Luke 1:39-55, Celebrating the Incarnation

[December 23, 2012] I have warm memories of celebrating Christmas as a child, though as a teenager and adult I was too soured by my fondness for the iconoclasm of Puritanism to enjoy the Holy Day. For decades nowthe season gets me very depressed for many personal reasons. One of these is the expectations associated with the commercialization of it, and the consumerism that it celebrates. It is ironic that the birth of Him who was intentionally born in penury should be celebrated in this way. “If a monarch, where Thy state? Where Thy court on Thee to wait? Royal purple, where? Here no regal pomp we see; naught but need and penury” (Jean Mauburn, 1494). If only those who are so generous at Christmas were also that way the rest of the year and did not habitually despise the weak and poor, and outcast and friendless! Christmas has become an expression of the kingdom of the world rather than of Him who has come to overthrow the world! The childhood Christmas that I recall was inseparable from the worship of Christ, and it was expressed by hospitality and the making of gifts and handicrafts.

The Gospel reading this morning celebrates the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. One of the seven angels of the Presence, Gabriel, has appeared to Mary and announced to her that the Lord is with her, that she has found favor with God, and that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her and she will conceive a holy Child who will be the Son of God—while she has not “known” a man. The language recalls the Presence (Shekinah) of God entering the Tabernacle and Temple in the Old Testament, as if Mary’s body was about to become such an abode, and her womb the Holy of Holies. (Notice that both the Shekinah and the Spirit of God are feminine in Hebrew, though the Child is a boy.) Mary’s response, inspired already by the Holy Spirit—“Behold the Lord’s slave; may it be done to me according to your word” —makes it happen.

Before we continue we need to ponder this for a moment. Luke, following Gabriel’s language, speaks here of the Spirit of God as the “Holy Spirit,” a term not used in the Old Testament (which speaks instead of the “Spirit of holiness,” though the Jews in the time of Jesus used the expression). The Holy Spirit—as the term is taken over by the Christian community—is the Spirit of God in Her capacity to divinize, a capacity which was never manifested until the conception of Jesus. When Jesus is conceived, the Son of God takes on human flesh as His own—it is the humanity of Mary that He assumes (the egg that her body provides is self-fertilized so that the genetic material is entirely her own)—so that it is the human flesh of the divine Person. The Person of the Son of God has a divine essence by nature (if we can be allowed to speak in this manner) and a human nature by appropriation. It is important to understand that Jesus is not separable from the Son of God—they are one Person and that Person is divine—and that His human nature is the human nature of the Son of God, the divine Person. It is not the other way around—Jesus is not a human Person who appropriates the divine nature. No, the divine Person was first and takes on the human nature. He is not a human Person who becomes divine, or is assimilated to the divine or is in perfect harmony with the divine, or anything like that. This is why the doctrine of the virginal conception is important—to clarify and guard this against any sort of doctrine of “adoptionism,” as if Jesus attained to “divinity,” whatever that would mean.

Along with this is the understanding that the humanity of Jesus is not simply a vehicle for the divine, a container for its expression, or a Temple which the Son of God inhabits (He speaks of Himself as the Temple in another sense). Mary does not conceive and then the Presence of God enters the zygote or fetus. No, it is the Presence of God that overshadows her that causes her to conceive. The Son of God causes His own conception from what she supplies, so that His human flesh is the flesh of His Person—it is divine flesh, in this sense, even though it is as earthly and biological as our own. His human eyes and ears and nose and tongue and skin are entirely divine, because they are inseparable from His Person, even as they are entirely human. This is true of His entire biological substance—the creation is divine in Him without becoming so; it is divine as it comes into being as creation. It does not lose its integrity as created, yet it is divine because it is the nature of His Person. This is the doctrine of the Incarnation.

In the resurrection something else takes place. His human nature is divinized in another sense. Not only is it the human nature of His divine Person, but the human nature, while retaining its own “properties” or “attributes” (or “perfections,” even), takes on the properties, attributes or perfections of the divine nature. For the human nature not to be lost in the process is a paradox, a paradox which modern physics may help us grasp, but nevertheless this is what takes place. For example, not only are the moral perfections shared but the perfections of omnipresence and eternity. His human nature no longer knows only the limits of space but is everywhere at once, nor does it know only the limits of time but becomes eternal. It participates in space and omnipresence; it participates in time and eternity (or to be more precise, it participates in a particular time, in all time, and in eternity; so it also is with space).

