By Mikhail Skaballanovich, Ph.D.
Although St Andrew of Crete calls the Nativity (nativitas) of the Most Holy Theotokos the “Beginning of All Feasts,” it was likely the last of the twelve major Christian holidays to appear in the calendar.
As a rule, holidays dedicated to the Mother of God appear later than the ones dedicated to the Lord. Although the first report of the holiday of the Nativity of the Mother of God dates back to the 5th century, viz., the homilies of Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople (439-446) in the East and Sacramentarium of Pope Gelasius (492-496) in the West, these accounts are not fully reliable: the authenticity of Proclus’s words is contested, while the earliest copies of the Sacramentarium of Pope Gelasius date to a much later time (8th century). A recently discovered Syrian menologion (AD 412) does not mention the Nativity of Theotokos and, for that matter, neither does it mention any of the other Marian holidays; it mentions only two of the holidays dedicated to Jesus Christ, i.e. the Nativity of Christ and Theophany. This menologion commemorates “Presbyter Faustus and Ammonius and 20 martyrs with them” on September 8 (O.S.).
This holiday apparently originated in the Greek Church and soon spread to Rome and its affiliated churches. It is noteworthy that this holiday is celebrated by Nestorians (the Nativity of Our Lady Mary) as well as by Jacobites, on September 8 (with the exception of several ancient Coptic menologions, where this holiday is celebrated on April 26). It may mean that this holiday appeared in the Eastern Church before these heretics parted ways with the Church, i.e. in the 5th century.
St Andrew of Crete († ca. 712) wrote two homilies and a canon for this holiday.
He already considered this holiday as a solemnity. He insists in his canon that all creation must rejoice (Ode 1); the heaven must be glad and the earth must be joyful (Ode 4); barren women and mothers must join the chorus (Ode 6). St Andrew probably wanted to put this holiday on par with other Marian feasts. If you read his canon, full of deep emotion and admiration, you will surely see that a 7th-century Christian like St Andrew, who died in the early 8th century, perceived the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos as a day when his heart trembled in awe and his soul was overflowing with exalted feelings.
Only a person who had been reared in veneration of this day and maybe heard enthusiastic hymns composed by earlier authors could have the inspiration to write such masterpieces as the 2nd Canon for the Nativity of Theotokos. This holiday is highlighted in a 7th-century Jerusalem Book of Canons, and a Georgian version refers to it as significantly different from other days. This feast is also referred to by name in the Festive Gospel, which Emperor Theodosius III (715 – 717) gave as a present to St Catherine Monastery on Mt Sinai. This Gospel was written with golden letters and apparently contained readings only for the most important holidays of the ecclesiastical year (it contains readings only for 21 days of the year: aside from the current twelve major feasts – with the exception of Palm Sunday, which might have been omitted by mistake – there are readings for September 1, December 24, January 5, February 7, March 9, April 23, May 8 and 10, June 29).
In the West, this holiday is first mentioned in the Roman Pseudo-Hieronymus Martyrology (7th century), in the statutes of Bishop Sonnatius of Rheims (614 – 631) as one of the 13 days of the year when public affairs are forbidden, and in the Martyrology of St Bede the Venerable (†735). Holy Pope Sergius (687-701) is said by Anastasius the Librarian (9th century) to have appointed a litany (a procession) from St Mary Church to St Adrian Church on this day. The rules of St Boniface (8th century) name this feast as one of the holidays that merit special honor (sabbatizandae a populis cum singulari devotione). King Charles the Bald mentions this holiday in one of his charters (on distribution of monastery lands). An 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Pontifical contains a bishop’s blessings for this feast.
However, this holiday was not common in the West even in the 7th – 9th centuries. There is no such holiday in the Gothic-Gallican Calendar (7th – 8th centuries), Calendarium Luxoviensis (7th century), the list of holidays found in the Acts of the Council of Mainz (813), in the 10th-century Toledo Calendar and ancient Mozarabic calendars, all of which mention the Assumption. 17th-century liturgics scholars even asserted that it was Fulbert of Chartres (†1028) who first popularized it; instead, he might have been instrumental in the expansion of this holiday to Northern France. The earliest Latin sermons on this feast belong to him, and the feast is characterized as a new one.
