The Life of the Theotokos
There is a 2nd century non-canonical writing called the Protoevangelion of James, that contains several stories on the background of the Virgin Mary as well as on the infancy of Jesus. Though this writing was never accepted as authoritative in the Church, many of the stories within it have been accepted as traditional and incorporated into the feasts of the Church year. These traditions concerning the Theotokos, although not matters of doctrine, are honored as matters of piety. Therefore, they are worth noting in some detail.
Tradition, as recorded in the Protoevangelion, tells us that the parents of Mary, Sts. Joachim and Anna, were childless and in their older years. For this, they were reproached by others. St. Joachim served as a priest in the Temple. One day, the angel Gabriel spoke to each of them separately and told them that they would have a daughter who would bring blessings to the whole human race.
The same source tells of Mary’s birth. While there are no particular doctrines concerning her conception or her birth, in these feasts the Church affirms that she is a fulfillment of God’s plan in bringing salvation to the world.
The tradition relates that Mary was brought as a small child to the Temple by her parents in order to be raised there among the virgins consecrated to the service of the Lord until the time of their betrothal in marriage. According to Church tradition, Mary was solemnly received by the Temple community, which was headed by the priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. The feast meditates on Mary as the new “Ark of the Covenant,” inasmuch as she will contain God in her womb. It is a feast that marks the transition from the physical Temple in Jerusalem to the new Temple, the people of God, prefigured in the child, Mary.
This feast, celebrates the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and her conception, by the Holy Spirit, of the child, Jesus. Together with the Dormition (August 15), it is the most important of the feast days associated with Mary.
The Church in no way denies the full humanity of the Virgin Mary. What takes place in her life is a work of God’s grace. A singular mark of that humanity is that she dies, as do we all. Her death (“falling asleep”) has a rich tradition surrounding it. All of the Apostles were present, with the exception of Thomas. Additionally, we believe the traditional teaching that her tomb was found to be empty several days after her death; that is, God had given her a resurrected body, a promise of our own resurrection on the last day. This is not celebrated as a separate feast (as in the Roman Catholic feast of the Assumption). Rather, it is referenced in the texts associated with the feast of her Dormition.