To Jesus Through Mary at Christmas: The Conception

ADVENT RETREAT: Let us prepare to meet the Christ Child by going to Bethlehem with his Mother

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Annunciation,” ca. 1650, Museo del Prado
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Annunciation,” ca. 1650, Museo del Prado (photo: Public Domain)

Advent is intended to prepare us for Christmas, and Advent 2022 is as long as Advent can get: 28 days. 

The theme of our reflections this year is Ad Jesum per Mariam — “To Jesus through Mary.” Mary, as Jesus’ Mother and most faithful disciple, leads us unerringly to her Son.

This year, we want to focus on the Mother of God for a special reason. 2022 mercifully saw the end of the murderous regime of Roe v. Wade. At the same time, without judicial barriers in the way, voters in three states passed not just laws but state-level Constitutional amendments to enshrine abortion. I also have no doubt that no insignificant number of Catholics voted for them.

Christmas is about a Child — the Child. Without that Child, our lives would simply not be worth living. Our lives would be senseless. 

So, let us prepare to meet that Child by going to Bethlehem with his Mother, who can teach us today about the dignity of maternity and childhood.


* * * * * * *

Our journey to Christmas actually doesn’t begin today. It began last March. March 25, to be specific. We might be turning our attention to Jesus’ coming this first week of Advent, but Mary is now in her eighth month of pregnancy. Her attention’s been focused since last spring.

On March 25, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. This was the day Jesus was conceived. 

True, Jesus’ conception was out of the normal course of things. We wonder, as did Mary. “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34) The Gospel for the Annunciation gives us God’s answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). 

Mary was specially privileged because she conceived her Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. But, apart from the unique circumstances by which Mary conceived Jesus, there are two truths in this passage applicable to all of us.

First, while Mary conceives by the Holy Spirit absent the agency of any human father, every mother and father conceive their child in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. Every Sunday, we say we “believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.” 

No human being or beings alone can give life. Consider the mere odds on a physical scale. A woman is capable of conceiving for only a few days every month. There is no guarantee that a man and woman will have intercourse on the “right” day. Even if they do, only one sperm might succeed in reaching and entering her egg; if any other sperm does, a completely different person could be created. So, as regards a child’s chances of existence: well, let’s say you might have better odds in Atlantic City.

But that’s just the physical side of things. A child is not just a physical thing, a “clump of cells.” A human being is a human being because he is animated, i.e., he has an “anima,” a soul. No man and no woman, alone or together, can create a soul: matter cannot create spirit. So, every human being that comes into existence at conception does so because of the Holy Spirit as Lord and Giver of Life creates that soul. That’s what it means that God gives life. Mother and/or father may debate whether they “want” this child. God has already expressed his position.

The gifts of piety and fear of the Lord — among the gifts Catholics say they believe they receive in Confirmation — remind a person that God is God, we are us, and we are not God. Being a child of God means seeing things through our Father’s eyes. From that perspective, how dare we not “want” what clearly the Holy Spirit has wanted?

I know what some readers may be thinking. “Do you really think this pregnancy is wanted by God and not just a ‘mistake?’”

Well, if the creation of life was solely a human prerogative and capacity, you might make that argument. But it’s not. We’ve already made the theological point: no life exists apart from God because people cannot animate life, they cannot create souls. But even on a physical level, how many couples diligently and laboriously try to have a baby but can’t? Do you really doubt that giving life is ultimately in God’s hands?

Second, as Hebrews (4:15) reminds us, Jesus “has been truly made one of us, like us in all things but sin.” So, like ours, his human life began at conception, even if God is his Father. And, in this first week of Advent (and the eighth month of his Life), Jesus is about 18-20 inches tall and 5-7 pounds in weight. Mary can certainly feel him move (what Anglo-American law called post-“quickening”) and, by the middle of this third trimester, most mothers are looking forward to delivery. All Jesus’ organs and bodily systems formed months ago. Like most human babies, his skull is still soft to allow it through the birth canal: it’ll harden after birth so that it can be pierced some 33 years hence by thorns. In the eighth month, perhaps the one major “addition” is the development of hair on baby’s head. In a little while, Baby Jesus will be ready to be born.

By the way, voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont voted Nov. 8 — just like the politicians who want to “codify Roe” — to declare that this being can be lawfully killed. Their “codifications” and amendments extended the lawful right to kill through the moment of birth. Jesus was far better protected in Nazareth and Judea than New Jersey.

Mary received Gabriel’s invitation as God’s will. She trusted in God’s plans for her. At the same time, she was no naïve little girl. She knew that babies don’t come from nowhere and people would ask questions. What about Anna and Joachim, her parents? What about Joseph? Mary was undoubtedly a happy fiancée, looking forward to her marriage. How would he react? In spontaneously and unreservedly telling God “yes,” — fiat! (Luke 1:38) — did Mary even anticipate Joseph might want to divorce her and what that could potentially entail?

Mary was not naïve, but neither did she think she was in control of her life. Her faith made her spontaneously answer God “yes,” not because she was some Pollyanna, but because — if this child was to be conceived “by the power of the Holy Spirit” and not by sexual intercourse with a man — then she was into something way bigger than her. 

That’s not to say she was a tool. Even God asked her, because that Person respects persons. But she, too, knew who God is and who she was — “the servant of the Lord” — a title she bore not in a cringing and servile sort of way but one of trust and love that “the One who made the promise is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). 

Mary made that act of submissive faith to God’s power, fidelity and love precisely in the context of becoming a mother. As we journey toward Christmas, what does that tell us about our own parenthood, our own families, and the kind of culture we Catholics should be helping to build in a post-Dobbs world? Are those the “signs of the times” we should be reading in Advent 2022?

Jesus is and came into this world from God. His conception has vital lessons to teach us today. Do we believe him and the Father who sent him? Or, as Jesus asked the Jewish crowd that ultimately wanted to kill him, do you follow another “father” who was “a murderer from the beginning?” (John 8:42-45).