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Retreat on the Credo
Faith in the Virgin Birth of Jesus
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We are on the subject of faith as specifically the third article of the Apostles' Creed. Preceding the third article, we've already affirmed, "I believe in Jesus Christ," and now "Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary." Immediately we see there are two mysteries of faith professed in this article. First, that the Son of God, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became Man through the operation of the Holy Spirit. And second, that He was born of the Virgin Mary.
First then, the Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We might begin by noting that the Incarnation was actually the work of all Three Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Church teaches: whatever God does, whatever God does naturally or supernaturally outside of the Trinity is always done simultaneously and equally by all Three Persons. It was therefore the Trinity that created the human nature with which then the Second Person was united, as we say, hypostatically, which means personally, to form Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, as in the case of creation, though all Three Persons made the world, yet the work of creation is attributed, as the phrase goes, to the Father: "I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth," so the Incarnation though performed by all Three Persons is attributed to the Holy Spirit. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is the Person Who issues from the love of the Father and the Son, and of all the gifts of Divine Love to the human race none, needless to say, is greater than the Incarnation. Consequently, it is to the Holy Spirit Who is the Personified Love in the Trinity that God's greatest work of love outside of the Trinity is attributed. I repeat, all Three Persons are responsible for the-Incarnation, though only One Person became incarnate - the Second, but because Incarnation is the work of God's love and Love within the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, therefore the Church from the very beginning - first century- has attributed the Incarnation to the Third Person.
What do we mean therefore when we profess that the Second Person was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit? To be exact we mean five things. First, that Christ has no human father, unlike the rest of the human family. Remember when our Lord was found in the temple at the age of twelve? Mary said, "Son, why have You done this? Your father and I have sought You sorrowing. "Christ's answer is perfect. She just referred to Joseph standing nearby - Christ's legal father; yet immediately Christ's answer was, "Why did you search for Me? Didn't you know that I must be about My Father's business?" A gentle correction that only Christ could make. "Mother," He said in effect, "You know I have only one Father." That's the first meaning.
Second, professing as we do that Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe that Christ was conceived miraculously. Never before and we are confident never again will a human being be conceived without carnal intercourse. When God wants something done, He does it. As far as He is concernedmiracles are as easy to God as conducting the world of nature, as we say, without miracles. But God wanted to teach us something very profound. Remember, Adam after he fell became the progenitor not only of our natures but, as faith tells us, the source of original sin. What a divinely devised way of making sure there is no misunderstanding the One being conceived in Mary's womb even as Man was the sinless Lamb of God.
Again, when we profess that Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit we believe that Christ is the second Adam. Did the first Adam have a father? Well not if he was Adam. No less than the first Adam, Christ the second Adam came directly from the hand of God without human paternity.
Again, although miraculously conceived, notice Christ was conceived, could God have once He decided that His Divine Son was to redeem the human race, could He have all of a sudden put a complete, finished human being into the world? Of course. But He didn't. Making sure, the ways we've already seen, that Christ would be conceived without a human father, God wanted to make absolutely sure and leave that us in no doubt that the Child to be born of Mary would be a real human being. Could God have skipped the nine months of Mary's pregnancy? Of course He could have. Could Christ have just suddenly have been born, so we'd have a Bethlehem without a prior Nazareth? St. Augustine has the phrase, "Caro Mariae, caro Jesu" - the flesh of Mary became the flesh of Jesus.
Except then for that instantaneous miraculous conception, it was a real human being that Mary carried for nine months, so that it was a Man who was born. And it had better be a Man because only a human being with a human will, submitting Himself to the divine will of His Father, could have redeemed the world. Without a human being there would not have been a human will. Without a human will there could not have been a redemption. How many wills were there, therefore, in Christ? Two.
I was still a youngster in grammar school; we had a wonderful saintly pastor. He would climb flights of stairs to teach us the history of the Church. Long before I finished grammar school I knew how to spell Monophysitism, Nestorianism, and for our purpose Monophyletism; that's the heresy that Christ had only one will. That's a lie: He had two. Otherwise He wouldn't have been a real human being. What's a human being without a human will!