Our glorification, the goal of our salvation, is the reverse of this: our human person with its human nature participates in the divine nature. The glorification of self-conscious beings is on the way to the glorification of the whole creation, which is the divinization of createdness. (This is the anakephalaiōʹsasthai of all things in Christ spoken of by Paul in Ephesians 1:10.) However, for us this only takes place “from glory to glory,” that is, increasingly without end, in the course of time, before time reverts back into eternity.

A tendency in Christianity exists to denigrate sexuality and the human body. That the Incarnation takes place in the womb of a virgin is understood as evidence that God looks askance on human sexuality and its associated pleasures. Somehow a virginal conception makes Jesus’ birth more “pure” since no concupiscence was involved. Likewise, only a uterus untainted by sex can be pure enough to be the Holy of Holies for the holy Son of God, as if sex (and sexuality) and holiness were opposed. I reject this interpretation entirely.

Just as the teleology of the Incarnation is the glorification of the creation thus making the Incarnation God’s election of the creation to glory, so in a narrower sense is the fact of the Incarnation in the womb of Mary the election and therefore the sanctification of Israel to salvation. That God chose to become Incarnate in this way—in the womb of Mary—sanctifies women’s bodies, sanctifies the uterus, and sanctifies its natural function. By Mary’s faithful willingness, she offers and God accepts her body and her womb—and her entire sexual being—as the means for the Incarnation and thus for the ultimate divinization of creation, thus indicating that they are in themselves good. Ironically then, when the Incarnation sanctifies the natural function of the uterus by taking place without a penis, it thus sanctifies sex. Rather than the virgin birth denigrating human sexuality, it sanctifies it. Not only does this sanctification not limit sex to the job of procreation, or even to the joy of conception and birth, but it sanctifies not only the function of procreation but all the pleasure that sexuality entails in the human body and experience. For Mary to become pregnant is sexual; that God takes pleasure in her body (as He does), and praises her and pronounces a blessing on her—through Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled words—is not independent of her sexual being but is precisely because of it. I do not mean that God takes sexual pleasure in her but that God’s pleasure in her has to do with her being a sexual being. Moreover, as we have shown above, in the Incarnation the conception is associated not only with the humanity but with Person of the Son of God coming into relation to humanity. This forever sanctifies the entire function of sexuality in relation to personhood, not only in terms of the possible procreation of new life but in terms of the pleasure it can give between two persons—in spite of the fact that Mary is alone. Our sexuality (coitus being only one expression of which) is for the enactment and enjoyment of personhood, and being in personhood is essential to our holiness.

So Mary has conceived a Child in her womb by the Holy Spirit. She has become, in effect, the Temple of God; the very Person of God dwells in her bodily, in her flesh and blood uterus, within the confines of her skin. Let us return to our passage. Mary, of course, cannot fully grasp what has happened. No one has since then either. Yet she grasps enough to respond appropriately.

She goes at once to her elderly relative Elizabeth, who is also miraculously pregnant (as Gabriel has informed Mary). We are not told why she went, but we might guess that it was for protection, that is, to hide. She remained, we are told, until the birth of John the Baptist, and we may surmise, until his circumcision eight days later (verses 59-66). If that was so, then she heard the prophecy of Zechariah in verses 68-79 that spoke to her further about the Child growing in her womb.

The passage before us begins with Elizabeth’s celebration. When Mary greets her, she is filled with the Holy Spirit, together with her child (verse 41; see verse 15), who leaped for joy in her womb. Inspired by the same Spirit, she proclaims Mary and her Child blessed (eulogēmeʹnē, which means, to be praised; not makaʹrios as in Matthew 5:3-11). Mary is called “the mother of my Lord.” “My Lord” here probably means “my Master,” referring to the Expected One. Mary may also be called the mother of God. Protestants object wrongly. Mary conceived in her womb the Son of God who existed before her, and He to Whom she gave birth was God. To divide the Lord’s divine and human natures and to say that Mary gave birth only to His human nature is to divide His Person, as if He were two Persons. To say that she conceived only the human nature is to imply that she caused the conception, and that too misses the point of her virginity at the time of conception. The point is that no human caused it; the Holy Spirit coming upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her caused the conception. Therefore, it is wrong to say that Mary is not the mother of God. To say otherwise is to deny the doctrine of the Incarnation!

