The solemnity of the Mother of God, which now coincides with the octave-day of Christmas and the beginning of the new year, was probably assigned this day because of the influence of the Byzantine Church, which celebrates the synapsis of the most holy Theotokos on December 26. This is in accordance with the Eastern practice of honoring secondary persons on the day after the feast of the principal personage (in this case, the birth of Christ). The Coptic Church celebrates this feast on January 16, but in the West, as early as the fifth century, the feast was celebrated on the Sunday before Christmas, although in France it was celebrated on January 18 and in Spain on December 18. Even before Pope Sergius introduced four Marian feasts in the seventh century (the Birth of Mary, the Annunciation, the Purification and the Assumption), the octave day of Christmas was celebrated in Rome in honor of the Maternity of Mary. Later, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the feast of the Circumcision was added, although it had been introduced into Spain and France at the end of the sixth century and was later included in the Missal of Pope St. Pius V. The recent liturgical reform has restored the original Roman practice, which replaced the pagan feast of the New Year, dedicated to the god Janus, with this feast honoring the Mother of God.
A popular movement began in Portugal in the eighteenth century for a feast honoring Mary’s maternity, and in 1914 the date of the feast was fixed at October 11. It was extended to the entire Latin Church in 1931, the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus. The restoration of the feast to January 1, which falls in the Christmas season and has an ecumenical significance, coincides with other anniversaries; for example, the octave day of Christmas, the circumcision of the Infant Jesus (assigned to the first Sunday of January); the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (which dates back to 1721); and the day for peace, introduced by Pope Paul VI.
In the encyclical (1974) Pope Paul VI states: “This celebration, assigned to January 1 in conformity with the ancient liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the ‘holy Mother . . . through whom we were found worthy . . . to receive the Author of life.’ It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewed adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels, and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. For this reason . . . we have instituted the World Day of Peace, an observance that is gaining increasing support and is already bringing forth fruits of peace in the hearts of many” (no. 5).
Message And Relevance
The Opening Prayer of the Mass is addressed to “God, who has given to mankind the blessings of salvation through the fruitful virginity of Mary” and it asks that we may “experience the intercession of her through whom we have received the Author of life.” The faith of the Church is already expressed in the Apostles’ Creed with the assertion that Christ “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” The Council of Ephesus (431) used this statement to defend Mary’s title as “Theotokos,” not in the sense that the nature of the Word and his divinity had their origin in the Virgin Mary, but that the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, was born of her according to the flesh. What was born of her was the humanity to which the Word is united hypostatically.
The mystery of Mary’s maternity is expressed in the Entrance Antiphon of the Mass: “Hail, holy Mother! The child to whom you gave birth is the King of heaven and earth for ever.” This implies God’s choice of her who is “full of grace” (Lk 1:28) as well as her voluntary consent: “Let it be done to me as you say” (Lk 1:38). The word “conceive” applies not only to the body but also to the spirit, as was stated by the Second Vatican Council: “The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the word of God in her heart and in her body . . . is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and of the Redeemer…. Rightly, therefore, the Fathers see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience” (, nos. 53 and 56).
The theme of motherhood should be associated with that of “fruitful virginity,” which is preferable today because it is one of the proofs of the divinity of Christ and because it is an example of the way in which God uses lowly and weak means for our salvation.
The Prayer over the Gifts reminds us that in this Christmas season we celebrate “the beginning of our salvation.” Hence this feast fits in very well with the beginning of the new year. “On this feast of Mary, the Mother of God, we ask that our salvation will be brought to its fulfillment.”
The Preface of the Mass states the reason for this solemn feast: “Through the power of the Holy Spirit, she became the virgin mother of your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is for ever the light of the world. “Mary represents, as it were, the maternal aspect of God, not only because her Son is also the Son of the Father, but because the Holy Spirit, through whose power she conceived, took up his dwelling in the Word made flesh. This mysterious relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit, who made her virginity fruitful, manifests another maternal aspect of the Father, namely, his merciful love. The maternity of Mary is not therefore something purely functional; she is an authentic icon of the mystery of the Trinity. As the Father from all eternity generates the Son in the love of the Holy Spirit, so Mary, in the flesh, generated the same eternal Word by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah beautifully summarizes the dogma of the Incarnation: “Marvelous is the mystery proclaimed today: human nature is made new as God becomes man; he remains what he was and becomes what he was not. Yet each nature stays distinct and for ever undivided.” The significance of this feast is found especially in the Prayer after Communion: “We proclaim the Virgin Mary to be the mother of Christ and the mother of the Church.”
Prayer after Communion: Father, as we proclaim the Virgin Mary to be the Mother of Christ and the Mother of the Church, may our communion with her Son bring us to salvation.
Taken from “Saints of the Roman Calendar” by Enzo Lodi, published by Alba House, 2187 Victory Blvd, Staten Island, NY 10314, copyright (c) 1992.