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Part One:  The Apostles’ Creed


Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary”

Table of Contents    

St. James the Less So far, the Apostles’ Creed has identified Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity who became man. In this third article, we profess our belief in how Jesus became man. He was not conceived by a human father, but by the Holy Spirit; and He was born of the Virgin Mary.

Our concern here will be to see how the Church understands the humanity of Christ, and to identify the main privileges of His Mother, Mary. After all, it was from her that Jesus took His human nature, and she is still His Mother now with Him in heavenly glory.

Jesus Christ Is True Man

The oldest creeds of faith mention the most important facts of the earthly life of Jesus, namely, His conception and birth, His suffering and dying on the Cross, and His bodily resurrection from the dead. The language used is always about a Person who was one with the Father as God, but also one with us as man.

Already in apostolic times, the heresy of Docetism held that Christ only seemed to be a man, to be born, have lived, suffered, and risen from the dead. The Docetists were infected with the false philosophy which claimed that matter and spirit are totally opposed to each other. Consequently, it was said to be impossible that God, who is pure spirit, would become incarnate in a material body.

That is why St. John’s Gospel is so clear in teaching that Jesus Christ is indeed one with the Father, who is God, and at the same time so insists on showing that Jesus Christ is true man.

Jesus became tired (John 4:6); He was in great distress (John 11:33); He wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35); He allowed His feet to be anointed (John 12:3); He washed the feet of His disciples (John 13:12); He was seized and bound in the Garden of Olives (John 18:12); He was slapped in the face by one of the guards during the Passion (John 18:22); He was scourged, crowned with thorns, and dressed in a purple robe (John 19:1-2); He carried His own Cross to Calvary (John 19:17); On the Cross, He said, “I am thirsty” and, after taking some vinegar from the soaked sponge held up to his mouth, He bowed His head and died (John 19:29-30); His side was pierced with a soldier’s lance, and immediately there flowed out blood and water (John 19:34); After His resurrection, he invited the doubting Thomas to put his fingers into the holes made by the nails in His hands and to put his hand into His open side (John 20:27).

Human Body and Soul.  There is more than passing value in knowing that Christ had a truly human body and soul.

  • Because he had a human body and soul, they could be separated—as they were on the Cross—and thus cause His death.

  • Because He had a human body and soul, He truly suffered in both, and thus redeemed us by enduring both bodily and spiritual pain.

  • Because he had a human body and soul, when he rose from the dead he was reunited in body and soul.

  • Because he had a human body and soul, He can be truly imitated by us in our striving after sanctity. The virtues He practiced as man were the attributes of God in human form. As we become more like Jesus in His life as man, the more we become like Jesus who is our God.

  • Because He now has a glorified human body and soul, He is in the Holy Eucharist in the fullness of His human nature united with the Second Person of the Trinity in one Divine Person.

Human Free Will.  The true humanity of Jesus implies that He had a free human will. It was because of this that He could merit our redemption. By the willing sacrifice of His life on the Cross, He won for us the graces we need for our salvation.

Sacrifice means the willing surrender to God of something precious. Jesus made this surrender by His own free human will, voluntarily offering Himself on Calvary to expiate our sins and save us for heaven and from hell.

While saying this, we dare not forget that, although He could really choose with a real human will, yet He could never sin. Not only did He not, but He could not sin because his human nature was united with His Divine nature in one Person who is God. And God cannot sin. The implications of this mystery are practical in the extreme. It does not belong to the essence of human freedom to be able to choose what is contrary to God’s will. Jesus Christ could choose with His human will. In fact, He did so. But His choices were always what was most pleasing to His heavenly Father.

The struggle He experienced in His agony in the Garden was never a conflict of His free will with the will of the Father. It was the spontaneous dread a human being experiences when faced with the prospect of pain.

