“And then along comes Mary, and does she want to set them free, and let them see reality.” In 1966, these words were sung by the groovy band The Association, in its huge chart hit, “Along Comes Mary.”
Each Sept. 8, the church, in universal praise, sings its version of “Along Comes Mary” as it celebrates the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
• Anna and the queen of ‘I am’
How did this feast honoring Mary, our Blessed Mother and our queen, come about? Well, let’s step into the Wayback Machine, and set the dial for year 1st century B.C. On Dec. 8, in the end of that century, the Blessed Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived in the womb of St. Ann. Hence, Mary is identified as the Immaculate Conception; that is, she was conceived without the taint of original sin and marked the beginning of the new creation. On Sept. 8, nine months after that conception, we celebrate the Nativity (birth) of Mary, who would become the mother of Jesus Christ.
Interestingly, on the church calendar we celebrate many saint days, but those days are most commonly celebrated on or near the date of the death of a specific saint. Why? Because those days celebrate the day of that person’s entrance into heaven. However, there are three figures whose birth we honor on the church’s calendar: Jesus (Dec. 25), Mary (Sept. 8) and John the Baptist (June 24). These figures are honored because of their role in salvation history:
l Jesus Christ is honored and worshipped as God incarnate. He is our life and our salvation; and tells us that people “will realize that I AM” (He is God.) (cf. John 8:28). His birth is of inestimable value.
l Mary is honored as the woman who, by her fiat (“yes”) answered God’s call and became the “singular vessel of devotion” which brought our Savior into the world as man.
l John the Baptist is honored as the last and the greatest prophet; he is the one who announced Christ to the world. In the realm of his status as prophet, Matthew 11:11 states, “Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”
• ‘Here’s the story of a lovely lady’
So, on the Solemnity of the Nativity of Mary, we celebrate Mary’s birth, but do we know the back story of this event? While Scripture tells us little about Mary, sacred tradition and some apocryphal writings, most especially the “Proto-Evangelium of St. James” and the “Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew,” tell us a great deal. Using those sources, here is a short version of what is a much longer story of the Birth of Mary:
At the age of 20, a shepherd named St. Joachim took Anna (or as we call her St. Ann) as his wife. Ann was of his own tribe (Judah) and of the family of David. Not following the example of Mike and Carol Brady, after 20 years of marriage they had not had any children. They prayed and prayed, and even vowed to dedicate to God any child they would have. But no child came forth. This was a great trouble for people of this era, as children were a sign of a blessing from God (at least until they became teenagers).
• Take it on the run
One day during the high holy days, St. Joachim went to the Temple to be present there as incense was offered to the Lord. But one of the priests of the Temple named Ruben told Joachim he could not stay in the Temple with them because God had not blessed him with children — and therefore was not in favor by God. Joachim was mocked like a vegetarian at a pig roast, for not being able to father a child.
St. Joachim was stung by the comments and felt crushed. He fled from the Temple openly weeping. He was so upset that he didn’t go home but rather went to his flock, and took them to a far country. I guess you could say he was on the “lamb.”
Time passed, and poor St. Ann didn’t hear from her husband for five long months. So, Ann got down on her knees and prayed. Then she ran to the Temple weeping for her husband Joachim the whole way. In the courtyard of the Temple she threw herself on the ground and prayed for her husband’s return. As she arose she saw a sparrow’s nest, and said: “Why was I born, O Lord? The birds build nests for their young yet I have no child of my own. You know that when I married Joachim I promised you that should I have a child I would offer them to you and give them to the service of the Temple.”
• Touched by an angel
As Ann said these words, like Roma Downey, she was “touched by an angel.” Yes, an angel of the Lord appeared unto her, and said: “Be not afraid, Ann, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive a child whom the whole world will praise. Go to the Golden Gate in Jerusalem and meet your husband there; and all generations shall be in wonder of your blessed child.”
I would imagine in truth Ann probably fainted first. An angel coming to you and doing a Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network thing has to be scary. But, no; the story tells us that the angel left her and Ann speedily ran to the city gate.
The same angel went to Joachim on the mountainside. The angel told Joachim in a dream: “Don’t be afraid. I have come to tell you the Lord has heard your prayers. He knows how good you are and he knows your many years of sorrow for having no child. God will give your wife a child just as he did Sarah, the wife of Abraham. … Your wife Ann will bear you a daughter. You shall call her Mary and dedicate her to God, for she will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb. … So, go back to Jerusalem where you will meet your wife at the Golden Gate of the City, and your sorrow will be turned into joy.”
• Take me home, country roads
St. Joachim, with his flock, began his journey back home by way of the roads of the hill country. St. Ann went to the gate and waited and waited and waited. Finally, St. Ann caught sight of St. Joachim; she ran to him and hugged him and exclaimed: “I was a widow, and now behold I am not so. I was barren and behold I may have a child.”
And so, Ss. Ann and Joachim embraced and rode off into the sunset; actually, no, that’s how Hollywood would do it. In our faith we are told, that they embraced (and I would imagine that St. Ann probably said something like, “You’re gone for five months and you don’t even call. Wait ’til we get home.”) Ss. Ann and Joachim then returned home and nine months later the child Mary was born to St. Ann. Tradition says that the place of Mary’s birth was on the site of where the Church of St. Anne stands today in Jerusalem.
Thus, the redemption of mankind began with the event of this day: The birth of Mary, who said “yes” to God, and brought into this world the means of our Salvation. So for us, when “Along Comes Mary,” then starts of the story that leads to the “association” between her and Jesus Christ, as Mother of God, and begins in earnest the events which lead to our redemption. And that is a Hail Mary play any coach would embrace.
Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Dover and Immaculate Conception Parish in Marydel, Md.