The Cross of the Womb

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Byzantine icon, “The Visitation”. Mary visits Elizabeth “in haste” at the announcement of the angel

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his devotional work The Threefold Garland, details Mary’s consent and conception of Christ. Mary said a magnificent “Yes” to the voice of the angel (“I am the servant of the Lord”), and so conceived the Messiah in her own womb. Her obedience was miraculous, surely aided by the Spirit. And yet, as Balthasar says, while Mary was obedient to the calling of God, the calling was a mystery. It was shrouded with darkness: who was this son going to be? How will he be the savior of her people?

Balthasar explains:

It may be that Mary felt a slight anxiety at what might be awaiting her… She knows she has been expropriated into God’s whole objective history of salvation, and that at the same time she has been placed on a pedestal, since the center of this salvation history is here living and growing within her own center, eventually to emerge from her. But this does not arouse any panic in her, for by her own consent she has surrendered to the… mystery… (p 36-37)

Mary has surrendered to the mystery of God’s plan of redemption. She knows he has come to save her people Israel, and that she is even an integral part of that. And yet, this is all she knows. She is therefore surrendering herself, giving herself up, “crucifying” her own questions and doubts in order to offer herself as a fitting agent of God’s salvation. As Balthasar says quite eloquently, she allows herself to be “borne along by what [she] contains” (p 37). As much as the Son was carried in her womb, she herself was carried along by the Son in his mission to save. In this way, Mary is already a disciple of the Lord, following him along the way to crucifixion. She is offering herself to be used by the God of Israel.

But, Balthasar continues by explaining that as much as Mary surrendered to a mysterious path, one which entailed her self-offering, Christ’s did as well. And why? Precisely because as much as Mary was carried by her Son and his mission, so He was carried by her! And this being carried entailed a voluntary “yes” to the will of the Father. A voluntary kenosis of the only Son of the Father into the helpless abode of Mary’s womb.

Balthasar explains:

But precisely this attitude of the Mother is nothing other than her integration into the attitude of her Child. Every child must begin by letting itself be borne. And this Child in particular, even when it is big, will never outgrow its childhood: even when he acts as an adult he will always let himself be borne and impelled by the will of the Father as manifested to him by the Spirit. Now he is undergoing his first, physical training as he is carried about bodily. It is training as in a novitiate, when a person is ordered around like a child. This is the first training in what every Christian must always be able to do: let himself willingly “be led where you do not want to go”, as Jesus will say to Peter (p 37-38)

This is a miraculous passage by Balthasar: as much as Mary must surrender and be led by the Father (and the Son), so now the divine Son must surrender, and even before birth, self-offer himself to be brought along and carried about by his Mother.

Balthasar continues:

The child in the womb does not know where it is being borne. Nor will Jesus know where he is being “driven” by the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:12): it may, for instance, be into the wilderness and temptation… Now this child, later on as a man… the Son will let himself be borne about as a thing that one can dispose of — and this is he who bears the sin of the world, and therefore, the world itself.

Only one — the Father in heaven — sees all of this, sees where the triune decision to save has led. In Mary, the Son is already under way; already he begins to be driven about in the world, and no one, not even the Father, can call him back. (p 38-39)

Already in the womb, the Son is being given by the Father. He is being handed over to be handled and controlled by human hands. And in this way, even the womb is a cross: it is a place in which the Son willingly offers himself. As much as Mary surrenders to the will of the Father, the Son surrenders infinitely more to that same will, and allows himself to be borne about. This is the loving kenosis of the Son of the Father!

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Father Abraham, Mother Mary

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I’ve been studying the gospels as of late. And one thing that I’ve only recently noticed is the striking parallels between Abraham in the Old Testament, and Mary in the New Testament.

In Romans, Paul calls Abraham the “father of all who believe” (4:16). The reason he calls him that, is because Abraham is the prototypical believer. He is the man of faith. He assents to God’s call from his homeland to a land he doesn’t know. He believes the promise of God: that he will have a son in his old age, and that this son will bless the nations. He believes even in the face of Sarah’s disbelief. But perhaps most shocking is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the promised son back to God. Not many years after God miraculously gave Abraham his son, God told Abraham to offer Isaac back as a sacrifice. In typological fashion, Abraham leads Isaac up the mount as he carries the wood of his own sacrifice. Hebrews tells us:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Heb 11:17-19)

Through and through, Abraham believed and obeyed. For this, he is our father in the faith. The “father of all who believe”. He is an example of life in Christ.