The Historical Jesus.  A resurgent Docetism in modern times tries to reduce the historical facts about Jesus to mystical or even mythical ideas about Jesus. That is why we hear so much nowadays about the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

Early Christian believers, so the argument runs, were so hypnotized by the wonderful man Jesus that they made Him out to be more than He actually was. Their fervent imagination made Him into a Divine Person, and their pious fancy credited Him with all kinds of humanly impossible deeds. These ideas are at the root of what Pope St. Pius X condemned (Lamentabili, July 3, 1907) as Modernism. Some of the statements that the pope rejected are worth quoting in full:

  1. “The divinity of Jesus Christ is not proved from the gospels. It is rather a dogma which the Christian conscience has deduced from the notion of a Messiah.”

  2. “It may legitimately be granted that the Christ whom history presents is far inferior to the Christ who is the object of faith.”

  3. “A critic cannot affirm that Christ’s knowledge was unrestricted by any limit, except by making a supposition that is historically inconceivable and that contradicts moral sense.”

  4. “Christ did not always have the consciousness of His messianic dignity.”

The Catholic Church has never allowed her followers to say that the creative imagination of the early believers adorned the original facts about Jesus. On the contrary, the Second Vatican Council (Dei Verbum, V, 19) issued and uncompromising statement about the historical validity of the gospels: “Holy Mother the Church,” the council declared, “has firmly and with absolute constancy held and continues to hold that the four gospels…whose historical character the church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven.”

The key word in the Council’s teaching is “really.” This recalls what St. Peter wrote to the first century Christians when he told them: “It was not any cleverly invented myths that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Why not? Because “we had seen His majesty for ourselves” (II Peter 1:16).

It also recalls what St. Ignatius wrote on his way to martyrdom in 107 A.D. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “is really of the line of David according to the flesh…He was really nailed to the Cross in the flesh for our sake…He suffered really, and He also really raised Himself from the dead. It is not as some unbelievers say . . . In reality, it is they that are make-believers” (Letter to the Smyrneans, 1-2).

In today’s skeptical age, when, for many, the historical foundations of Christianity are being reduced to myths, we must be able to see those who would demythologize the gospels for what they really are: They are make-believers.

The Blessed Virgin Mary

Our Lady is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed only in reference to her giving birth to Jesus Christ. This is consistent with the few passages in the New Testament that speak of the Blessed Virgin.

Yet Mary’s place in Catholic faith and piety grew immensely through the centuries, and Marian piety has also been one of the principal areas of development of doctrine in the Catholic church in modern times. Two solemn Marian definitions in less than a century. Two Marian years for the universal Church in one generation. Two major Marian shrines with millions of pilgrims annually from every part of the world - approved by the Church again in less than a century. Twelve papal encyclicals on the Rosary alone by four sovereign pontiffs. And a library of Marian literature that has no counterpart in all previous Catholic history. All these are some indication of what has been rightly called “The Age of Mary.” In God’s providence, Mary is meant to be venerated, we may safely say, as she has never been before.

All of this presumes that our Marian faith keeps pace with our devotion. In the words of the Second Vatican Council,

Let the faithful remember that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to recognize the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love toward our Mother and to the imitation of her virtues (Constitution on the Church, VIII, 67).
Mother of God.  Since apostolic times, it was assumed that since Jesus Christ is true God, Mary must be the Mother of God. But in the early fifth century, a heresy arose that claimed that Christ not only had two natures, but that He was two persons, one human and the other divine. Named after Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorians were willing to call Mary the Mother of Christ (Christotokos) because she conceived and gave birth to the human person of Christ. But they refused to say she is the Mother of God (Theotokos). The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned Nestorianism, declaring unhesitatingly that we should call “the holy Virgin Mother of God”.

Nestorian bishops, however, continued to propagate their views. The confusion this produced among the people contributed to the success of Islam among Christians in the seventh century. Islam, as we know, considers Jesus a great prophet, even the Messiah. He is called the “son of Mary” (Ibn Maryam), but according to Mohammed, Jesus may not be called “Son of God” (Ibn Allah). To this day, Moslems identify Christians as those who venerate Mary as the Mother of God.