Finally, we are still on the first part of this third article, because Christ was conceived in her womb without paternal generation, Mary's relationship to the Holy Spirit was absolutely unique. Over the centuries - to be exact, since the Incarnation - the Church has given us the three ways in which Mary was related to each one of the Three Persons. She is the daughter of God the Father: Filia Patris; she is the Mother of the Son: Mater Filii; and she is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit: Sponsa Spiritu Sancti. No wonder, as believing faithful over the centuries have always held, she is closest to God without herself being divine.
We profess that Christ was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit, but then we add He was born of the Virgin Mary. There are two titles of Mary and two implicit articles of faith that we here profess:
Mary as Mother and Mary as Virgin. She is therefore a mother many times over but especially three times over. She is the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of the Redeemer. Except for her fiat - let it be done - in the existing order of Divine Providence there would have been no redemption. The Redeemer had to have a mother who voluntarily accepted that maternity.
She is the Mother of Christ, the Mother of the Messiah. The prophecies of the Old Law foretelling the coming of the Messiah time and again refer to His Mother, and especially Isaiah. No wonder she is Queen of the Prophets: she like her Son is the fulfillment of their prophecies.
Finally and most sublimely she is the Mother of God. No single title by which Mary is called or prerogative by which she is known has been more and more frequently challenged over the centuries than this one. Those Nestorians that I mentioned a few moments ago. Nestorius, sad to say, was a Bishop but he turned out to be a heretic. He taught that Mary was only - and the Greek word sounds so nice - Mary was only Christotokos, she was not Theotokos: she was only the Mother of Christ, but not the Mother of God. Why not? Well, according to the Nestorians, they claimed in Christ there were two persons, one human, one divine. They were very closely related, very intimately connected; God dwelt ever so closely in the human nature of Christ; but Christ, according to Nestorius, was not God. Which of course would forbid us to call Mary God's Mother. The heresy was condemned over fifteen hundred years ago; let me tell you, the most common Christological error in the world today is Nestorianism. So much so that I know of no single ranking Protestant theologian who believes in Christ's divinity and therefore in Mary's divine maternity.
Mary therefore is truly the Mother of God because Jesus Christ Who was born of her according to the flesh is true God. Having said that, if Mary is the Mother, did she remain a virgin? She sure did. And here again one of the most common and prevalent errors is questioning, challenging, doubting, denying Mary's virginity. You don't read a book like the one by Raymond Brown on the birth of the Messiah sympathetically and still believe that Mary is a virgin. And the book has an imprimatur.
Our Catholic faith tells us Mary was a virgin before she conceived Jesus; that she conceived Him virginally; that she remained a virgin, without going into anatomical details, in giving birth to Christ; and that she remained a virgin until she was assumed into heaven. Mary's virginity, in many ways, is THE test of Catholic orthodoxy.
Now the implications. First, the lesson of God's providence. We are liable to forget that behind the noun providence is the verb provides. What God wants to achieve He always makes sure is done. It was therefore part of God's providence that Mary herself in her conception, though conceived normally - Mary had a father and a mother, but already in her conception God provided that she would be sinless from the first moment of her existence. When Pius IX defined Mary's Immaculate Conception he stated what he had to state: she was thus immaculately conceived in order that the Mother of the Son of God would never for an instant be a victim of the evil spirit. God further provided by the virginal conception of her Son. As we've been saying, with God whether it's naturally - since He's behind nature anyhow - or a miracle, it takes no more effort on God's part to work a miracle than to keep nature in operation.
What's the implication in our spiritual lives? Trust God. We believe, how much we believe! But this faith of ours is mainly put into practice by our trust. God sends us trials; so what's new? That's life. Trust God that He will give you the grace to sustain the trial and be sanctified by the cross. Some people have their own formula of sanctification; I don't know where they got it, it's not in the gospels; they want to be holy without the cross. My dears! Don't be silly. Let me put it this way. First we have to find out what God wants. And He'll tell you. Once you know what God wants, stop being concerned about how, leave that to Him. He'll take care. He might have to work a miracle; so what's another miracle or two with God? The greatest wisdom is to turn off the mind when this imagination of ours gets busy and starts getting worried.
