“By the Holy Spirit He Was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary”
Here is the fourth Advent sermon given this year by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household.
- Christmas, a Mystery “for Us”
St. Augustine distinguished between two ways of celebrating an event in salvation history: as a mystery (in sacramento) or as a simple anniversary. In the celebration of an anniversary, he said, we only need to “indicate with a religious solemnity the day of the year in which the remembrance of the event itself occurs.” In the celebration of a mystery, however, “not only is the event commemorated, but we do so in a way that its significance for us is understood and received devoutly.”
Christmas is not a celebration in the category of an anniversary. (As we know, the choice of December 25 as the date was chosen for symbolic rather than historical reasons.) It is a celebration in the category of a mystery that needs to be understood in terms of its significance for us. St. Leo the Great had already highlighted the mystical significance of the “the sacrament of the Nativity of Christ” saying, “Just as we have been crucified with him in his passion, been raised with him in his resurrection, . . . so too have we been born along with him in his Nativity.”
At the basis of it all is the biblical event accomplished once and for all in Mary: the Virgin became the Mother of Jesus by the action of the Holy Spirit. This historical mystery, like all the events of salvation, is extended at a sacramental level in the Church and at a moral level in the life of the individual believer. Mary, as the Virgin Mother who generates Christ by the Holy Spirit, appears as the “type,” or the perfect exemplar, of the Church and of the believer. Let us listen to an author in the Middle Ages, Blessed Isaac of Stella, summarize the thinking of the Fathers in this regard:
Mary and the Church are one mother, yet more than one mother; one virgin, yet more than one virgin. Both are mothers, both are virgins. . . . In the inspired Scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the Virgin Mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary. . . In a way every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful. This patristic vision was brought to light by the Second Vatican Council in the chapters of the constitution Lumen gentium dedicated to Mary. In three separate paragraphs in fact, the document speaks of the Virgin Mother Mary as the exemplar and model of the Church (no. 63), which is also called to be a virgin and mother in faith (no. 64), and of the believer who, imitating Mary’s virtue, gives birth to and allows Jesus to increase in his or her heart and in the hearts of brothers and sisters (no. 65).
- “By the Holy Spirit”
The birth from the Virgin is the work of the Spirit. . . . We cannot doubt that the Spirit is the Creator whom we know was the Author of the Lord’s Incarnation. . . . If the Virgin conceived as of His operation and power of the Spirit, who will deny the Spirit as Creator?In this text Ambrose perfectly interprets the role that the Gospel attributes to the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation, which calls him successively “the Holy Spirit” and “the power of the Most High” (Lk 1:35). He is the “Creator Spirit” who acts to bring beings into existence (as in Gen 1:2), to create a new and higher form of life. It is the Spirit who is “the Lord, the giver of life,” as we proclaim in the same creed.
Here also, as at the beginning, the Spirit, creates “from nothing,” that is, from the complete absence of human possibilities, without any need for assistance or support. And this “nothing,” this void, this absence of explanations and natural causes, is called, in this case, the virginity of Mary. “‘How shall this be, since I have no husband?’ And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God’” (Lk 1:34-35). Her virginity here is a magnificent sign that cannot be eliminated or nullified without tearing the whole fabric of the Gospel account and its significance.
The Spirit that descended upon Mary is, then, the Creator Spirit who miraculously formed the flesh of Christ from the Virgin. But there is even more. In addition to being the “Creator Spirit” he is also for Mary “fons vivus, ignis, carita, / et spiritalis unctio,” “fount of life and fire of love, and sweet anointing from above.” The mystery becomes enormously impoverished if it is reduced merely to its objective dimension, to its dogmatic implications (duality of nature, unity of person), while overlooking its subjective and existential aspects.
St. Paul speaks of “a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3). The Holy Spirit wrote this marvelous letter that is Christ above all in Mary’s heart so that, as Augustine says, Christ “was kept in Mary’s mind insofar as he is truth, he was carried in her womb insofar as he is man.” The famous saying, also by Augustine, that “Mary conceived Christ first in her heart and then in her body” (“prius concepit mente quam corpore”) means that the Holy Spirit worked in Mary’s heart, illuminating it and inflaming it with Christ even before filling her womb with Christ.
