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Today (25 March) we celebrate the Festival of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas Day, and on this day we celebrate the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. As it is written in Luke 1:30-33:
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
While the Western (Catholic and Protestant) churches celebrate Christmas as the high point of the church calendar, the real miracle of Christmas takes place at the conception, nine months before. It is at this moment that God incarnates into human form. Mary is thus referred to as the ‘Mother of God’ or the Theotokos (or God bearer) because she carries and gives birth to God. It is not that she creates God! But rather that she bears God in her womb.
What is conceived in Mary is, from conception, a hybrid of human and divine natures in the one person of Jesus. This is a mystery, hard to fathom – the nature of Jesus Christ. But whatever it is, and however we understand Christ’s divine and human natures, it starts at his conception, not at his birth.
Let me suggest three reasons why this rather mysterious and mystical notion is important:
- The conception demonstrates the enormity of God’s emptying out of God’s self on behalf of humankind (which we read about in Philippians 2) – we refer to this emptying out as ‘kenosis’. Typically, we think of God’s kenosis in the birth of Christ, but really it is in his conception. God – the omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent and all powerful God – folds down into a single human cell, then an embryo and then a foetus. The willingness of God to become so small is quite overwhelming – God pouring out God’s self for humanity.
- The conception is a profound example of God’s choice to work in partnership with humans. We see this choice from the beginning of creation, when God entrusts creation to Adam and Eve. But here it is particularly profound. While others could assist in taking care of a newborn, only the mother can take care of an unborn. God the son was, during gestation, utterly and solely dependent on the young woman Mary. God was truly at the hands of this one person. God trusted her and entrusted God’s self to her.
- And, drawing on Eastern Orthodox theology, in the conception, God inserts God’s DNA (so to speak, metaphorically) into human DNA. In so doing, God begins to change and save human nature itself. For Orthodox Christians, the conception is the foundation of salvation, because the very fabric of human nature is infused with the presence of the divine, and God begins (or continues and deepens) the work saving not just individual humans, but the nature of humanity.
Let us not let this momentous day slip by unnoticed. Let us give thanks to God for his incarnation at the moment of conception. And let us give thanks to Mary for being willing to bear God in her womb.