“With the Angels let us celebrate the aIl-glorious conception of the Mother of God” (From the Matins)
The Holy Scripture is silent about the birth and infancy of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The early Christians believed that her birth was miraculous in the similar manner as the birth of St. John the Baptist.
This pious belief became reflected in some early writings, especially in the so-called Protoevangelium of St. James, compiled by some unknown author in the middle of the second century.
This popular belief also inspired the introduction of a distinct feast, which in the East was called The Conception of St. Anne [Maternity of Holy Anna], when she conceived the Holy Mother of God, while in the West it was renamed – The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
1. The anonymous author of the Protoevangelium of St. James, basing his story on the description of the miraculous conception of St. John the Baptist (Lk. 1 :5-25), tells us that the pious parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Joachim and Anna, were also childless and exposed to public reproach. Since in the Old Testament, God in His blessings always included a promise of numerous offspring, the Jews came to believe that the childlessness was a sign of a divine curse. This is the reason why St. Elizabeth, having become pregnant, exclaimed joyfully: “It has pleased the Lord to remove my reproach among men.” (Lk. 1 :25)
We are told that St. Joachim, having been publicly reproached in the temple, retired to the desert, and fasting forty days, he implored God for the blessing of a child. At the same time his wife, St. Anne, did the same at her home, saying: ” O God of our Fathers, hear my prayer and bless me as You blessed the womb of Sarah, giving her a son, Isaac.”
On the fortieth day, as Anne was praying in the garden, an Angel of the Lord appeared to her and said : “The Lord has heard your prayer and you shall conceive and bring forth a child, and your seed will be spoken of in all the world!” Anne replied: “As the Lord my God lives, if I beget a child, I will offer it as a gift to the Lord my God and it shall minister to Him in the holy place all the days of its life.”
Just about the same time the Angel also appeared to Joachim in the desert and said: “Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go home, therefore, for your wife Anne shall conceive.” As Joachim with his flock was returning home, Anne exclaimed:
“Now I know that the Lord God has blessed us exceedingly!” On the following day they brought an offering of thanksgiving to God at the temple, saying: ” Now we know that the Lord our God has been gracious unto us and has remitted all our sins.”
This story, as contained in the apocryphal gospel, is faithfully reflected in the liturgical office, while the Byzantine iconography presents SS. Joachim and Anna as they joyously embrace.
2. The first written evidence concerning the celebration of the feast could be found in the Typikon of St. Sabas, dated 485 A.D. But, unfortunately, we do not have an original copy of the Typikon, which was subsequently revised several times and many new feasts and offices were added to it, especially between the ninth and the twelfth centuries. Therefore, its testimony cannot be considered as reliable.
A more reliable indication as to the time of the introduction of the feast in the Byzantine Church can be found in the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740), which was composed while Andrew was still a monk at St. Sabas monastery near Jerusalem (before 685). But Andrew’s contemporary, Bishop John of Euboea (d. c. 750), informs us that at his time the feast “was not yet known to all the faithful” (cf. P.G. 96, 1499). One century later, Metropolitan George of Nicomedia, in his three homilies on the feast, testifies that the festivity was already “generally observed” throughout the Christian East (cf. P.G., 100, 1335-1402).
It is therefore safe to assert that the celebration of the Feast of Mary’s Conception originated in the monastery of St. Sabas not earlier than the middle of the seventh century. At the beginning of the eighth century the observance of festivity emerged from the cloisters and entered into the cathedrals, where, eulogized by inspiring preachers, it eventually became fixed as a feast in the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Church. The feast, as a matter of fact is already registered in the Constantinopolitan Calendar, ascribed to Emperor Leo the Wise (896-912) . Then, in 1166, Emperor Manuel Comenus included the feast in the list of solemn feastdays.
3. The Feast of the Conception of the Holy Mother of God was celebrated by the Byzantine Church as a miraculous event. St. John Damascene (d. 749), who faithfully reflects the Byzantine tradition, explained:
“Why is the Virgin Mother born of a previously sterile mother? Simply, because it was necessary that the way to what was to be a new thing under the sun and the greatest of all wonders (i.e. a Virgin Mother) had to be paved by some lesser wonders in order that a gradual ascent be made from lower to more sublime.