Although it took a long time to become commonly known and celebrated in the West, this holiday took even longer to become as solemnly celebrated as it is nowadays. The most ancient calendar of Corbie Abbey (8th – 9th centuries) contains the following note on September 8: “Memory (natale) of St Adrian and of the Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary.” Later records assign one Mass to the Nativity of the Mother of God and another Mass to the commemoration of St Adrian; then two Masses to the Nativity and one to St Adrian; then St Adrian is left with only the early Mass; and then finally St Adrian has only a commemoration (commemoratio). Bruno von Hildesheim is characterized in a chronicle dated 1155 as “this most venerable prelate (praesul) was God-loving: he shone with ardent reverence towards His Most Glorious Mother Virgin Mary and diligently did whatever he could to venerate her. Among other things, he was the only bishop who ordered an eight days long octave (apodosis) of Her Nativity to be observed in his diocese, which was later adopted by the entire Holy Mother Church.” Bishop Guido Autissiodensis (†1270) also made this feast a solemn annual celebration in his diocese. Pope Innocent IV made the eight days long octave of this holiday mandatory for the entire Western Church during the Council of Lyon in 1245. Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378) determined a vigil and a fast for this feast, as well as a special rite of mass.
It was in the West and around that time that an explanation for the date of this holiday (September 8) was found. Durandus (†1296) writes that a pious man heard joyful singing of Angels every year on that day and he wondered why they were singing. It was revealed to him that the Angels rejoiced because Virgin Mary had been born on this day; as soon as the Pope learned about it, he ordered a celebration of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin on earth like in the heaven.
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Church chants dedicated to the holiday of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos must have appeared from its very beginning. Unfortunately, our current service hardly retains any of the 5th or 7th century hymns dedicated to this feast. Liturgical manuscripts that date back to 7th and 8th century (e.g., some Georgian manuscripts) contain chants that are totally different from our current ones.
We do not have a kontakion for the Nativity of Theotokos composed by St Roman the Melodist who lived in the 6th century and wrote many of our current kontakia for the twelve major feasts. It is only the troparion Thy Nativity, O Theotokos Virgin that belongs to these ancient times — the 5th – 7th centuries, given that the same chant is a part of both the Roman Catholic mass and the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and that this is practically the sole case where worship hymns in the Orthodox Church and the Roman Church coincide.
On the contrary, the 8th and the 9th centuries were the time when a number of church hymns dedicated to the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos appeared. Less than half of them made it into our current rite of celebration of this feast and its eve. The majority of these chants were introduced into the rite of worship by ancient rubrics but later faded out of use. Currently, there are chants by the following authors used during church services of the Nativity of the Mother of God: St Andrew of Crete († ca. 712) — the Second Canon of the feast; St John of Damascus († ca. 780) — the First Canon of the feast; Patriarch Herman of Constantinople († 740) — the aposticha; Anatoly, bp. of Thessalonica (?) — several stichera chanted during the litiya; Stephen and Sergius of the Holy City, i.e. monks of St Sabbas Monastery in the Holy City (Jerusalem), fl. 9th century — the Canon of the Eve of the feast. The following authors once had their chants used in old times, e.g. according to the Hypotyposis of the Monastery of the Theotokos Evergetis, Constantinople, but were later rejected by our current Typikon: Emperor Leo VI († 916) — Canon, tone 4 I Shall Open My Mouth (according to the Evergetis Hypotyposis, it was chanted during “pannikhida” of the feast) and another canon with the same initial irmos (according to the same document, it was chanted during “pannikhida” on September 11); George, bishop of Nicomedia (?), fl. 9th century — Canon, tone 4 I Shall Open My Mouth (the same Hypotyposis assigns this canon for the Matins on the Eve of the feast) and Canon, tone 4, The Powerful Generals during the “pannikhida” on September 10. The same Evergetis Hypotyposis requires (during the “pannikhida” on September 9) another canon, tone 4, I Shall Sing To Thee, O Lord My God, by John (of Damascus?). It is worth noting that St Cosmas of Maiuma did not leave us a canon for this feast: nor did he leave canons for Easter, Ascension, Annunciation, and Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple.
