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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why the Womb?

  This Christmas season, I’ve been contemplating the mystery of the incarnation, particularly why God the Son chose to enter humanity through the womb of a woman. Surely an omnipotent God had countless ways he could have saved us.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that Christ “had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people.” The role of priest is mediation, so this explains the incarnation; in order to be the Mediator between God and humanity, Jesus had to share in our nature.
   But why enter through the womb? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient, and certainly less messy, to descend as a full-grown man?

   We confess, of course, our limits in grasping the divine plan, but perhaps we can begin by remembering that the salvation God wills for us involves not only the pardon of sins; God desires union with us. He offers more than a clean moral account via a legal transaction; the “salve” in salvation indicates that God’s aim is to heal everything in us through a share in his own divine life.

   To that end, he became one of us “in every way,” and in doing so redeemed every part of humanity he touched. His baptism in the Jordan, for example, was necessary not to cleanse his own sin; rather, that he might make holy the baptismal waters by which we experience new birth. Similarly, his Passion and death confer profound value and meaning on all human suffering.

   And so, Christ’s unborn infancy was an intrinsic part of his saving mission, as at the Annunciation, humanity and divinity were forever joined in what theologians term the “hypostatic union.” Through Christ’s vulnerability in Mary's womb, he emptied himself, not considering equality with God something to be grasped. Thus, Christ’s own pre-natal development has forever sanctified and conferred sublime dignity upon both infancy and pregnancy.

    This mystery, by the way, is at the heart of the Catholic pro-life ethic, and makes it impossible for any believer to justify or rationalize abortion or any research that destroys a human embryo. Christ’s conception irrevocably illumines the infinite value of every conceived human person, right from the very beginning.   

    Consider also the implications of maternity’s role within the heart of God’s plan.  Mother Adela Galindo, foundress of the Sisters of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, has written of the blessed Mother: “She is the Woman who has changed history by her receptive, docile, obedient and unconditional fiat…[W]ith her feminine genius, she has participated in a unique way in the work of redemption…In her and through her, every woman shares in some way in Mary’s sublime dignity in the Divine plan.”

    In growing within the womb of Mary, Christ’s grace did not bypass nature, but perfected it. Every mother’s womb is ennobled by this mystery; the quiet warmth that nourishes the child, the physical changes that envelop the mother, the intertwining lives in which heartbeat accompanies heartbeat, the quickening of the unseen gift—all has been sanctified by the incarnation.

    Contrast this vision with view of childbearing as just a biological function, or an obstacle to women’s achievement and respect.  Consider the demand for “reproductive freedom,” a veiled euphemism of sorts for the reductionist, utilitarian, way we view pregnancy. Consider how contraception has blinded our culture to the feminine genius of maternity. Even Catholic men and women who reject the secular feminist ethos can fall into the trap of viewing pregnancy as a functional process, an inconvenience to be endured or managed rather than as a gift in itself.

   During this Christmas season, may we pray for the vision to see a nativity scene in every pregnant woman, an icon of the Madonna and her child. May our prayers for expectant couples not just focus on a healthy birth, but that the pregnancy itself might be a gift of grace. And may we marvel at our God, whose love for us compelled him to become a poor, vulnerable, and unseen infant. As the ancient Te Deum prayer proclaims, “When you became man to set us free, you did not shun the Virgin’s womb.”

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