The first feast of the liturgical year is the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8. And this is truly fitting, for it is through the Mary the Theotokos (a title that literally means “God-bearer” in Greek) that God will choose to send his Son for the salvation of the world.
Thus we begin this Church year at the beginning–waiting for our salvation and seeing glimpses of its coming through the humility and patience of Saints Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos and grandparents of Christ.
The Story of the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos
According to Church tradition in records that go back to the Church’s early life, Joachim and Anna were wealthy people who lived godly lives by choosing to give away most of their wealth to the poor and the Temple. Though they had many earthly blessings, they were not blessed with a child. Joachim, a descendant of David, and Anna, a descendant of the priest Aaron, trusted in God and prayed earnestly to Him for a child.
One year on the day of a feast, the couple went to the Temple to offer their sacrifices to the Lord but were turned away because they were barren. Distraught, Joachim retreated to the wilderness to pray to God for a child for 40 days and nights. Anna remained at home and also prayed.
As Anna was praying, she was visited by an angel who told her that the Lord had heard her prayer, and she would have a daughter who would serve God and the entire world. Anna said that she would give her child as a gift to God. At the same time an angel came to Joachim and told him the same thing.
When Joachim and Anna were reunited, they were filled with joy over the promise of the Lord’s blessing. Soon they were blessed with their daughter and named her Mary. The Lord had ended Joachim and Anna’s barrenness and waiting, but even more He would soon end the waiting of a world groaning for salvation.
Ways to Celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos
1. Attend Vespers or Divine Liturgy for the Feast
If at all possible, make an effort to attend Divine Liturgy for the feast as a family. Some churches have Liturgy in the evening on feast days to better accommodate the work schedules of parishioners. If you are unable to attend the Liturgy, perhaps you can go to Vespers the evening before the feast.
When you are in church, you will be able to hear the Scripture readings for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos and meditate upon them, sing the hymns for the feast and learn them to use in your home, and receive the Eucharist as the ultimate celebration of thanksgiving for the work of God in the world.
2. Read or Listen to the Story of the Feast
My children love to read and be read to. Sit down as a family and read the story of the feast together. There are two lovely books that I recommend.
First, a great book to use is The Story of Mary the Mother of God by Dorrie Papademetriou. This book begins with the story of Joachim and Anna and traces the life of the Theotokos until the Annunciation. The illustrations are beautiful and the text is engaging for young children and older children alike. This is one of my children’s favorites!
Secondly, an excellent resource for the entire Church year is a children’s book entitled Heaven Meets Earth: Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts by John Kosmas Skinas. The book has a section for each feast with the story, Scripture readings, facts, a bit of Church history, and an explanation of the festal icon. I highly recommend it!
3. Sing the Troparion for the Feast
In our house, we try to sing the hymns of the feast during morning and evening prayers and occasionally at the dinner table. Through this repetition, even our youngest children are able to learn them–belting the hymns out at church (sometimes a bit too loudly!).
Here is the troparion for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos:
“Your nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from you, O Theotokos.
By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing;
By destroying death, He granted us eternal life.”
4. Bake a Birthday Cake for the Theotokos
Younger children really get excited about birthdays! So, explaining this feast as the birthday of the Theotokos can help them understand the significance. One way to really emphasize that point is to make a birthday cake for the Theotokos. The children can help mix up the cake together, and then the whole family can celebrate at dinner. During the celebration you can tell the story or read a book about the feast.
5. Make a Family Tree for Jesus and Themselves
Understanding who is related to whom can be a bit confusing for young children. One way to help them understand the relationships in this story is to create a family tree for Jesus. You can make this activity as simple or as crafty as you would like. For very young children, the tree may just include Jesus, the Theotokos, and Joachim and Anna. If this children are a bit older, you could add a few biblical characters from the line of David on Joachim’s side (David, Solomon, etc.) and a few from the line of Aaron on Anna’s side (Aaron, Eleazer, etc.).
This activity could lead to an interesting discussion about your own family tree, so feel free to make one for your child as well. The children will enjoy putting themselves, siblings, parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles onto the tree. You could even use photographs or draw pictures to represent each person.
6. Go Bird-watching
Finally, in one part of the story of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Saint Anna prays to God for a child while walking in her garden. There she sees a mother bird caring for her babies and is filled with longing for her own little ones.
Parents can tell this part of the story and then take the children outside. Have the kids look for birds in the backyard or a park. If you have a field guide (or the Internet), you can try to find out what kinds of birds you are seeing. The children can draw the birds once they return inside.
How do you celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos?
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