The extant sources do not allow us to say anything definitive about the kind of service and the hymns and readings that the holiday of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos had before the 7th century. Luckily, we have a 7th-century source that sheds light on the rite of this service: a translation into the Georgian language of the so called Jerusalem Canonarium, that is, a collection of liturgical instructions, or rather an index of readings during worship in the Church of Jerusalem. We read, “The Nativity of Theotokos. Troparion, tone 1: Thy Nativity, O Theotokos Virgin. Prokeimenon, tone 1: Thou Hast Sanctified Thy Dwelling; verse: God Is Our Refuge and Strength.” This note is followed by a list of readings, viz., 1. The Wisdom of Solomon 8:2-4 (mistakenly cited as Proverbs); 2. Isaiah 11:1 ff.; and an unnumbered reading of Hebrews 8:7-9,10. Hallelujah, tone 8: Hear O Daughter. Gospel Luke 11:27-32. Washing of hands, tone 1, “Thy Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin.” Apparently, these are the instructions for the Liturgy only; more important feasts have rubrics for the Vespers and the Matins, too. Perhaps, the Vespers and the Matins of this feast did not differ too much from everyday services. We see Old Testament readings during the Liturgy and a special troparion “on washing of hands”, which might have been a substitute of the Cherubic Song. Remarkably, the Gospel reading in this source begins with “And it came to pass, as he spake these things…”, i.e. with the last words of the current Gospel reading. The second earliest source that contains liturgical instructions for this feast is the so called Canonarium of Mt Sinai, i.e. a similar book, which was meant to be used in a certain Church (maybe the Church of Constantinople), found alongside a Gospel book in St Catherine Monastery on Mt Sinai and attributed to the 9th century. The Vespers prokeimenon in this book is “Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God” and the verse is God loves the Gates of Zion. The OT readings, the troparion, the Epistle and Gospel readings, and the Koinonikon are already the same as today.
The information about the order of the services on the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos is available to us since the 11th century, when this service was already very close to the current one. We will mention only the few differences between the known ancient manuscripts and the current Typikon.
Thus, the manuscript of a Georgian translation of the Typikon (the 11th -century Synaxarion of Iveron Monastery on Mt Athos) requires a special prokeimenon on the Vespers of this feast: “The holy place of the tabernacles of the most High, God is in the midst of her” and the verse was God Is Our Refuge. There was no litiya during the Vespers according to this book; it stipulated current stichera for Lord I Cried during the Aposticha (this book does not determine stichera for Lord I Cried; the same is true for all other great feasts); the troparion is the current one but in the first tone; the usual Matins kathisma is replaced with Psalms 43, 44, and 132; the Antiphons during the Liturgy are It Is Good — apparently the usual weekday ones — with the following refrains: 1). By the Prayers of Theotokos, 2). and 3). Save Us, O Son of God Born of a Virgin, For We Sing Thee: Hallelujah.