Only the saints and mystics who have had a personal experience of God’s eruption in their lives can help us understand what Mary must have experienced at the moment of the Incarnation of the Word in her womb. One of them, St. Bonaventure, writes,
When she gave her consent to him, the Holy Spirit came upon her like a divine fire inflaming her soul and sanctifying her flesh in perfect purity. But the power of the Most High overshadowed her (Luke 1:35) so that she could endure such a fire. . . . Oh, if you could feel in some way the quality and intensity of that fire sent from heaven, the refreshing coolness that accompanied it, the consolation it imparted; if you could realize the great exaltation of the Virgin Mother, the ennobling of the human race, the condescension of the divine majesty, . . . then I am sure you would sing in sweet tones with the Blessed Virgin that sacred hymn: My soul magnifies the Lord.The Incarnation was experienced by Mary as a charismatic event of the highest degree that made her the model of a soul who is “aglow with the Spirit” (Rom 12:11). It was her Pentecost. Many of Mary’s actions and words, especially in the account of her visit to St. Elizabeth, cannot be understood unless we see them in the light of a mystical experience that is beyond compare. Everything that we see operating visibly in someone who is visited by grace (love, joy, peace, light) we should recognize in unique measure in Mary at the Annunciation. Mary was the first to experience “the sober intoxication of the Spirit” that I spoke about last time, and her “Magnificat” is the best evidence of that.
It is, however, a “sober” intoxication, a humble one. Mary’s humility after the Incarnation seems to us like one of the greatest miracles of divine grace. How was Mary able to carry the weight of this thought: “You are the Mother of God! You are the highest of all creatures!”? Lucifer was not able to handle this tension righteously and, seized by headiness of his own lofty stature, was cast down. Not so Mary. She remains humble, modest, as if nothing had happened in her life for which she could make any claims. On one occasion the Gospel shows her to us in the act of begging others for even the chance to see her Son: “Your mother and your brethren,” they tell Jesus, “are standing outside, desiring to see you” (Lk 8:20).
- “Of the Virgin Mary”
At the beginning and for the entire period dominated by the struggle against the gnostic and docetist heresy, Mary’s motherhood comes to be seen almost only as a physical motherhood. These heretics denied that Christ had a real human body, or, if he did, they denied that his human body was born of a woman, or, if it was indeed born of woman, they denied that it was really taken from her flesh and blood. The truth needed to be asserted forcefully against them that Jesus was the son of Mary and “the fruit of her womb” (see Lk 1:42) and that Mary was the true and natural Mother of Jesus.
During this ancient period in which the real or natural motherhood of Mary was affirmed against the Gnostics and the Docetists, the use of the title Theotokos, Mother of God, appeared for the first time, probably with Origenes in the III century. From that point on, it would be the use of that title in particular that would lead the Church to a discovery of a more profound motherhood, one that we could call a metaphysical motherhood, insofar as it pertains to the person of the Word.
This occurred in the 5th century during the period of the great christological controversies when the central problem regarding Jesus was no longer his true humanity but the unity of his person. Mary’s motherhood no longer comes to be seen only in relation to Christ’s human nature but, more correctly, in relation to the unique person of the Word made man. And since this unique person that Mary generates according to the flesh is none other than the divine Person of the Son, she consequently appears as the true “Mother of God.”
There is no longer a relationship just on the physical level between Mary and Christ. There is also a relationship on the metaphysical level, and that places her at a dizzying height, creating a unique relationship between her and the Father. St. Ignatius of Antioch calls Jesus the son both “of Mary and of God,” almost the way that we say that a person is the son of this man and this woman. With the Council of Ephesus the issue became forever a settled matter for the Church. One of the texts approved by the whole council says, “If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel is truly God and for this reason the holy Virgin is the Mother of God [Theotokos] (since she begot, according to the flesh, the Word of God made flesh), let him be anathema.”
But even this conclusion was not the final one. There was another level to discover in the divine motherhood of Mary beyond the physical and metaphysical levels. During the christological controversies, the title of Theotokos was valued more in terms of the person of Christ than of the person of Mary, even though it was a Marian title. People had not yet drawn the logical consequences from that title regarding the person of Mary and in particular her unique holiness.
The title Theotokos risked becoming a weapon of war between opposing theological currents instead of being an expression of the Church’s faith and piety toward Mary. One particular regrettable event that should not be left unsaid demonstrates this. Cyril of Alexander, who himself fought like a tiger for the title of Theotokos, is the man who represents among the Fathers of the Church a singularly false note concerning Mary’s holiness. He was among the few to say openly that there were weaknesses and defects in the life of Mary, primarily at the foot of the cross. Here, according to Cyril, the Mother of God vacillated in her faith: he writes that the Lord at that juncture “gave forethought to his mother” who was “not understanding the mystery,” and “since he knew her thoughts . . . he commended her to the disciple [John] . . . who could explain the depths of the mystery fully and adequately.”
Cyril could not accept that a woman, even if she were the Mother of Jesus, could have had greater faith than the apostles who, as human beings, vacillated at the time of the passion! His words reflect the general lack of esteem for women in the ancient world and demonstrate how little benefit there was to recognizing Mary’s physical and metaphysical motherhood in relation to Jesus if one did not also recognize a spiritual motherhood in her, one of the heart beyond that of the body.
