Christ’s birth in us

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet, 19/26 December 1987, pp.1378-1379.


“What use is Christ’s birth from the holy Virgin, if he is not born in my heart?” asked Origen. And yet few of us dare to speak in this vein either about the incarnation or Mary.  They may be hallowed words coined by Ongen, then echoed and re-echoed through the centuries by Fathers and Doctors of the Church; in our mouth they sound pragmatic. functional, utilitarian-as if we do not respect the mysteries for their own sake; as if we minimise the dignity of Christ or Our Lady.

Why have we forgotten that the history of salvation is by definition utilitarian? That Chnst became human for us, died for us and rose to new life for our sake? The same applies to Mary. Whatever happened to her, happened to her for our sake. Whatever privileges God bestowed on her, he granted so that we might live. If even Christ, who is the Word made flesh subjected his whole human existence to our spiritual use, surely Mary’s vocation is equally functional. After all, she is only a creature, as Thomas Aquinas reminds us, unique and lovable as a creature; not to be adored  as if she were God.

By interpreting Mary’s privileges in a Mary-centred way as if they were given by God mainly to extol her dignity, we are losing sight of their true role in salvation history. When a woman from the crowd addressed Jesus with praise for “the womb that bore you and the breasts that gave you suck”. he corrected her. “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Lk. 2:27-28). Marycentred Marian devotion is alien to the Gospel. Paradoxically, when we shift the focus away from Mary, her dignity is best safeguarded.

This can be demonstrated well in the question of her “divine motherhood”. In some forms of popular Mariology, the physical acts of pregnancy and childbirth are of prime importance for her role as “Mother of God”. Now I do not want to deny for a moment that such physical facts are crucial; as are other physical realities of the incarnation. What I question is whether they should be seen as central in understanding Mary’s role.

The early theologians unanimously attached great value to Mary’s consent. to her accepting divine motherhood mentally and spiritually. Pope Leo the Great asserted that she conceived her divine child “in her mind before she received him in her body”. Augustine put it even more strongly. “Mary is more blessed for accepting faith in Christ than for conceiving his flesh. Her nearness as a mother would not have profited Mary, had she not given birth to Christ in her heart in a more blessed manner than in her flesh.” In other words: her spiritual motherhood counts more than her physical motherhood.

But if Mary gave birth to Christ in her heart by believing in him, does the same not happen to every believer? Quoting Paul’s phrase “till Christ be formed in you” (Gal.4:19), the Fathers of the Church point out the parallelism. Says Gregorv the Great: “Exactly the same which once took place physically in the Virgin Mary. namely that the fullness of God in Christ dawned through the Virgin, now takes place in every soul that conceives him as a virgin.” “Christ is willingly born mystically”, says Maximus, “by taking flesh in those who are saved . . . For the Word of God wants to become flesh continuously and in all people.”

The Fathers tell us. even, that we too. Iike Mary, can be called ‘ Mother of God’ . Hippolytus states: ‘The Word that proceeds from the Father is constantly born anew in saintly people. Whoever lives a life inspired by grace becomes Christ’s Mother.” “Every soul”, says Gregory of Nazianzen, “can become Christ’s Mother. Every soul carries in itself, as in a mother s womb, Christ himself.” And Ambrose says: “Whoever turns to God should be called ‘Mary’. For ‘Mary’ is the name of the person who gives birth to Christ and everyone can give birth to Christ spiritually. ”

We are no longer used to speak and think like that. We have set Mary on such a high pedestal that to acknowledge our fundamental equality with her seems blasphemous. How did she acquire the aura that puts her, in the eyes of many, more on the side of divinity than on our side? The answer lies in a theological shift.

From the eighth century onwards attention began to be focused on Mary’s own status. In line with medieval class consciousness she was glorified as the queer of queens. the heavenly mother. the all powerful intercessor. hailed at times a; “suppliant omnipotence”. By the eleventh century Marian devotion began to show itself in popular practices. Specific Marian songs and prayers were composed. such as  the Salve Regina, the Hail Mary and. later the little office of the Blessed Virgin Mary New feasts arose, and places of pilgrimage votive masses and stories of apparitions. A climax was reached when St Odilo of Cluny publicly proclaimed himself a servant and  slave of Mary.

The tradition of the early Fathers reas serted itself in the more doctrinal approach of the Rhineland mystic, Meister Eckhart In thirteenth-century Germany many outstanding lay women of the middle classes sought a deeper spiritual life. As beguines they banded together in communities and turned to the Dominicans for solid instruc tion. Eckhart responded to their need by a daring incarnational model of spirituality. In this Mary is seen as the conscious and autonomous “Mother of God”, who like us gives birth to the Word of God by her fiat .”I assure you: if Mary had not first given birth to God in a spiritual way, he would never have been born from her in a bodily manner. Yes, it is more precious to God that he is spiritually born from any virgin- that is: from any saintly person-than that he was born bodily from Mary.”

Then came the Reformation with its suspicion of Mariolatry; the Counter Reformation with its stress on Mary as, principle of Catholicity. Where do we stand? The question has more than ecumenical relevance. Will we be able to extricate ourselves from a slide into a  Marian salvation history, exploiting Marian apparitions, revelations and graces? Or can we rediscover her as the New Eve, the first of us to be saved, the one who received many graces so that grace could flourish in us? In Augustine’s words: “The Word became flesh for us so that proceeding fron his mother he could live in us.”

We should certainly honour the person of Our Lady; as was done also in the early Church. Such devotion, however. may miss the real purpose of Mary’s election. To enter into the mystery will require assimilation rather than praise. Eckhart’s teaching  gives us matter for reflection. “Whatever good the saints have possessed: or Mary, God’s Mother; or Christ according to his humanity is my own. For by assuming human nature. he assumed my nature. “As human beings we know two births: one into the world and one out of the world, that is: spiritually into God. God effects this second birth of his Word in us, if we give up our will and accept God’s as_Mary did. For “as soon as she gave up her will, she became at once the true Mother of the eternal Word and conceived God. He became her son by nature”.

For Eckhart, giving up our will is not an act of self-annihilation; rather, we realise our true self by accepting God in love. Then God our deepest self, is born in us as the Word, the revealer of love; as he was in Mary.