Second. The Love of God shown in Christ's conception and birth in Bethlehem. If we love someone actually and not just verbally, we try as far as possible to become like the person whom we claim to love. Love is always a similative: love wants to become like the one that it claims to love. He may be bored to death by an opera; his wife loves operas. If he loves his wife he will go to the opera, and he'll try superhumanly to enjoy himself. God loves us. Could He have done more than to become one like us? The great lesson of the Incarnation. God wanted to experience our feelings. He wanted, if you wish, to think like us, to have to eat a meal and on occasion, we may be sure, get hungry. One of the most consoling passages in the gospel for me: "et fatigatus est" - and He was tired. And this is not rhetoric or poetry, this is our faith!
If this is the way God loves us, how are we to love Him? To become like Him. But it doesn't always make sense. That's not the point. Does it make faith? If God had sat down and rationalized the Incarnation He would never have become Man. Love loves; Love gives.That's the second implication.
Mary is the perfect model for us to imitate in our effort to imitate her Son. There are two virtues in Mary that are specially imitable and they are her faith and her humility. On the first of these Mary is imitable in a way that Christ is not. Christ did not have because He didn't need the virtue of faith. But Mary had to believe. Of course she was the seat of wisdom and no doubt divinely enlightened far beyond our own supernatural wisdom; nevertheless she had to believe that the Child conceived in her womb was the Messiah. She had to believe without seeing and without comprehending that the Child she nursed was her God. Talk about faith being tested!
Mary's humility. Never make the mistake of groveling. St. Ignatius told us, "Be humble, very humble, but never allow your humility to deprive you of your prudence." It is not for nothing that Mary is called Virgin most prudent. The humblest of God's creatures she was a very wise virgin. And I suggest that in our imitation of our Lady we should join it with invoking her: "Mary, help me to be humble like you so as to be more like your Son; but Mary, keep me prudent." There is a humility that speaks up when speaking up is called for. There is a humility that is honest and frank. There is a humility that dares. Why not? The secret is never for a moment to take credit for the gifts that God gives us. That's Mary. How well she knew Who God is and who she was.
Finally, Mary's virginity. You might say, and understandably, that Mary here is especially the pattern for those who have vowed themselves to a virginal life. Mary was a virgin, as faith tells us, all her life.
What the Holy Spirit Who chose her as spouse wants us to learn from her virginity is the sublime importance of chastity in every state of life. Single people are to be chaste, married people have to be chaste, the widowed are to be chaste, those who with God's grace undertake a life of consecrated chastity are to be chaste. What Mary teaches us, or better, what God teaches us through her is what this Almighty power can do in weak finite human nature.
After the canonization of Maria Goretti, Pope Pius XII gave a homily on the dignity of chastity in the modern world. How he pleaded with the hundreds of thousands of people gathered before him, telling especially the young: the evil spirit today is especially eager to deprive you of your chastity. The Pope is right. What the world most needs today is the witness of men and women who at no matter what price in their practice of mortification or self-control, trusting in God's grace, maintain themselves in chastity.
Have you sometimes been struck by the number of almost repetitious invocations in the litany of Our Lady? Mother most pure, most chaste, inviolate, undefiled. Chastity, I believe, in the practical order, is the one virtue most needed in the Church today. But you don't remain chaste unless you have a lot of faith and are convinced that chastity is worth it and that you cannot maintain yourself in chastity without an abundance of divine grace.
I wish to quote from the prayer of our Holy Father to the Virgin of Guadalupe. "O Immaculate Virgin, Mother of the true God and Mother of the Church, you who from this place reveal your clemency and your pity to all those who ask for your protection, hear the prayer that we address to you with filial confidence, and present it to your Son Jesus, our sole Redeemer.
"Mother of the Americas, we pray to you for all the bishops, that they may lead the faithful along paths of intense Christian life, of love and humble service of God and souls. Contemplate the immense harvest, and intercede with the Lord that He may instill a hunger for holiness in the whole people of God, and grant abundant vocations of priests and religious strong in the FAITH and zealous dispensers of God's mysteries.
"Grant to our homes the grace of loving and respecting life in its beginning, with the same love with which you conceived in your womb the life of the Son of God. Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of fair love, protect our families so that they may always be united, and bless the upbringing of our children."
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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