The feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which the Church celebrated yesterday, was imported into the Roman Rite from the Byzantine tradition at the end of the 7th century, along with three other Marian feasts, the Annunciation, the Purification, and the Assumption. Unlike those other three, however, it was slow to catch on, and was still not celebrated in many parts of western Europe even by the beginning of the 11th century. To a large degree, the impetus for its general acceptance came from the preaching of a Saint named Fulbert, who became bishop of Chartres in France in 1006, and held the see for 22 years. His city was already an important pilgrimage center because it possessed an object believed to be a garment of the Virgin Mary herself. Fulbert began rebuilding Chartres Cathedral after it was destroyed by a fire in 1020 in a much larger form, to accommodate the great crowds of pilgrims who came to venerate the relic. (As is so often the case with such projects, it was not completed until after his death. This new church in turn burned down in 1194, leading to the magnificent Gothic building which stands today, rightly recognized as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the Middle Ages.)
One of St Fulbert’s sermons about the Virgin Mary (PL 141, 338C etc.) came to be particularly well known, in part because it was somehow mistakenly attributed to St Augustine. Although it was originally preached on the Annunciation, the standard late medieval custom (still found in the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite to this day) was to read it on the feast of Mary’s Nativity. In many churches (e.g. Notre-Dame in Paris), the concluding peroration, was read twice a week as part of the daily round of services. One section of it, (“Sancta Maria… commemorationem”) was also set to music and became of the most commonly used antiphons of the Divine Office.
(A stained-glass window in the south ambulatory of the cathedral of Chartres, known as the Our Lady of the Beautiful Window. This is one of the very few stained-glass windows that survived the fire of 1194 in such condition that it could be rescued and reused in the new church.)
O beata Maria, quis tibi digne valeat jura gratiarum ac laudum рræconia impendere, quæ singulari tuo assensu mundo succurristi perdito? Quas tibi laudes fragilitas humani generis persolvat, quæ solo tuo commercio recuperandi aditum invenit? Accipe itaque quascumque exiles, quascumque meritis tuis impares gratiarum actiones: et cum susceperis vota, culpas nostras orando excusa. Admitte nostras preces intra sacrarium exauditionis, reporta nobis antidotum reconciliationis. Sit per te excusabile, quod per te ingerimus: fiat impetrabile quod fida mente poscimus. Accipe quod offerimus, redona quod rogamus; excusa quod timemus. Quia tu es spes unica peccatorum, per te speramus veniam delictorum; et in te, beatissima, nostrorum est exspectatio præmiorum. Sancta Maria, succurre miseris, juva pusillanimes, refove flebiles, ora pro populo, interveni pro clero, intercede pro devoto femineo sexu. Sentiant omnes tuum juvamen, quicumque celebrant tuam commemorationem. Assiste parata votis poscentium, et repende omnibus optatum effectum. Sit tibi studium assidue orare pro populo Dei, quæ meruisti benedicta pretium ferre mundi.
O blessed Mary, who might be able worthily to offer thee due thanks and praise, who by thy unique act of assent, didst come to the aid of a lost world? What praises might the frailty of the human race render to thee, which by thy exchange (with God), found the entrance to new life? Receive therefore these acts of thanksgivings, however meagre, however unequal to thy merits, and when thou shalt receive our request, do by thy prayers obtain pardon for our sins. Admit our supplications into the hallowed presence of thy hearing, give us in return the medicine of reconciliation. Let that prayer which we pour forth through thee find forgiveness, let us obtain what we ask with confidence. Receive what we offer, grant in return what we ask for, remit that which we fear, for thou art the only hope of sinners, through thee do we hope for the forgiveness of our crimes, and in thee, most blessed one, is the hope of our rewards. O Holy Mary, come to the aid of the wretched, help the fearful, comfort to the sorrowful, pray for the people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all devout women; may all that keep thy holy commemoration feel thy assistance. Readily accede to the prayers of those who ask, and render to all the desired effect. Be it thy care to constantly pray for the people of God, thou who are blessed, and merited to bear the ransom of the world.