of God, and truly the Mother of Life.

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