However, as one looks at the life of Mary, one finds incredible similarities that cannot be overlooked. Mary assents to the angel’s promise of a son, one through whom the nations will be blessed: “He will be great….and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). In fact, Luke contrasts her faithful assent to God with Zechariah’s doubt-filled question to the angel: “How shall I know this?” (Lk 1:18) Instead of doubting, Mary responds with: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Mary and Zechariah parallel Abraham and Sarah. And like Abraham, Mary was asked to give assent to her Son’s self-sacrifice; except, while Isaac was spared, Jesus was not. Mary, at the foot of the cross, watched her Son truly die! And watching her Son die, Mary certainly would have struggled to believe as Abraham did. How could her Son bless the world, if he was to die? She was forced to believe in a more dramatic and real way than Abraham “that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb 11:19).

Now, what is even more striking here, is that while Paul assigns Abraham our father in the faith, Christ himself assigns Mary our mother in the faith. As Jesus hung on the cross, he gave his mother to his disciples! John 19 tells us:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother,“Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26-27)

The beloved disciple is John. However, he leaves his name out to include all of Christ’s disciples. In this way, Jesus is giving his mother to the entire church as an example of the Christian life. She, like Abraham, believes and trusts. She, like Abraham, is a parental figure, an example of life in Christ. One may even say, a greater example, for she saw her Son truly die; and in the face of opposition, she believed God’s promise. In this way, then, Mary is the mother of all who believe.

Joseph Ratzinger now gives some insight:

The parallel between Mary and Abraham begins in the joy of the promised son but continues apace until the dark hour when she must ascend Mount Moriah, that is, until the Crucifixion of Christ. Yet it does not end there; it also extends to the miracle of Isaac’s rescue – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Abraham, father of faith – this title describes the unique position of the patriarch in the piety of Israel and in the faith of the Church. But is it not wonderful that – without any revocation of the special status of Abraham – a “mother of believers” now stands at the beginning of the new people and that our faith again and again receives from her pure and high image its measure and its path?

The Christological Heresies: Nestorianism

I started a series overviewing the ancient Christological heresies. In my first post, I looked at Apollinarianism. In this post, I want to consider the heresy of Nestorianism.

To understand the Nestorian heresy, named after a man from Antioch alive during the fifth century, we have to understand the controversy in which he was involved.

Nestorious was part of a theological camp which affirmed that God, second person of the Trinity, had become a human. However, he along with his contemporaries, were concerned that some theologians were too closely associating the divinity and humanity of Christ, to the extent that the natures were “mingled” or “confused”. Nestorious was concerned with protecting the distinctness of the natures.

This concern of Nestorious climaxed when theologians began to designate Mary, Jesus’ mother, as the Theotokos. Theotokos is a Greek term which means “Mother of God”, or more literally, the “God bearer” (Mary “bore” God in her womb). Nestorious wondered if Christians could responsibly call Mary the Mother of God? How can a mere human bear God?

The logic behind calling Mary the Theotokos was this: Jesus Christ is both God and man. The divine Logos, who had a divine nature from all eternity, at a point in time assumed a human nature. Therefore there was one Person with two natures, divine and human. Mary gave birth to this one person with two natures, thus giving birth to God.

Alister McGrath explains the logic further:

By the end of the fourth century, the following propositions had gained widespread acceptance in the church:

  1. Jesus is fully human
  2. Jesus is fully divine

If both of these statements are simultaneously true, it was argued, then what was true of the humanity of Jesus must also be true of his divinity — and vice versa. An example might be the following:

  1. Jesus Christ is God;
  2. Mary gave birth to Jesus;
  3. Therefore Mary is the Mother of God

This kind of argument became increasingly commonplace within the late fourth-century church; indeed, it often served as a means of testing orthodox of a theologian. A failure to agree that Mary was the Mother of God became seen as tantamount of refusing to accept the divinity of Christ (Historical Theology, 51-52)

If Jesus is one Person with two natures — divine and human — it is logically correct to call Mary the Mother of God. While she didn’t beget Jesus’ divine nature, she did give birth to Christ who is also divine.

Nestorious, however, was not comfortable with this title given to Mary. For Nestorious, Mary was not the Mother of God — rather, she was the mother Jesus Christ the man. For this reason, he preferred to call her the “Christotokos”: the bearer of Christ. 