The 11th-century practice of celebration of the feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Evergetis Monastery in Constantinople as recorded in a 12th-century manuscript has the following differences from the current practice. Only three initial stichera are chanted during the Lord I Cried at Vespers: the first and the second ones are repeated three times, and the third sticheron is repeated twice. There was no litiya during Vespers according to this Typikon. The Aposticha had the following verses: 1) Lord, remember David, and all his afflictions: how he sware unto the Lord, and vowed unto the mighty God of Jacob; 2) The Lord hath sworn in truth unto David; he will not turn from it;
Of the fruit of thy body will I set upon thy throne. Only two first stichera of the Aposticha coincide with the current ones, while the third one, Thy Most Honorable Nativity, is now the last during the Vespers; the fourth, Today the Barren Gate, is currently the fourth sung at Lord I Cried. The troparion is in tone 1. The first kathisma at the Matins was the usual one, and the second was a special one, appropriate for the feast, i.e. the sixth kathisma, O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath. The sessional hymn after the first kathisma is the one which is now read after the second kathisma; the sessional hymn after the second kathisma is the one that is read after the third ode of the canon today; the sessional hymn after the polieley is the one that is now read after the first kathisma. Canons: First Canon has irmoses repeated twice, troparia by 4, the 2nd by six (no mention of irmoses here); consequently, the canon itself is read by 12 (today by 16). The current 1st sessional hymn after the polieley is read after Ode 3 of the canon; the exapostilarion Holy is the Lord our God is read after Ode 9, like on other, mainly medium-importance feasts and, “optionally, another exapostilarion, sung to the tune of Hearken O Women: The ends of earth rejoice.” The Lauds included six stichera but the book names only two of them (probably the first two of the current ones), Glory: Now: the sixth one currently at Lord I Cried, Today the Barren Anna. The Beatitudes during the Liturgy are unique to this feast, in tone 8 “Remember us” — a troparion, a troichen and a theotokion. The following readings from the “Book of Praises to the Theotokos” were incorporated into the service according to this book of rubrics: the First Homily of St John of Damascus, beginning with Come All Nations, during the panikhida; the Second and the Third Homilies of St John of Damascus during the Matins after the First and the Second Kathisma, beginning with the following words, “If the Earth is measured by cubits” and “Various other subjects of feasts”; a homily by St Andrew of Crete “This feast is the beginning of all feasts” after the polieley; a “historical account by St James in his Metaphrastos” after Ode 3 of the Canon (currently, there remain the following readings: the Second Homily by St John of Damascus, referred to as the Homily by St Andrew of Crete; the First Homily by St John of Damascus after the 2nd Kathisma; a homily by Gregory the Hieromonk; and an unspecified “reading of the feast” after the 1st Kathisma).
We see that the service according to that Typikon is different from our current one in just a few ways, such as lack of several stichera (e.g. stichera during the litiya), another order of stichera and sessional hymns, and an abridged canon. The Hypotyposis of Evergetis Monastery is an important document in the history of liturgy because it recorded the practice of worship, which was the middle ground between the so call Studite and Jerusalemite Typika. The Hypotyposis of Evergetis is closer to the Studite Typikon in its earliest form, which we cannot find in the full copies that exist today, due to the fact that these remaining copies date back to the 12th-13th centuries and are very close to the Jerusalem (the present) Typikon; they are much closer to it than the Hypotyposis of Evergetis.
According to these copies of the Studite Typikon, which are a Slavonic-Russian edition of this Typikon made in 12th or 13th centuries, the worship on this feast has the following differences from the current one. There are six verses for the stichera on Lord I Cried, and the stichera are the current first three ones; there is no litiya during Vespers according to this Typikon; the Aposticha stichera go in the following order: the 1st Sticheron is the same as today; the 2nd Sticheron is the same as the 3rd Sticheron now; the 4th Sticheron is the same as the 4th Sticheron on Lord I Cried today. Glory: Now: tone 2, to the tune of House of Ephratha, unspecified text — possibly the current aposticha sticheron from the Small Vespers; troparion, tone 1. The prokeimenon Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, which was sung after the Gospel at Matins during other feasts, was likewise sung after the Gospel at Matins of this day. The canons were chanted as follows: the First Canon had irmoses read once and verses repeated twice in Odes 1, 3, 4 and 6; both irmoses and verses were repeated twice in Odes 5, 7, 8, and 9 (because the first odes contained three verses, while the last odes contained just two verses each); the Second Canon had irmoses and verses recited once: all verses were by 12; there was the exclamation Holy Is The Lord Our God after Ode 9. The current three stichera at the Lauds were chanted twice each, then Glory: Now, followed by the first one of them. This Typikon always required Aposticha, too: Matins aposticha in tone 2, to the tune of House of Ephratha (unspecified), Glory: Now: One of those. Liturgy had “designated Psalms and they sing canons in tone 2, odes 3 and 5 with irmoses, during the Beatitudes.”
