Cardinal Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent sermon: "In the entire universe, Mary is the only person who can address Jesus in the same way that the heavenly Father does: 'You are my son, I have begotten you.'"
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” In this final meditation, I would like to focus on the meaning and the importance of this last phrase “born of a woman”, especially because of its relevance to the solemnity of Christmas which we are preparing to celebrate.
In the Bible, the expression “born of a woman” underscores that the individual belongs to the human condition which comprises both weakness and mortality. To appreciate the significance of those words, we have only to remove them from the text. Without them, what would Christ be – a heavenly, disembodied illusion. The angel Gabriel “was sent” by God but returned to heaven in the same form that he had when he came down from heaven. It is the woman, Mary, who “anchored” the Son of God forever to humanity and history.
That is how the Fathers of the Church understood Paul’s words in arguing against the Gnostic-Docetist heresy. They correctly emphasized the parallelism that exists between the expression “born of a woman” and the expression Paul uses in Roman 1:3: “from the seed of David, according to the flesh.” Ignatius of Antioch uses a startling expression when he says that Jesus “was [born] of Mary and of God,” almost as we might say that someone is the child of so-and-so and so-and-so. The fact is that, in the entire universe, Mary is the only person who can address Jesus in the same way that the heavenly Father does: “You are my son, I have begotten you.”
Tertullian points out that the Apostle does not say “factum per mulierem,” but “factum ex muliere,” that is, born of a woman, not through a woman. His use of the word stemmed from the fact that the Docetist heresy gradually evolved and took on a less radical form. It claimed that Jesus’ flesh was of heavenly, not earthly origin, only passing through Mary as if through a channel, being a guest rather than a child of Mary. Saint Leo the Great placed the Pauline expression “born of woman” at the heart of the Christological dogma, writing in his Tome to Flavian that Christ is man because he was “born of a woman and born under the Law’… Birth in the flesh is clear proof of his human nature.”
Concerning the Pauline expression “born of a woman”, also at work is the great exegetical principle formulated by St. Gregory the Great, namely that “Scripture grows with the persons reading.” Already Saint Irenaeus read Galatians 4:2, “born of a woman” in light of Genesis 3:15, “I will place enmity between you and the woman.” Mary appears as the woman who is the aggregate of Eve, mother of all the living! We are not talking about a minor representation that appears in a single scene and then vanishes into thin air. It is the product of a Biblical tradition that spans the entire Bible from one end to the other. It begins with the woman called the “daughter of Zion” who personifies the entire People of Israel and ends with the woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” representing the Church in the Book of Revelation (Rv 12:1).
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to fail to see the link in John’s way of thinking between the two women: the symbolic woman who is the Church and the actual woman who is Mary.
“Woman” is the term Jesus used to address his mother both at Cana and as she stood beneath the cross. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to fail to see the link in John’s way of thinking between the two women: the symbolic woman who is the Church and the actual woman who is Mary. This link was not only acknowledged in Lumen gentium of Vatican II but also explains why Mary is dealt with within the Constitution on the Church.
Christ must be born of the Church
For some time there has been a lot of discussion regarding the dignity of women. Saint John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter on that theme, Mulieris dignitatem. However much dignity we human creatures can attribute to women, it would still be infinitesimal compared with what God did in choosing a woman to be the mother of his Son who became human. “Even if we possessed as many tongues as there are blades of grass.”
Much has been done in recent times to increase the presence of women in the decision-making process of the Church, and more, perhaps, needs to be done. We need not delve into that here. Instead, we have to turn our attention to another area where the distinction between men and women is immaterial because the woman we are talking about represents the entire Church, that is, men and women alike.
In short, this is the heart of the matter: Jesus who was once physically and corporally born of Mary must now be born spiritually of the Church and of each believer. There is an exegetical tradition whose initial nucleus dates back to Origen which is crystallized in this adage: “Mary, or the Church, or the soul.” Let us listen to how one medieval author, Isaac of Stella, describes this teaching:
In the inspired Scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the virgin mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary, and what is said in a particular sense of the virgin mother Mary is rightly understood in a general sense of the virgin mother, the Church… In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, his daughter, and sister, at once virginal and fruitful. These words are used in a universal sense of the Church, in a special sense of Mary, in a particular sense of the individual Christian.
Let us begin with the ecclesial application. If in “the fullest sense” (the so-called sensus plenior), the woman in Scripture suggests the Church, then the affirmation that Jesus was born of a woman implies that today, he must be born of the Church!
Among Orthodox Christians, there is a very common icon called the Panhagia, that is, the Most Holy. It depicts Mary standing at full stature. On her breast, as if bursting from within, is a medallion showing the child Jesus who bears all the majesty of an adult. The devotee’s gaze is drawn to the child, even before the mother. With her arms outstretched, she even seems to be inviting us to look at him and make room for him. That is how the Church should be. Whoever sees her ought not to stop there, but should look to Jesus. This is the struggle against the Church becoming self-referential, a theme often underscored by the last two Supreme Pontiffs, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.
