The Visitation, Easter Season, Life and Time

COMMENTARY: Even God, in the Incarnation, reckons with the reality of being part of space and time.

Elizabeth greets Mary in a depiction of the Visitation.
Elizabeth greets Mary in a depiction of the Visitation. (photo: Shutterstock)

The Church celebrates the 50 days of Easter as one big feast: The “joy of the Resurrection renews the world” so fully it cannot be contained in a day or even an octave. Easter is the feast of life victorious. Easter time runs from Easter through Pentecost.

Two other feasts of life can fall within Easter time. On May 31, the Church celebrates the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, recalling how Mary, herself pregnant, went to help her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth and how “the baby leapt in [Elizabeth’s] womb” when she heard Mary’s voice (Luke 1:39-45, the Gospel of the Feast). The Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25, which celebrates the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb, can also in theory fall within Easter time (although it won’t until 2035).

Easter and these feasts tell us a lot about time. The Annunciation and the Visitation tell us something about the Incarnation and procreation. Both Jesus and John the Baptist come into the world in a given place and time. John is born six months ahead of Jesus, and the Church celebrates his birthday June 24. Jesus’ birthday is inscribed into our calendar Dec. 25. The very year of 365 days that we reckon in our Western calendars traditionally counts from that historical moment.

Even God, in the Incarnation, reckons with the reality of being human, i.e., being part of space and time. Gabriel is sent to a specific place, “to a town in Galilee, Nazareth” (Luke 1:26), at a specific time, “in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.” The Father, “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its origin” (Ephesians 3:15), sends the Spirit at a given place and time. Even God respects history.

Indeed, Jesus’ and John’s earthly lives are always connected in the Gospels with history. Both Matthew and Luke take pains to provide Jesus with a genealogy: Our Lord doesn’t just drop out of nowhere, but is part of the whole history of salvation that God has been weaving throughout the Old Testament. The last prophet, Jesus’ own cousin, prepares his way, as well, with historically precise detail. For, when John the Baptist makes his advent on Jordan’s bank, Luke (3:1) fixes its time: “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” Jesus is always doing things in history — sometimes even local Jewish history, counted by festivals and holy days: “In connection with the feast, he went up to Jerusalem.”

Indeed, Jesus does not seem to step outside of history — to borrow some Star Trek terminology — out of our “space-time continuum,” until the Resurrection. Only after Jesus rises is he no longer bound by the limits of this world: He enters the locked Cenacle, he travels the road of Emmaus and makes breakfast on Galilee’s seashore, and “did many other things not recorded in this book.”

I make this observation in light of a bioethics controversy that arose this year. Peter Zhu was a Chinese-American cadet at West Point who died in February as the result of a skiing accident. Before his ventilator was shut off, his parents asked for “posthumous sperm retrieval,” i.e., removing his sperm cells so that they could be used later to have a child by the deceased. They claimed that their son had always wanted to have “five kids and a horse ranch,” and they were fulfilling his wishes (and maintaining the Chinese family line).

Bioethicists wrung their hands over whether it was “appropriate” to conceive children from dead people and how to respect the decedent’s “wishes.” Precious little was said about the rights of the potential child or children.

Modern technology makes it possible to conceive a child from the genetic material of a dead man or woman. While not common, it has been used primarily by spouses wanting to have “something” from their dead husband (or wife). Zhu’s case raised new questions, because the request came from a parent and it stood on their claim they were doing what their son wanted.

The Catholic view of artificial reproductive technologies is clear: They are immoral. They are immoral because they allow, in principle, for procreation to be separated from marital unity: Having a child need not necessarily occur in marriage. They are also immoral because a child has rights: rights to be “begotten, not made,” brought into being as the result of a human embrace of love by its parents, not the clinical process of a procedure by a lab tech.

Our own human experience bears this out. A child is conceived as a result of sexual intercourse between this man and this woman in this place on this date. Fatherhood is not about “someday I’d maybe like to have kids,” but is about this act that, here and now, is open to the possibility that God might give life resulting in John or Mary.

Those are thoughts Peter Zhu will not have. And it’s also likely that they will not be thoughts the genetic or gestational “mothers” will have, as I’m guessing it’s most likely their “services” will be contracted for use with Zhu’s sperm posthumously retrieved.

Artificial reproduction has done much to dismantle basic human institutions. Motherhood has been chopped into “genetic,” “gestational” and “social” shards. “Family” is shorn of genetic foundations. Mothers are carrying their grandchildren for their sons whose situations make them otherwise biologically incapable of being fathers. We’re crossing lots of boundaries.

But Zhu’s boundary is a qualitatively different one: the boundary of life. Making someone a “father” by artificial-reproduction technique when he is incapable of knowing he has become one because he is dead opens up a whole new world.

As I’ve noted, Easter time tells us that, in his earthly life, Jesus respected time and the finitude it imposes. We should resist the temptation to play God by trying to overcome time by technology.

John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

All views expressed herein are the author’s own.