Feast of the divine maternity of Mary

New Year’s day is an important feast day of Our Lady, that of her divine maternity or Mary the Mother of God. The day used to be celebrated as the feast of the Circumcision of Christ. In these two answers to questions I trace the history of the feast. The question on the Divine Maternity is question 264 in my book Question Time 2 and the one on the Circumcision has recently been published in my column in the Catholic Weekly.

264. The feast of Mary, Mother of God

I notice that the feast of Mary, Mother of God, has been moved from October 11 to January 1, when we used to celebrate the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. When was this done and why?

The feast has a long history, going back many centuries. It commemorates, of course, Mary’s divine motherhood. That is, since Jesus is true God and true man and Mary is his mother, Mary is the mother of God.

Mary’s divine motherhood was defined in the Council of Ephesus in the year 431 against the errors of Nestorius, who was patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431. He had taught that in Jesus there were two persons, one divine and the other human, and that Mary was the mother only of the human person and therefore was not the mother of God. This teaching went against the popular belief that Mary was truly theotokos, a Greek word meaning “God-bearer”. Christians had called Mary by this name since at least the third century, the earliest documented usage of the term being in the writings of Origen of Alexandria in the year 230. The Council of Ephesus, in condemning the errors of Nestorius, taught: “If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel (Christ) in truth is God and that on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God – since according to the flesh she brought forth the Word of God made flesh – let him be anathema” (DS 251).

The exact origin of the liturgical feast of Mary, Mother of God, is unknown but around 500 AD the Eastern Church celebrated a “Day of the Theotokos” around Christmas. Over time the feast came to be celebrated on December 26 in the Byzantine calendar and on January 16 in the Coptic calendar. In the West the Gregorian and Roman calendars of the seventh century gave a strong Marian emphasis to the octave day of Christmas, January 1. With time, the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus came to be celebrated on that day.

It seems that the push for a special feast of Mary’s divine maternity began in Portugal. In 1751 Pope Benedict XIV allowed the Church in that country to commemorate Mary’s divine maternity on the first Sunday of May. The feast was gradually extended to other countries and in 1914 it was celebrated on October 11. It became a feast of the universal Church in 1931 under Pope Pius XI.

After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI decided to change the feast on January 1 from the Circumcision of Jesus to the commemoration of Mary, Mother of God, in order to reclaim the ancient Marian emphasis on that day. On 2 February 1974, in the Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus he wrote: “The Christmas season is a prolonged commemoration of the divine, virginal and salvific motherhood of her whose inviolate virginity brought the Saviour into the world.” He went on to say: “In the revised ordering of the Christmas period it seems to us that the attention of all should be directed towards the restored Solemnity of Mary the holy Mother of God. This celebration, placed on January 1 in conformity with the ancient indication of the liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation” (MC, 5).

He added: “It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewing adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels (cf. Lk 2:14), and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. It is for this reason that, in the happy concurrence of the Octave of Christmas and the first day of the year, we have instituted the World Day of Peace, an occasion that is gaining increasing support and already bringing forth fruits of peace in the hearts of many” (ibid.).

The feast of the Divine Maternity of Mary is a good occasion to renew our love for our blessed mother, who brought the Son of God into the world, and to honour her as both Mother of God and Queen of Peace.

The circumcision of Christ

As I recall, years ago we celebrated the feast of the circumcision of Christ on New Year’s Day. Now we celebrate on that day the feast of Mary, Mother of God. Can you tell me why we celebrated the circumcision and when and why the change was made?

As you say, on January 1 we used to celebrate the feast of the circumcision of Our Lord. This was an appropriate day for the liturgical celebration of this event because a week after the birth every male Jewish child was circumcised and a name was given him. St Luke describes it: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21).

The circumcision of Christ has an interesting origin and symbolism. It dates back to the time of Abraham, around 1900 BC. The book of Genesis records that when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God made a covenant with him, promising to multiply his offspring and to give them the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. At the same time he changed his name from Abram to Abraham (cf. Gen 17:1-8). God told him: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised… So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:10-13).

Ever since, as a sign of the covenant, every male child was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, and this became the means of incorporation into the people of the covenant, just as Baptism is for Christians today. St Paul himself would boast of having been “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5). Circumcision distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles, who were peoples of the uncircumcision.

Our Lord’s circumcision thus manifests that he is truly man, born of a woman into the Jewish nation, whom he had come to redeem. God had chosen his people of the Old Testament to prepare the way for the Incarnation of his Son, who would be their Messiah, their anointed one, who would free them from their sins and establish a new and definitive covenant with them.

Christ’s circumcision also has great symbolic value. It was in his circumcision that he first shed his blood, foreshadowing the piercing of his side by a soldier as he hung on the cross (cf. Jn 19:34). It prefigured the water of Baptism through which Christians enter the new Covenant. St Paul writes: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism” (Col 2:11-12).

When Christ was circumcised, he was given the name Jesus, which the angel had announced both to Joseph (cf. Mt 1:2) and to Mary (cf. Lk 1:31). The name Jesus means saviour and so the angel had told Joseph that the child was to be named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).

The feast of the Circumcision was celebrated on the eighth day after Christmas, and therefore on January 1, from the very early centuries. Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25 from at least the fourth century (cf. J. Flader, Question Time 1, Connor Court 2012, q. 141). Since January 1 was the beginning of a new calendar year, the Christian feast had to compete with the pagan festivities celebrated on that day, as it does today. The feast of the Circumcision was celebrated in the Gallican rite from the sixth century and in the Byzantine calendars in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Octave of Christmas was celebrated at the same time, especially in Rome from the seventh century.

Even though the feast was of the Circumcision, the texts of the Mass and Divine Office came to include many references to Our Lady. Until 1960 the Roman calendar celebrated on January 1 the Circumcision and the Octave of the Nativity. In the revised calendar of 1960 January 1 was called simply the Octave of the Nativity. Finally, in the Roman calendar of 1969 the feast became the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, but is also referred to as the Octave of the Nativity. It is fitting that we celebrate Mary’s divine maternity on the octave of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the Son of God. The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 3.