The author Franz Kafka tells a story that has powerful religious symbolism in this regard. It is entitled, “An Imperial Message.” It speaks about a king who, on his deathbed, calls a subject to his side and whispers a message into the subject’s ear. That message is so important that the king makes him repeat it into his ear. Then he nods to the messenger who sets out on a journey. Let us listen to the rest of the story directly from the author, written in a dreamlike, almost nightmarish style, typical of this writer:
The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path through the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.
Reading this account, you cannot help but think of Christ who, before departing this world, entrusted to the Church the message: “Go throughout the world; proclaim the good news to every creature” (Mk 16:15). And you also cannot help but think of the countless people who stand at the window and dream, without knowing it, of a message such as hers.
We must do everything possible to make sure that the Church never becomes as complicated and cluttered as the castle described by Kafka so that the message can be spread as freely and joyfully as when the journey first began. We know what the “walls of division” are that can restrain the messenger. First of all, they include the walls that keep the various Christian churches separated from each other; then there is the excess bureaucracy, the remnants of meaningless ceremonials, including vestments, former laws, and disputes that by now have become nothing more than debris.
Something similar happens with older buildings. Over centuries, to adapt to emerging needs, people install partitions, stairways, rooms, cubicles, and storage space under the stairs. The time comes when you realize that all these adaptations no longer correspond to the current needs, and have, on the contrary, become obstacles. That is when you need the courage to tear them down and restore the building to its original simplicity and design, in keeping with its renewed purpose.
I shared that story and its application to the Church in the homily I gave in St. Peter’s on Good Friday of 2013, during the first year of the pontificate of the current Supreme Pontiff. If I have allowed myself to repeat these thoughts it is only to thank God for the steps forward that the Church, in the meantime, has made in that direction, to “to reach out to the existential peripheries of the world”, bringing them the message of Christ.
Christ must be born of the individual
It remains for us now to reflect on something that concerns all of us without distinction, something that touches each of us very personally: Christ being born of the believer. Saint Maximus the Confessor wrote: “Christ is always mystically born in the individual, taking flesh from those who are saved, making the person who generates him a virgin mother.”
In the Gospel Jesus explains to us how to become a mother of Christ, He says that it happens by listening to the Word and putting it into practice (see Lk 8:21). It is important to note that two things need to take place. Even Mary became the mother of Christ through these two processes: first, by conceiving him, and then by giving birth to him.
Even Mary became the mother of Christ through these two processes: first, by conceiving him, and then by giving birth to him.
There are two types of pregnancy loss or termination. The first, age-old and well-known, is abortion. It happens when someone conceives a life but does not give birth because the fetus died either due to a natural cause or human sin. Until more recently this was the only known condition leading to pregnancy loss. Nowadays we know of a second, almost reverse, process whereby someone gives birth to a child while by-passing conception. This occurs when a child is conceived in a test tube and then introduced into a woman’s womb, or also when a surrogate uterus is loaned, perhaps for a fee, to play host to a human life conceived elsewhere. In this case, what the woman gives birth to does not come from her; it is not conceived “first in the heart and then in the body,” as Augustine said of Mary.
Unfortunately, these two sorry possibilities also exist on the spiritual level. The person who conceives Jesus without giving birth to him is the person who welcomes the Word without putting it into practice. Repeatedly making resolutions to change and then systematically forgetting them or abandoning them halfway is a type of ongoing spiritual abortion. Saint James says that they are like people who fleetingly glance at themselves in a mirror and then walk away forgetting what they looked like (see Jas 1:23-24).
On the contrary, people who give birth to Christ without having conceived him are those who do many things – even good things –, but their deeds are not done out of the kindness of their heart or for the love for God or with the right intention. Rather, they act out of habit or hypocrisy, seeking their own glory or self-interest, or simply for the satisfaction of having done something. Our deeds are “good” only if they come from the heart if they are conceived for the love of God and in faith. In other words, if the intention that guides us is right, or if we at least try to make it right.
Saint Francis of Assisi said something that sums up well what I am trying to highlight. He said:
We are mothers of Christ when, through divine love and pure and sincere conscience, we bear him in our heart and in our body; we give birth to him by means of holy deeds that need to shine before others as an example.
This means that we conceive Christ when we love him with heartfelt sincerity and a right conscience; we give birth to him when we do good deeds that reveal Christ to the world and give glory to the Father in heaven (see Mt 5:16). Saint Bonaventure developed this thought of the Seraphic Father in a work entitled, “The five feasts of the child Jesus.” These are the feasts according to Bonaventure: the conception, the birth, the circumcision, the Epiphany, and the Presentation in the Temple. The saint explains how to celebrate each of these feasts spiritually in your own life. I will limit myself to what he says about the first two feasts: the conception and the birth.