Every aspect of Marian faith in Christianity rests on this premise: that Mary gave her Son all that any human mother gives the fruit of her womb. Since the Child she conceived and gave birth to was a Divine Person, she must be honored as the Mother of God. History confirms this judgment. Where belief in Mary’s divine maternity is professed, faith in her Son’s Divinity remains intact.

Immaculate Conception.  Mary’s conception without original sin was a logical preparation for her divine maternity. Since the Child she was to bear would be the All-Holy God, it was unthinkable that His Mother would ever have been stained with sin.

From the earliest times, the Fathers of the Church—like St. Irenaeus in the second century, St. Cyprian in the third century—wrote of Mary as not only immaculate but entirely immaculate, not only spotless but most spotless, that she alone was to be the dwelling place of all the graces of the Holy Spirit, because she was predestined to become the dwelling place of the Son of the Most High.

It is not surprising, then, that in 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the following definition: “The most holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of mankind, preserved from all stain of original sin.”

This means that from the first moment of her existence, Mary was preserved from the common defect of lacking supernatural life. She possessed sanctifying grace from the moment she was conceived. She also possessed the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Absolute Sinlessness.  Consistent with the privilege of her Immaculate Conception, Mary was also preserved from all sin. This says more than at first may seem to be implied. Not only did she never actually offend God by even the slightest sin, but she was specially protected from committing sin.

Moreover, since our Lady was conceived without original sin, she was preserved from the one consequence of this sin that all of us so painfully experience. She did not have concupiscence or the unruly desires that are the heritage of all other descendants of man’s original estrangement from God.

Perpetual Virginity.  Mary’s virginity is expressed in the Apostles’ Creed. St. Luke states that “the angel Gabriel was sent from God…to a virgin…and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-27).

Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus was already foretold in the Old Testament. Isaiah predicted the coming Messiah in a famous prophecy, declaring that “the Lord himself shall give a sign…Behold the virgin [Hebrew alma, Greek parthenos] shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

From the early days of the Church, this prophecy was understood to refer to Mary’s virginal conception of her Son, and St. Matthew’s Gospel so interprets the words of Isaiah (Matthew 1:23). Nor was there any question among Christ’s faithful believers but that Mary was a perpetual virgin.

Against those few individuals who denied Mary’s unimpaired virginity, St. Basil (329-379) wrote, “The friends of Christ do not tolerate hearing that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin.” Ambrose (339-397) wrote a whole treatise defending “the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Mary.” And Pope St. Siricius in 392 simply declared that Mary was a “perpetual virgin”.

Bodily Assumption into Heaven.  Since our Lady was conceived without sin, she was not subject to the universal penalty of sin, which is bodily death.

The early tradition about Mary’s departure from this world is especially strong in Eastern Christianity. We have records of the celebration of the Dormition (the Falling Asleep of Mary) from the end of the seventh century. The original title, Dormition, was changed into Assumption in the Gregorian Sacramentary, sent by Pope Hadrian I (790) to Emperor Charlemagne as the liturgical standard to be used in Charlemagne’s empire. By the end of the eighth century, the Feast of the Assumption was celebrated universally in the West on August 15. And, in 847, Pope Leo IV ordered that an octave of the feast should also be observed.

The modern impetus for promoting the definition of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven belongs to St. Anthony Claret (1807-1870), founder of the Claretians and bishop of Santiago in Cuba. Thousands of petitions from all parts of the world were sent to Rome asking the pope to define Mary’s assumption into heaven.

Finally, in 1946, Pope Pius XII addressed an official query to all the Catholic bishops in the Church. “Do you,” he asked them, “in view of the wisdom and prudence that is yours, judge that the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith; and do you, along with your clergy and faithful, desire it?”

