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Liturgy, Life of Mary in the

Life of Mary in the Liturgy

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: Does the liturgy give us any hints about Mary's life?

A: Several events concerning Mary's life are commemorated during the yearly liturgical cycles of the Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian Churches. Some of the more important celebrations on the current calendars are discussed below. A summary table is given at the end of this section.

December 8

The Roman Catholic feast of Mary's Immaculate Conception celebrates the origins of Mary's earthly existence. Though not mentioned in Scripture, the historical origin of Jesus' mother's life is an undeniable fact.

Under the title: The Conception of St. Anne [when she conceived the Theotokos], this feast was celebrated on December 9 in the Christian Orient perhaps as early as the sixth century. The very start of Mary's life, her conception by her parents, was considered a holy and blessed event with significance for salvation history. After the feast moved to the West [and to Dec. 8], emphasis was given to the unique holiness of this event. In 1854, Pope Pius IX defined as Roman Catholic dogma the belief that from the first moment of her conception, Mary was given the personal privilege of freedom from original sin in view of Christ's foreseen merits. The proclamation of the Catholic dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception was given in the Apostolic Letter, Ineffabilis Deus.

September 8

Nine months after the feast of Mary's conception, the Church commemorates her birth on September 8, another historical certainty only implicit in the Bible. This liturgical commemoration originated in the East in the fourth century. Many of the details which the liturgy presents to the faithful were influenced by the apocryphal Protevangelium Jacobi [First Gospel of James] (ca. 150). For example, the names of Mary's parents, Anna and Joachim, are absent from the canonical Scriptures. We have no apostolic testimony confirming this fact, nothing earlier than the Protevangelium Jacobi. The Church does not place this document on the same level as Holy Scripture. However, it is possible to accept the spiritual truth which underlies this narrative, without necessarily attributing a literal and historical exactness to every detail. The deeper meaning of the story is that from the moment of her birth and even long before it, the Mother of God was specially consecrated to the Holy Trinity, elect and marked out by God.

November 21

On November 21, the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple (in Eastern usage: The Entry of the Theotokos into the temple). As with Mary's conception and birth, certain details have no clear apostolic foundation and can be traced no earlier than the Protevangelium Jacobi. Since Scripture informs us of Mary's priestly relatives, tales of a special occasion used to commend her to God in Jerusalem seem plausible. Mary's manifest Jewish piety indicates a similar inclination in her parents as its source. Apart from apocryphal details and academic deduction, the inner meaning of this feast is to signify Mary's total dedication to God, in readiness for her future vocation as Mother of the Incarnate Lord.

March 25

On March 25, the Church celebrates the Announcement of the Incarnation by Gabriel to Mary. This feast commemorates events recorded in the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38). The date often falls during Lent. Yet, the feast recalls an event that is so central to Christianity that the Byzantine rite specifies a festive liturgy even if the event should fall on Good Friday!

December 25

Nine months after the Annunciation, the Church celebrates the birth of Christ on December 25. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke offer many details describing this event. On Dec. 26, the Byzantine rite celebrates a minor feast [Synaxis] for Mary, the mother of the one whose birth was celebrated the day before. The Roman rite does something similar on January 1, the final day of the Christmas Octave, celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. On this date, Eastern Churches commemorate the Circumcision of Jesus (cf. Lk 2:21), a feast also having Marian significance.

January 6

On January 6, the Roman rite celebrates the feast of Epiphany, from the Greek word for 'manifestation'. The Eastern Churches commemorate the baptism of Christ in the Jordan on this date (cf. Mt 3:13-17, Mk 1:9-11, Lk 3:21-22, Jn 1:24-37). The Roman rite calendar includes a Marian element by recalling the adoration of the Magi on this date [as well as Christ's baptism]. The background for this event is found in Mt 2:1-12.

February 2

On February 2, the fortieth day after Christmas, Christians celebrate the 'Feast of the Presentation of the Lord' in the Temple [called 'Encounter of the Lord' in the Christian Orient]. This feast commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem temple forty days after his birth and his meeting with the aged Simeon (cf. Lk 2:22-34). This feast has also been referred to as Mary's purification, since Jewish mothers were expected to undergo a ritual purification bath [Mikvah] forty days after childbirth.

September 15

The Eastern Christian Churches recall the Sorrows of Mary during the Passion cycle (cf. Jn 19:25). For Roman Catholics, September 15 is the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.

August 15

Finally, the Assumption of Mary is celebrated on August 15. The liturgical commemoration for the 'Falling Asleep of Mary' [Dormitio or Koimesis] originated in the Christian Orient around the fifth century, perhaps considerably earlier in Ephesus. The site of her death is not known, though Jerusalem and Ephesus are mentioned in ancient accounts. Roman Catholics celebrate the Queenship of Mary on August 22 to conclude the Octave of her Assumption.

As with Mary's Conception and Birth, many of the details associated with this event are presented only in later apocryphal texts (e.g. Transitus Mariae from the fifth century). Though the event lacks explicit biblical and apostolic support, the fact that no posthumous relics (e.g. bone) exist from her body is suggestive.

In 1950, Pope Pius XII defined Mary's Assumption into heaven as a dogma of Roman Catholicism: "the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven." The proclamation of this dogma was made in the encyclical: Munificentissimus Deus.

After entering heaven, Mary has remained active in the life of the Church. Many Christians believe that she has sometimes manifested her concern in visible appearances and miraculous cures. Some of these events are commemorated on the liturgical calendar (e.g. Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11 (Roman), Protection of Mary on October 1 (Byzantine) - see table below).


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