When a person feels dissatisfied with the life they are leading and, moved by holy inspiration and on fire with holy determination, they finally make a resolute break from their old habits and flaws, in that person, according to Saint Bonaventure, Jesus is conceived. Having been fertilized with the grace of the Holy Spirit, conception takes place when they resolve to lead a new life.
Once conceived, the blessed Son of God is born in that person’s heart if after a sound discernment, asking for spiritual advice and for God’s help, the resolution that had been churning inside the person for some time but had always been put off for fear of not succeeding, is resolutely put into practice.
We must insist on one thing, however: the determination or resolution to lead a new life must be translated without delay into concrete action, into a change in the way we live and in our habits, possibly even in external and visible ways. If our resolution is not acted upon, Jesus is conceived, but not brought to birth. It will be one of many spiritual abortions. The “second feast” of the child Jesus, namely Christmas, will never be celebrated! It will be but one more of the many postponements that have perhaps peppered our life.
A small change to start with could be to make a little silence around us and within us
A small change to start with could be to make a little silence around us and within us. “How good it would be” – said the Holy Father in the last General Audience – if each one of us, following the example of Saint Joseph, were able to recover this contemplative dimension of life, opened wide in silence”. An ancient antiphon of Christmas time said that the Word of God descended from heaven “dum medium silentium tenerent omnia”: “while all around was silence”.
First of all, let’s try to silence the noise that is within us, the processes that are always going on in our minds, about people and facts, from which we always emerge as winners. Let us transform ourselves sometimes from accusers into defenders of the brothers, thinking about how many things others could blame us. In canonical trials – at least in the past – after the accusation, the judge pronounced the formula: “Audiatur et altera pars”: Now let us listen to the opposite part. When we catch ourselves judging someone, let us peremptorily repeat that formula to ourselves: Audiatur et altera pars! Try putting yourself in the brother’s shoes!
Let us return with our thoughts to Mary. Tolstoy makes an observation on the pregnant woman that can help us understand and imitate the Virgin in these last days of Advent. The look of the expectant woman, he says, has a strange sweetness and is turned more inside than outside of herself, because inside is the most beautiful reality in the world for her. So it was Mary’s gaze that bore the creator of the universe in her womb. Let us imitate her by carving out for ourselves moments of true recollection to make Jesus be born in our hearts. The best response to secularized culture’s attempt to erase Christmas from society is to interiorize it and bring it back to its essence.
The year celebrating the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s death is coming to a close. Let us end by making our own the wonderful prayer to the Virgin from the last canto of his Paradiso. He, too, like Paul and John, simply refer to Mary as the Lady, that is the Woman:
O Virgin Mother, Daughter of your Son,
humbler and loftier than any creature,
eternal counsel’s predetermined goal
thou are the one that such nobility
didst lend to human nature, that its Maker
scorned not to make Himself what He had made.
Within thy womb rekindled was the Love,
through whose warm influence in the eternal Peace
this Flower hath blossomed this. Here unto us
thou are a noonday torch of Charity;
and down below ’mong mortal men,
thou art a living fount of Hope. Lady, so great
thou are, and hast such worth, that one who longs
for Grace, and unto thee hath not recourse,
wingless would wish to have his longing fly.
Not only doth thy Kindliness give help
to him that asketh it, but many times
it freely runs ahead of his request.
In thee is Mercy, Pity is in thee,
in thee Magnificence, and all there is
of Goodness in a creature meets in thee.
Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, Merry Christmas!
Translated by Br. Patrick McSherry, ofmcap
1.See Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4.
2.Ignatius of Antioch, Tralliani 9,1; Smirnesi 1, Irenaeus of Lyon, Adv. Haer. III, 16,3.
3.Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians, 7,1
4.See Tertullian, De carne Christi, 20.
5.Leo the Great, Letter 28 to Flavian, 4.
6.Gregory the Great, Moral Commentary on Job, XX, 1
7.Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. IV,40,3.
8.Luther, The Magnificat (ed. Weimar 7, p. 572 f.).
9.Isaac of Stella, Discourses 51 (PL, 194, 1863f)
10.F. Kafka, An Imperial Message. English translation found at https://apps.exe-coll.ac.uk/Media/PDF/FlyingStart/EnglishLiteratureShortStories.
11.St. Maximus the Confessor, Commentary on the Our Father (PG 90, 889).
12.St. Augustine, Discourses 215,4 (PL 38, 1074)
13.St. Francis of Assisi, Letter to all the Faithful, 1.
14.St. Bonaventure, De quinque festivitatibus Pueri Jesu (ed. Quaracchi 1949, pp. 207ff).
15.The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. A Translation in English Blank Verse by Courtney Langdon, Vol. 3 Paradiso (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 19211).