In the second century, apocryphal “gospels” known as the Protoevangelium of James and The Nativity of Mary appeared, compiled by devout Christians seeking to supply a fuller account of the Virgin Mary’s birth and family. The books include legendary stories of Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna that are built out of the Old Testament narratives of the births of Isaac and of Samuel (whose mother’s name, Hannah, is the original form of Anna), and from the traditions of the birth of John the Baptist. Joachim and Anna are presented as a childless, elderly couple whose faith and prayers were rewarded with the miraculous conception of a girl whom they dedicated in infancy to the service of God under the tutelage of the Temple priests.
As early as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Mary was regarded as the “new Eve”. In the East, where Andrew of Crete and John of Damascus asserted the sinlessness of Mary as implicit in the title Theotokos, the commemoration of her conception was known from the seventh century. The observance of the feast spread to the West and is attested in England by the first half of the eleventh century.
The earliest evidence for the commemoration of a feast of the nativity of the blessed Virgin Mary is from the sixth century, in a hymn for the feast composed by Romanus, a deacon and native of Emesa in Syria, and later associated with the Blachernae church in Constantinople, who composed his hymns between 536 and 556. The feast may have originated in Syria or Palestine at the beginning of the sixth century, when after the Council of Ephesus the veneration of the Theotokos intensified. The reason for the choosing of September 8 is uncertain, and given that we have earlier documentary evidence for the Nativity than for the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it seems that the latter was backdated from the former. The Church of Rome adopted the feast in the seventh century, and it is found in both the Gelasian and the Gregorian Sacramentaries. Given the pseudoepigraphal origins of the commemoration, the rest of the Western Church (in general more strictly biblical than the East) was slow to adopt it. It was likely not generally celebrated in Gaul (France) until the eighth and ninth centuries, and Fulbert, the bishop of Chartres (+1028) writes of its being of recent institution.
The Nativity of the Virgin Mary and the Conception of the Virgin Mary were restored to the sanctoral calendar of the 1662 Prayer Book.
O God Most High, you endued with wonderful virtue and grace the blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord: Grant that we, who now call her blessed, may be made true members of the heavenly family of him who was pleased to be called the first-born among many brethren; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Collect is adapted from the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer.
The mosaic of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is taken from the mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome (1296-1300), by Pietro Cavallini.