The Byzantine tradition distinguishes twelve feasts, eight of Our Lord and four of Our Lady, as “Great Feasts”, with Easter in a category of its own as the Feast of Feasts. Whether by design or coincidence, the first of these in the liturgical year is also the first chronologically, the Nativity of the Virgin on September 8th. This event does not of course occur in the Bible, but is first mentioned in the popular apocryphal work known as the Protoevangelium of James. The precise origin of the feast is a matter of speculation, and the reason for the choice of date is unknown. It was celebrated at Constantinople by the 530s, when St Romanus the Melodist composed a hymn for it; by the seventh century, it had passed to the West, and Pope St Sergius I (687-701) decreed that it be should celebrated with a procession from the church of St Adrian (who shares his feast day with the Birth of the Virgin) to St Mary Major. It would seem, however, that it was rather slower to be accepted than the other early Marian feasts, the Purification, Annunciation and Assumption, since it is not mentioned in some important early liturgical books. Thus we find it included in the oldest manuscript of the Gelasian Sacramentary in roughly 750 A.D., but missing from the calendar in some later books.
The Protoevanglium of James is, of course, the source for the names of the Virgin’s parents, Joachim and Anna. This caused one pope to suppress the feast and one of his successors to restore it because of its popularity.
Even more curious is how a papal conclave added to the feast. It is said that at the Papal conclave of 1241, where cardinals were locked in a dilapidated building by one attempting to direct them to elect his candidate, the cardinals promised to honor the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity by granting it an octave, if She might intervene to guide their election. The man elected, Celestine IV, died after a reign of two-and-a-half weeks. A great hint of irony upon the papacy and this feast day.
Ah, you say, of what does this have to do with us Lutherans. Therein lies the point. We hint at apocryphal details in various ways, perhaps even giving a tentative nod to the name of the Blessed Virgin's parents. But here we refuse to go beyond Scripture. No, there is no date given in the Bible for the birthday of Jesus or of St. John the Forerunner but Scripture is replete about the details of their births. Not in the case of Blessed Mary. Why is it so tempting to go beyond Scripture and invent details that would justify what we want to do? For this is not about commemorations on a church calendar at all but the stark reality that this is what we attempt to do all day long about so many things. I have probably said it and I know I have heard it said often, if it isn't in the Bible, it should be. And what is so different from the invention of a holy day to be commemorated from presuming upon Scripture what has not been said in Scripture?
The point of tradition is not to add to Scripture or fill in details about which Scripture is silent. The tradition that counts is the tradition into which Scripture speaks its life-giving voice and ears hear and believe. Tradition's most important role is to reflect what Scripture says and how it has been heard and heeded in the life of the faithful. But for some that is not enough. Scripture is good enough for what it says but when it does not say enough, other sources of doctrine must be found to fill in the details. But there is no end to the details we clamor to know and, if allowed, these would overshadow what Scripture speaks as the center of God's self-revelation.
It is probably no big deal if some want to remember the birthday of Blessed Mary. She certainly deserves it. But she herself has focused the attention not upon herself but upon the Father who chose her to be the mother of His only Son and of the Son that is her Redeemer and ours. For this all generations shall call her blessed. She would choose to be remembered not apart from her Son but in His shadow as one of the faithful, pondering in her heart what the angel said and what happened along the way to the cross. The most faithful honor of this blessed woman of faith is to follow the Bearer of the Eternal Word in praise of Him who has highly regarded our low degree and saved us by His grace and favor. This is enough. But to do less or to ignore her role is our own poverty of fear and pride.
Of course, Luther kept until death as his pious opinion but not doctrine the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In 1544, Luther said: 'God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sins, for she has conceived and borne the Lord Jesus.' Elsewhere, "All seed except Mary was vitiated [by original sin]." When concentrating specifically on Mary herself as the Mother of God, Luther acknowledges God's singular action in bringing her into the world, but in making general comments about the universality of human sinfulness, he includes her among all the rest of humanity.
Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person." (WA, 39, II:107; and Sermons of Luther, Ed. Lenker, 1996)
But I have found no evidence that the Nativity was kept by Luther or later Lutherans.