This was met with hostility for one reason: you cannot divide the natures of Christ. Jesus Christ is one person with two natures. To separate the natures of Christ like this would create two persons, one for each nature. And this is what Nestorious effectively did. He parced Christ into two persons in two natures, such that one thing could be experienced by the human Christ that wasn’t by the divine Christ. So, the human Christ could be born by Mary, but not the divine. This was the inherent danger in Nestorious’ teaching.

Some argue that Nestorian was not meaning to make this correlation. Whatever the case, Nestorious’ Christotokos doctrine was condemned.  Cyril of Alexandria condemned the heresy with 12 propositions. I’ll cite a few below:

  1. If anyone does not acknowledge that Emmanuel is truly God, and that the holy Virgin is, in consequence, Theotokos, for she gave birth in the flesh to the Word of God who has become flesh, let them be condemned.
  2. If any one does not acknowledge that the Word of God the Father was substantially united with flesh, and with his own flesh is one Christ, that is, one and the same God and human being together, let them be condemned.
  3. If anyone divides the persons in the one Christ after their union, joining them together in a mere conjunction in accordance with their rank, or a conjunction effected by authority or power, instead of a combination according to a union of natures, let them be condemned.

As is evident, Cyril was concerned with the union of natures in one person. And so he condemned Nestorian. Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures — human and divine. He is not two persons with two natures.

Consequently, what can be said of the humanity of Christ must be said of the divinity. To give one example, Christians affirm that Christ died. Is it appropriate to say therefore that God died? Yes! The Logos died on holy Friday, his human body and soul effectively separating. He was dead for three days in fact! And on Sunday, his human nature was raised and ascended into heaven.

Another example: Christians worship Jesus Christ. But do we worship the human nature of Christ? Yes! Why? Because one cannot separate the natures of Christ and worship only one thing. Christians worship Christ, the entire person.

This is the astounding mystery of the incarnation: Jesus Christ is both divine and human, inseparably.

 Why the Virgin Birth?

One of the more peculiar teachings of the Christian faith, affirmed throughout all of the creeds, is the fact that Christ was born of the virgin Mary. Meaning, Mary had not had any relations before she gave birth to Christ.

Both Matthew and Luke agree on this fact. In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will birth a child. Mary, not being married, rightly asks: “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). Gabriel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God” (v. 35).

Matthew’s account is similar. He adds the detail the her virginal birth is in fulfillment of prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Mt 1:23).

There is not much more information about the virgin birth in the epistles. Some say that Paul alludes to it in Galatians 4:4, or that John references Mary in Revelation 13. But there are not really any more details about this. It is simply stated in the gospel accounts.

Many have speculated, with such scarce reference in the New Testament, what is the purpose of the virgin birth? Or, to say it another way: did Mary have to be a virgin to give birth to Christ? Was there some necessity to it? Did the virginal birth, as some presume, in some way preserve the divinity of Christ? Or preserve the sinlessness of Christ?

Frederick Bruner has an interesting examination of the doctrine in his commentary on Matthew, Christbook. His estimation is that the reason for the virgin cannot be found in preserving Christ’s divinity or sinlessness. He aptly points out:

If the first Adam — whoever he was — came into being without two human parents and yet was truly human, why could not Jesus the last Adam be without a single human parent and still be truly human? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14) (pp 39)

In other words, Jesus could come into the world in really any way he wanted, and be fully God and fully man, sinless. God, after all, is omnipotent!

So then, why the virginal birth? Bruner cites Karl Barth, saying:

The virgin birth teaches an immensely important doctrinal truth: that in human salvation “the initiative is wholly with God”. The doctrine of the virgin birth, in a striking metaphor, stands “on guard” before the door of the mystery of Jesus’ divinely wrought salvation — only God can work salvation, and this is exactly what the Christmas stories’ virgin birth teaches with a dramatic eloquence. (pp 40)

In other words, the incarnation of Christ is a complete work of God. Because she was a virgin, Mary was merely a recipient of God’s grace. Man had nothing to do with it.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, agrees with this. He says:

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above. (pp 278)

Because of this, Ratzinger concludes that Mary herself is an image of the church. He says:

As the true “daughter of Zion”, Mary is the image of the Church, the image of believing man, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love — through grace.

I think that Bruner and Ratzinger both get to the bottom of the doctrine of the virginal birth: it is an action of grace. A unilateral action of God in which man is passive, having nothing to contribute. All is grace!