THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL COME UPON YOU AND THE POWER OF THE MOST HIGH WILL OVERSHADOW YOU, AND SOTHE HOLY ONE BORN OF YOU WILL BE CALLED SON OF GOD. These words are the heart of the message of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. They are among the most familiar in the Gospels, and among the most important. Their true meaning, however, has been disputed from the time they were written and published. Their significance also is the subject of marked disagreement, even by those who agree on the literal meaning. These differences continue to the present. There is no sign they will cease in the foreseeable future.
I distinguished between their meaning and their significance. One can disagree as to whether the words mean that the Son of Mary is truly the Son of God according to nature, or intends merely to affirm that God views him with special favor as an adopted Son with special privi leges. Even when there is agreement that the text intends to convey true sonship with God for the child, it can be disputed whether this is meant to be understood as a historical fact or is it being presented as a myth that is meant to portray Jesus as a specially favored representative of God. All of these possible causes for disagreement were in fact realized very early in the Church's history. All of these differences continue to divide people today.
However, the position of the early Church in her understanding of this text has been firm and consistent. Shortly after the year 100 A.D., when portions of the New Testament were still to be written, St. Ignatius of Antioch already witnessed to this doctrine as a as a belief already well established by his time. Moreover, the Roman Creed, recited at baptism, has always included the article born of the Virgin Mary. In addition, there are many witnesses to this belief already in the second century. One of the interesting indications of this early widespread conviction is the way a number of theologians, St. Justin and Irenaeus among them, read John 1: 13 as a proof of the Virginal Conception. They read the text to say "he (the Word) was born not of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man but of God." There is general agreement, though that the original subject of this phrase is those who believe in him. Although their reading is not the original yet it is evidence of widespread belief in Jesus' Virginal Conception.
Through succeeding generations this belief was affirmed to be an article of faith, even though to cease to preach it as a doctrine would have been quite convenient. For non-believers shed con siderable ridicule and contempt on the faithful who put their faith in what they considered to be a fable, and which they assimilated to outdated pagan myths. The only reason that adequately accounts for the Church's insisting on a belief that posed such great challenge to faith and caus ed such embarrassment to the faithful is that it is simply a historical fact. Like the Jesus' death on the cross, the virginal conception is a difficult historical truth that was revealed to the Church as God's plan for our salvation. (cf. Christoph Schönborn, The Mystery of the Incarnation, 33- 36)
Why did God choose this particular, unique fashion for his Son to come into this world as man? This question has been asked by the most enlightened and holy theologians through the centu ries. They were convinced that the virginal conception contains important lessons for us and so sought to sound out its significance. One conclusion they arrived at was that it makes clear perspicuously is that the Incarnation of the Son of God is totally God's initiative. Indeed, the whole work of our redemption, which depends on the Incarnation, is the working of divine grace in the first instance. Just as Jesus' birth is the result of the overshadowing of Mary by the Spirit, so also our rebirth cannot be effected except by that same Spirit. After all, it is for our rebirth in the Spirit that the Word became flesh. To be redeemed means to receive not only forgiveness of sins but the new life given by the spirit of God.
These are the mysteries we commemorate today at this Eucharist. Here we not only honor our Lord in his Incarnation, but actually receive in communion the new life that he won for us through his great acts of self offering on the cross. May we prove worthy of the love he shows us in thus coming to us in a communion with the body, now glorified, that was born of the ever-Virgin Mary, suffered, died and rose from the dead to live forever in the glory of God the Father.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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