According to the earliest copies of the current Jerusalem Typikon, the service of the Nativity of Theotokos is only slightly different from the current (printed) Typikon. The two first stichera are repeated at Lord I Cried. Some manuscripts require singing the Second Canon by 6 with just the troparia without irmoses; other (Slavonic) manuscripts note that “we say its irmoses and troparia once, for they are plentiful.” The exapostilarion of the feast is chanted twice. It is either not specified or the one that Greeks use today. (Sessional hymns aren’t specified either, so we cannot be certain if they are meant to be the same as today or not). The odes of the Liturgy are taken only from the First Canon.
Finally, there are minor inconsistencies between our current rubrics of that feast and the modern Greek or Old Rite rubrics. The Greek rubrics have more differences, albeit insignificant. Thus, according to the Greek Menaia, the first two stichera at Lord I Cried are read twice. The First Sessional Hymn after the Polieley and the Sessional Hymn after Ode 3 of the Canon are chanted one in the place of the other, and there is no second sessional hymn after the polieley. The First Canon has irmoses by 8, the Second Canon has troparia by 6. There is a kontakion and an ikos after the Sixth Ode, together with a brief synaxarion (description) of the feast with preceding verses. The Ninth Ode does not have any refrains. The exapostilaria we use nowadays aren’t there; instead, they use one exapostilarion, mentioned in ancient books, and sing it three times to the tune of Hearken O Women: “The ends of earth today rejoice of Thy Nativity, O Virgin Theotokos Mary and the Unwedded Bride; it is through it that thy parents’ woeful malediction of infecundity was untied, as well as the curse of birth of Foremother Eve.”
According to the liturgical instructions used in the Patriarchate of Constantinople for parish churches, this service has the following differences from ours. They sing stichera by 6 at Lord I Cried; they do not have a litiya during Vespers; the litiya accompanied with singing of a troparion goes before Matins, which is served separately from the Vespers, similarly to other great feasts. The Matins contains Psalter (kathismas) and a polieley to Theotokos My heart is inditing; then hypakoe (in fact, it is a sessional hymn) after the Third Ode of the Canon. During the Liturgy, they sing antiphons consisting of the verses of what is known to us as the select Psalm for the Exaltation, viz., verses 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11 (see below), with insertions of Ps. 132:17 between verses 7 and 8, and Psalm 132:14 between verses 9 and 11. The chorus of the First Antiphon is By the Prayers of Theotokos; and of the Second Antiphon, Save Us O Son of God, Wondrous Art Thou In Thy Saints…; of the Third Antiphon, a troparion. They sing Come Let Us Worship… Wondrous Art Thou in Thy Saints during the Entrance.
According to the liturgical instructions used by Old Rite believers, the second and the third stichera at Lord I Cried are sung twice; they sing Today The Barren Gate sticheron in tone 6 after the Gospel reading; they have no refrains after Ode 9; instead they have a katavasia Mysterious Is The Paradise. Instead of It Is Truly Meet they sing Virginity Is Alien to Mothers and repeat the Photogogikon (Svetilen) three times. Apparently, the photogogikon is the same as in the Greek Menaia.
Our account of the history of the service in honor of this feast makes it clear how slowly and gradually this service was developed. Its authors were holy monks and confessors of the 8th and 9th centuries and this fact, coupled with high artistic qualities of their works, was the reason why their chants replaced earlier and doubtlessly simpler and less sophisticated hymns used in the 5th-7th centuries. Later, quite a few famous hymnographers brought the fruit of their inspiration to this feast, which came to be more and more venerated and honored by the Christian oikumena; however, the Church was so demanding that their works were not adopted for use during worship because they were found to be less brilliant than the former ones. It is also worth noting the care with which the liturgical instructions replaced certain hymns with others in the course of their centuries-long formation and development: texts formerly used at the Aposticha were then moved to Lord I Cried; texts originally chanted between odes of the canons were later moved to kathismas and the polieley. The rubrics were hesitant even in the seemingly unimportant issues, such as where to repeat a sticheron and which one to repeat; which number to sing canons by; whether to sing irmoses of the second canon or not. All this guarantees that the current rite of church service on this day is a harmoniously balanced single whole.