Now Elizabeth says Mary is to be praised (eulogēmeʹnē) out of all women, and the Child gestating in her womb is to be praised (of course). She exclaims with amazement that she should be so privileged to be visited by the mother of her Lord, indicating again that being her Lord’s mother is very significant. Even the child in her womb responded to the sound of Mary’s greeting. Finally she says that Mary is blessèd (makaʹrios) because of her faith, that she is the recipient of God’ favor, as Gabriel also said. Her faith was expressed in the last words she spoke to Gabriel in which she consented to what Gabriel had said, “Behold, the Lord’s slave; may it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary is blessed to be the mother of Jesus. She is blessed to have been the one to bear Him in her womb, to be the God-bearer, to give Him birth, and to raise Him as her own Son. It was not just a burden but a privilege, not just something she did, but the mark of God’s favor on her. She was singled out for this from among all women. She was chosen for her unique suitability. And it was a blessing and benefit. God favored her with this role.

In this way Mary is a metaphor for the church that was to be born out of Christ’s resurrection. In a way she was the beginning of the church and its head or summation (that is, she capitulated what the church is), the only one who could do this before the resurrection. She knew the indwelling Son, and the indwelling Spirit in Him, in a way that no one else could before the resurrection. Her faith reflects the faith that is the beginning of the church in every believer. And what is divine in her, what is sanctified in her, the indwelling Christ, is what is conceived in us—also virginally, that is, by the word of God and not by human initiative. She is more than a metaphor for the church, however, for all these things were real in her. They were sacramental in that the physical reality was inseparable from the spiritual reality that was happening. (I recognize that apart from Luke, others in the New Testament, namely the apostles, did not call attention to this.)

Mary’s faithfulness to God in verse 38 represents the epitome of Israel’s faithfulness, that to which God’s covenant with Israel was always tending. When she offered herself, she spoke on behalf of all the faithful of Israel, offering the flesh of Israel to God. She is thus the pinnacle of humanity, offering her human nature to God that God may become human with her substance, the substance that she offers. The human nature that Jesus shares with us is the human nature of Mary, who offered her body to God on our behalf.

Elizabeth, as an old woman and as the mother of the herald who announces the coming of the Messiah, represents Israel, who honors Mary as the Temple of the One in her womb. But Israel is old; until the coming of John Israel had become barren under the judgment of God. Moreover, also like Israel, Elizabeth’s husband was a mute because of his lack of faith. The two of them represent the Old Covenant which heralds the kingdom of God. Mary, in her youthfulness, represents the coming kingdom, as we have said. The church of Jews and Gentiles, in the midst of Israel, is the herald of the kingdom of God, though it too remains in solidarity with Israel under the umbrella of God’s judgment until the kingdom comes.

Elizabeth praises Mary and declares her blessed. Mary responds with her own praise. Her praise recognizes the mercy of God in the coming of the Expected One, mercy for all the generations of her ancestors before her, for her, and for all the generations to come—in which she glories in her lowliness and poverty, and God’s remembrance of the poor in faithfulness to His promises to her people, beginning with Abraham. Her “Magnificat” celebrates God’s victory over the world, a victory manifested to His lowly, to poor and lowly and outcast, and at this moment is manifested to her, she who in her “humble state” represents the poor. That victory is manifested to her in the conception of her Son, who is the pivot around which time itself turns. “Behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed (makaʹrios),” as the closest witness and first recipient of eternal salvation.

The Christmas story is about what these two women celebrate: the Incarnation of the Son of God and His identification with the poor of the world (Jew and, surprisingly, gentiles) “who fear Him.” Let them led our celebrations.

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