For the rest, I can advance yet another, more sublime and divine reason. Nature yields to grace and became indecisive, stopping to act.
Since the Mother of God was to be born as a virgin (i .e. without sin) of Anne, nature did not dare to impede the Bud of Grace but remained devoid of fruit (Anne’s sterility) , while the grace was bringing forth its fruit,” meaning Mary (cf. P.G. , 96, 663-664).
From the above words we can see that St. John Damascene, in the accordance with the tradition of the Byzantine Church, admitted a mysterious action of divine grace in the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In order to underscore this “mysterious action” of grace in Mary’s conception, the celebration of the feast was intentionally advanced one day to the ninth of December, although the Nativity of the BVM was celebrated on the 8th of September.
The period of St. Anne’s pregnancy, according to Byzantine tradition, was shortened by one day to indicate the intervention of divine grace in the conception of Mary, referred to by St. John Damascene as the Bud of Grace. Here, at least implicitly, the doctrine of the immaculate conception was advanced by the Byzantine tradition, repeatedly affirmed by St. John Damascene: “Your immaculate body, which was preserved from all stain of sin , did not remain on the earth” (cf. P.G., 96, 719-720).
4. As did many other feasts, so also the Feast of the Holy Mother ot God came to the West from the East. It seems that under the influence of Byzantium, the Napolitan Church celebrated the feast as early as the ninth century. In the eleventh century the feast found its way to England. From England it later spread to France, then to Spain, and finally to Italy.
The Roman Church was the last to accept the feastday.
It was Pope Sixtus IV who “allowed its celebration in the entire Church” by his decree of 1476.
It was the newly formed Franciscan Order that promoted the feast throughout Europe with great zeal. This devotional feast coming from the East provoked a prolonged dispute among the Western theologians concerning the immaculate conception of Mary. Even though the Council of Trent (1546, sess. V) excluded the ” Blessed and Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God, from the decree of original sin,” the controversy continued until 1661, when Pope Alexander VII forbade all further discussion in this matter and declared that the Blessed Virgin Mary was immune from original sin from the first moment of her conception.
In the beginning, the Latin Rite Churches also celebrated the feast on the ninth of December, as was the custom in the East. It was much later, at the beginning of the 18th century, that the feast was moved to December 8th in the Roman calendar. Yet it was not until December 8, 1854, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that December 8th became a holyday of obligation in the Latin Rite Church.
5. In ancient times the feast of Mary’s conception was known by various names. In his list of the solemn days in the Byzantine Empire, promulgated in 1166, Emperor Manuel Comnenus called it “The Conception of Our Most Holy Mother of God.”
After the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Ukrainian Catholics of Galicia adopted the modern name of the feast – The Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Mother of God, and began to celebrate it as a major Marian festivity, still on December 9th (Julian calendar – December 22).
In 1891, the Synod of L’viv approved these innovations and introduced a new liturgical office, composed by Rev. Isidore Dolnickj (d. 1924).
In the Carpatho-Ruthenian dioceses the feast continued to be celebrated as a minor feast, although the modern name was adopted, namely: The Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Mother of God by St. Anne (cf. Cerkovnyj Ustav, Ungvar 1910, p. 103). After World War I Bishop P. Gojdich, OSBM of Prjashev (1927-1960) and Bishop D. Niaradi of Križevci, Jugoslavia [Croatia] (1920-1940) introduced the celebration of the feast according to the dispositions of the Synod of L’viv. Since the liturgical dispositions of the Synod of L’viv were not approved by the Holy See, in 1944, the Pontifical Liturgical Commission in Rome restored the pristine way of the liturgical celebration of the feast, with its traditional name: The Conception of St. Anne, When She Conceived the Most Holy Mother of God, to be commemorated on December 9.
In the United States Mary was proclaimed the principal Patroness of the Country under the title of the Immaculate Conception, and her feast was proclaimed a holyday of obligation by the Baltimore Council III, in 1884. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted by most Ruthenian parishes in the United States, our Bishops asked and received permission from the Holy See to celebrate the feast under the modern name: The Immaculate Conception on December 8th. In the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Province it is not a feast of obligation, but is included among the Solemn Holydays of the Blessed Virgin Mary [Theotokos].