of Mary, Mother of God
January 1, 2020Creed
Gal 4: 4-7
Christian Brothers, Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man” (Nicene Creed).
We celebrate today the Octave Day—the 8th day—of Christmas, which ends our solemn liturgical celebration of the Savior’s birth. We’ll continue our Christmas season, however, looking toward the feast of the Epiphany on Sunday, and then of the Baptism of the Lord.
Virgin Mary & the Christ Child
Notre Dame Cathedral, Tournai, Belgium
The passages from Galatians and Luke’s Gospel bring Mary into the story in the same way that our profession of faith does. She’s an essential part of the story of salvation; but essential only in relation to Jesus: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). “The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this,” they understood what “had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:16-17). What the angels had told them, you recall, was, “Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (2:11). Luke continues: “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart,” while the shepherds glorified and praised God (2:19-20)—which is to say, she did pretty much the same as the shepherds did: marveled at God’s ways with humanity.
So our Scriptures and the Creed situate Mary within the story of salvation as both a most essential player and as an awed onlooker like the rest of us.
Let’s 1st note the sole reason for the birth of Jesus: “for us men and for our salvation.” This is the 1st of 2 core statements of the part of the Creed we’re reflecting upon. In St. Paul’s words, “God sent his Son … to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5). The law he refers to is the Jewish law with all its obligations, regulations, and penalties; it includes the moral law that binds us all. We needed to be saved from the penalties of the law that our sins have earned. We needed to be restored to the original condition of creation, wherein we humans stood in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27)—his children.
2d, we note that Jesus alone is the Savior. “For our salvation he came down from heaven.” According to God’s plan, Mary was necessary. But she too is a creature and needed to be redeemed. Mary isn’t a goddess. We revere her, but we don’t worship her.
Mary’s part in the plan of salvation is motherhood. She’s the vehicle by which God’s eternal Son receives or takes on our human nature: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” “He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man”—“man” here being the generic term, homo in Latin, as in homo sapiens. “Incarnate” bespeaks his flesh taken from her flesh, in a reverse image of our 1st parents; for Adam said of Eve, “She is flesh of my flesh” (Gen 1:23). The new Adam takes his flesh from the new Eve in order to undo the sin of the 1st Adam and 1st Eve.
Our Savior was and is truly and completely a human being, and our human nature he received from his mother Mary. Unless he be truly human, he can’t have experienced our plight, and most of all, can’t have suffered for us, been raised from the dead, and elevated as the God-man to the Father’s side in heaven. Unless he be truly human, our adoption as God’s sons and daughters in the divine Son comes into serious question.
The 2d affirmation of our portion of the Creed is that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. In our age it’s often fashionable to deny or at least to doubt Mary’s virginity. But the denial of one doctrine of our faith leaves all the others in doubt as well. Or put another way, if we accept only what we can see, grasp, and understand, what we can explain, measure, or replicate, we’re not really believers.
That Jesus was virginally conceived is clear from the 1st 2 chapters of both St. Luke and St. Matthew, which are otherwise so greatly different in content. It’s been the constant teaching of the Church since the 2d century.
The Creed and the gospels likewise affirm that the virginal conception and birth of Christ are the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not, of course, a put-down on human sexuality; Christ made marriage a sacrament. It is the strongest possible affirmation that redemption is God’s work, not man’s. As the prolog of John’s gospel teaches, God “gave the power to become children of God to those who believe in [Christ’s] name, who were born not by natural generation, nor by human choice, nor by a man’s decision, but of God” (1:12-13). Jesus’ conception by the power of the Holy Spirit affirms that God is truly the Father of the complete person of Jesus Christ in both his divine and his human natures—and our birth as God’s children comes by water and the same Spirit (cf. John 3:5).
The reference to the work of the Holy Spirit also echoes Gen 1:2: “And the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” just before God began creation. Now the Spirit comes over Mary, “overshadows” her (Luke 1:35), and begins the new creation in a way as miraculous as the creation of the entire universe. Christ is indeed a new creation, refounding the human race, reordering history.
So today we honor Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, in order to glorify the God for whom all things are possible (cf. Luke 1:37). This same God loves us and has redeemed us from our sins thru his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And he has sent upon us the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who overshadowed Mary—that our sins might be forgiven and we might be adopted as God’s children. May God be blessed forever, and may we join holy Mary among those praising his name!