Within months, the pope received an almost unanimous reply in the affirmative. Consequently, on November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII issued the solemn definition which stated:

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our Own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define as divinely revealed dogma: The Immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever Virgin, after her life on earth, was assumed body and soul to the glory of heaven.
The grounds for defining Mary’s assumption as a dogma, or revealed doctrine, were Sacred Tradition as a co-equal source of divine revelation, along with Sacred Scripture. One reason for the definition was expressed by the pope when he spoke to the assembled four hundred bishops the day after the definition. He expressed the hope that this new honor to Mary would introduce “a spirit of penance to replace the prevalent love of pleasure, and a renewal of family life stabilized where divorce was common, and made fruitful where birth control was practiced.”

Our Lady’s bodily assumption should be a powerful motive for control of our bodily passions. Why? Because after the last day, we are due to be rewarded with a glorified body for the merit we have gained during our life on earth in sacrificing sinful pleasures of the senses in obedience to the will of God.

Devotion to the Blessed Virgin.  As spelled out in the Second Vatican Council, devotion to the Mother of God is really a composite of three elements: veneration, invocation, and imitation. They belong together and may only be separated at the risk of detracting from the honors due to Mary, and depriving ourselves of the graces God wishes to confer on humanity through His beloved Mother.

Veneration of the Blessed Virgin includes all the honor and praise, recognition and love that she deserves as the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the human race. Veneration may be described as loving appreciation. The appreciation is based on the knowledge we have of Mary, based on the truths taught us by faith. The love is inspired by the depth of our appreciation, which depends on reading, study, and meditation about the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The first seven parts of the Hail Mary are all statements of veneration:

- Hail Mary
- Full of grace
- The Lord is with thee.
- Blessed art thou among women
- And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
- Holy Mary
- Mother of God—are so many acts of praise and honor, lovingly addressed to the Blessed Virgin. All are drawn from Sacred Scripture or the tradition of the Church. And all are so many acts of praise of the Divine Majesty for the gifts bestowed on the one who gave the Son of God his finite humanity.

Invocation builds on veneration. Because Mary is so pleasing to the Trinity, she, more than any other creature, can effectively plead for us before the Throne of God. We invoke her so that she might intercede for us.

The last three parts of the Hail Mary are all forms of invocation:

- Pray for us sinners
- Now
- And at the hour of our death—are confident petitions asking Mary to pray for us on the three levels that we most need supernatural help from the Mother of Divine Grace. We plead for mercy from an offended God: mercy for ourselves and others, mercy of forgiveness of the guilt—or loss of grace—incurred by our sins; mercy of remission of the penalty due to our willful rejection of God’s love. We plead for help now, right now, at every conscious moment of our lives to enlighten our minds so we may know what God wants us to do, and help to strengthen our wills so we may do His will. Finally, we plead for the gift of final perseverance to leave this life in divine friendship and enter eternity in the grace of God.

Imitation finally builds on invocation because without help from her Son we could never imitate the virtues of His Mother. Those virtues span the Litany of our Lady. Unlike her Son who possessed the beatific vision from the moment of conception, Mary had to believe and trust. Her faith is to be a model for our acceptance of revealed truth without comprehending why or how. Her hope is the pattern for our trustful confidence that God will see us through this valley of tears to our heavenly home.

But it is especially Mary’s charity that we are to strive to follow in our daily lives. Her love for God was the highest of any angel or saint. As His Mother, she loved Him with “love beyond all telling.” Yet she never separated this contemplative love of God from the selfless love of others. Her going “in haste” to help her kinswoman Elizabeth, her concern for the wedding guests at Cana because “they have no wine” were only episodes that the gospels briefly touch on to reveal what we know was a lifetime of service to others.

The Nativity

Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism

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The picture “The Nativity” at the bottom of the page is from the book Christian Symbols, drawn by Rudolf Koch (1876 – 1934) with the collaboration of Fritz Kredel (1900 – 1973) (trans. Kevin Ahern; San Francisco: Arion Press, 1996) courtesy of Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

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