Here lies the great contribution of the Latin authors, and in particular that of St. Augustine, to the development of Mariology. Mary’s motherhood is seen by them as a motherhood in faith. Commenting on Jesus’ saying that “My mother and my brethren are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21), Augustine writes,
Did the Virgin Mary, who believed by faith and conceived by faith, who was the chosen one from whom our Savior was born among men, who was created by Christ before Christ was created in her—did she not do the will of the Father? Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother.The physical and metaphysical maternity of Mary now comes to be crowned by the recognition of her spiritual motherhood, or of faith, which makes Mary the first and most docile disciple of Christ. The most beautiful fruit of this new perspective on the Virgin is the importance that the theme of Mary’s “holiness” takes on now. Again, St. Augustine, when discussing human sinfulness, writes, “I make an exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I wish to raise no question at all when the discussion concerns sins.” The Latin Church will express this prerogative with the title “Immaculate,” and the Greek Church will express it as “All-holy” (Panhagia).
- The Third Birth of Jesus
St. Thomas Aquinas sums up the enduring tradition of the Church when he explains the three Masses that are celebrated at Christmas in reference to the triple birth of the Word: his eternal generation by the Father, his historical birth by the Virgin, and his spiritual birth in the believer. Echoing this very tradition, St. John XXIII, in his Christmas message of 1962, lifted up this fervent prayer: “O eternal Word of the Father, Son of God and Son of Mary, renew again today in the secret recesses of our hearts the wonderful marvel of your birth.”
Where does the bold idea that Jesus is not only born “for” us but also “in” us come from? St. Paul speaks of Christ who must “be formed” in us (Gal 4:19). He also says that in baptism Christians “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14) and that Christ must come to “dwell in our hearts through faith” (see Eph 3:17). The concept of Christ’s birth in a soul is based primarily on the doctrine of the mystical body. According to that doctrine, Christ mystically repeats “in us” what he once did “for us” in history. This applies to the Paschal Mystery but also to the mystery of the Incarnation. St. Maximus the Confessor writes that the Word of God desires to repeat in all men the mystery of his Incarnation.
The Holy Spirit invites us, then, to “return to our hearts” to celebrate in them a more intimate and true Christmas, one that makes “real” the Christmas we celebrate outwardly in rituals and traditions. The Father wants to generate his Word in us so that he can always proclaim anew this sweet word addressed both to Jesus and to us: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Heb 1:5). Jesus himself desires to be born in our hearts. And this is how we should think about it in faith: as if, in these last days of Advent, he is walking among us and is going door to door knocking, like that night in Bethlehem, in search of a heart in which he can be born spiritually.
St. Bonaventure wrote a booklet called “The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus.” In it he explains concretely what it means to have Jesus born in our hearts. He writes that the devout soul can spiritually conceive the Word of God as Mary did at the Annunciation, give birth to him as Mary did at Christmas, name him as was done at the circumcision, seek him and adore him with the Magi as they did at the Epiphany, and, finally, offer him to the Father as was done in the presentation in the Temple.
The soul conceives Jesus, he explains, when—dissatisfied with the life it leads and spurred on by holy inspirations, set aflame with holy fervor, and finally resolutely setting aside old habits and faults—it becomes spiritually fertile by the grace of the Holy Spirit and conceives the intention to live in a new way. The conception of Christ has taken place!
This plan for a new life, however, needs to be translated without delay into something concrete, a transformation, possibly even external and visible, of our lives and our habits. If the plan is not put into action, Jesus is conceived, but he is not “brought to birth.” The “second feast” of the child Jesus, Christmas, is not celebrated! It is a spiritual abortion, one of the countless deferrals with which life is punctuated, and one of the main reasons so few people become saints.
If you decide to change your lifestyle, St. Bonaventure says, you will face two kinds of temptation. First, carnal people in your circle come and tell you, “What you are undertaking is too hard; you will never be able to do it, you won’t have the strength, and you will harm your health. These things do not add to your state in life and will compromise your good name and the dignity of your position.”
Once that obstacle is overcome, others will come who are eager to be, and perhaps actually are, pious people, but they do not truly believe in the power of God and of his Holy Spirit. They will tell you that if you begin to live this way—making so much room for prayer, avoiding useless chatter, doing works of charity—you will soon be regarded as a saint, a spiritual person, but since you know very well you are not yet a saint, you will end up deceiving people and being a hypocrite, drawing down on yourself the wrath of God who searches people’s hearts. Forget it; just be like everyone else.
To all these temptations it is necessary to respond in faith, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save!” (Is 59:1). And almost as if we were angry with ourselves, we need to exclaim, as Augustine did on the eve of his conversion, “Are you incapable of doing what these men and women have done?”
Let us conclude by reciting together a prayer found on a Greek papyrus that according to some goes back to the 3rd century, in which the Virgin is invoked with the title “Theotokos,” Dei genetrix, Mother of God:
Sub tuum praesidium confugimus,
Sancta Dei Genetrix.
Nostras deprecationes ne despicias in
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.
We fly to Thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.