Christmas Novena • First Station
The Angel Visits Mary
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel
captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Giorgio Vasari, The Annunciation, 1564-1567, The Louvre Museum, Paris
And in the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s confinement], the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And the angel being come in, said unto her: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said to her: “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his ancestor; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel: “How shall this be done, because I know not man?”
And the angel answering, said to her: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren. Because no word shall be impossible with God.”
And Mary said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.
“Virgin Birth” by Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Christian tradition has always emphasized that Jesus was born of a virgin. The Messiah could only come forth from a virgin’s womb. The main reason for this emphasis of course is to highlight that Jesus did not have a human father and that his conception was from the Holy Spirit.
But there is often a secondary emphasis as well, less-founded in scripture. Too common within that notion is the idea that Jesus was born from a virgin because somehow sexuality is impure, that it is too base and earthy to have a connection to such a sacred event. The holy must be kept separate from what is base. Jesus wasn’t just born of a virgin because he did not have a human father; he was also born of a virgin because his birth demanded a purity that, by definition, rules out sex. Our concept of the virgin birth has been infiltrated by a piety which, for all kinds of reasons, cannot accord sexuality to the holy.
What’s wrong with this? Beyond denigrating the God-given goodness of sexuality, it misses one of the major aspects of revelation within the virgin birth. There is a moral challenge within the virgin birth, something which invites imitation rather than admiration.
Christian tradition emphasizes a virgin birth (just as it emphasizes a virgin burial, a virgin tomb to parallel the virgin womb) not because it judges that sexuality is too impure and earthy to produce something holy. Rather, beyond wanting to emphasize that Jesus had no human father, the Christian tradition wants to emphasize what kind of heart and soul is needed to create the space wherein something divine can be born. What is at issue is not celibacy rather than sex, but patience rather than impatience, reverence rather than irreverence, respect rather than disrespect, and accepting to live in tension rather than capitulating and compensating in the face of unrequited desire. A virgin’s heart lets love unfold according to its own dictates rather than manipulating it. A virgin’s heart lets gift be gift rather than somehow, however subtly, raping it. A virgin’s heart accepts the pain of inconsummation rather than sleeping with the bride before the wedding. That, in the end, is what constitutes virginal space, the space within which God can be born.
Thirty years ago, trying to express this, I wrote poem entitled, Virgin Birth. Today I blush at the youthful idealism in that poem; but, on my better days, I take counsel from the young man who wrote those lines:
Only virgins’ wombs bring forth messiahs because they alone live in Advent
waiting a delaying bridegroom
late, hopelessly beyond the eleventh hour.
Still the virgin’s womb waits
Refusing all counterfeit lovers and impatience
which demand flesh on flesh and
a divine Kingdom on human terms.
Messiahs are only born
in virginity’s space
within virginity’s patience
which let God be God and
love be gift.
Why a virgin’s womb for a Messiah’s birth? Why an obsession with purity within the Christian tradition? Because, as we all know only too well, our lives are full of most everything that is not virginal or pure: impatience, disrespect, irreverence, manipulation, cynicism, grandiosity; and, as we all know too, within this matrix no messiah can be gestated.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI is a world-renowned speaker and author, as well as being a professor and former president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.
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