Incarnate of the Virgin Mary

Published December 23, 2020

Continuing our discussion from yesterday from my book on the Creed:

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Incarnate of the Virgin Mary

And so there remains always the fourth alternative: the apostles and evangelists are reporting what they sincerely believe, having received it from the mouth of Mary, whom they rightly regarded as a credible witness because they saw her Son Jesus raised from the dead.

Let’s start over and ask how the early Church could have encountered this story for the first time.

Certainly, the apostles and disciples, upon coming to know Jesus and his mother, would hardly have introduced themselves to Mary with the question, “By the way, are you a virgin, ma’am?” So why did the early Church come to embrace the claim of the Virgin Birth?  Because of the life, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. It was that, not the Virgin Birth, that attracted the attention of the disciples.  The sole witness to the birth of Jesus in the early Church was, of logical necessity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, since Joseph was long dead. And she, like any normal, modest person, did not make a big thing of it during Jesus’ earthly ministry but “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

As Jesus grew to adulthood, he would have learned the details of his conception and birth as we all learn the story of our birth:  from his parents.  Jesus was, recall, home-schooled.  He learned the story from Mary and his foster-father Joseph as he learned his alphabet, his Greek and Aramaic, how to walk, and how to handle the plane and the lathe.  It is a story that was, for understandable reasons, unlikely to have been told outside the Holy Family, except as the subject of gossip and speculation among neighbors and extended family who only knew bits of it third hand. 

So how would the Virgin Birth have become not merely general knowledge, but a crucial doctrine of the Faith? The question of Jesus’ origins did not become acute for the Church on the day he was born, but on the day he was raised from the dead.  It was by his Resurrection from the dead, not his birth, that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:5).  Only in light of this awesome event and the gift of the Holy Spirit were the apostles electrified to realize that (in the words of the Risen Christ) “everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).  And with that realization, the question of just how the Messianic Son of David had entered the world and was connected to the history of the Chosen People became acute. Only then did the early Church turn to the only possible source of information about his birth: Mary.  They are reporting, not inventing, her story of the Virgin Birth, about which they would never have known had they not encountered the Risen Christ.  The story of the Virgin Birth became a contributory testimony to, not the foundation of, the Church’s conviction that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Act 2:36).

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