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Jesus Christ, Conceived by the Power of the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary

General Audience — January 28, 1987

—    Mary's consent

In the previous meeting our reflection was concentrated on the name "Jesus" which means "Savior." This same Jesus who lived for thirty years at Nazareth in Galilee, is the eternal Son of God "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." That is proclaimed by the creeds of the faith, the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It was taught by the Fathers of the Church and the councils, according to which Jesus Christ, eternal Son of God, is "born in the world of his mother's substance" (Creed Quicumque, DS 76). The Church then professes and proclaims that Jesus Christ was conceived and born of a daughter of Adam, a descendant of Abraham and of David, the Virgin Mary.

St. Luke's Gospel states that Mary conceived the Son of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, not knowing man (cf. Lk 1:34 and Mt 1:18, 24-25). Mary was therefore a virgin before the birth of Jesus, and she remained a virgin in giving birth and after the birth. That is the truth presented by the New Testament texts, and which was expressed both by the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinopole in 553, which spoke of Mary as "ever virgin," and also by the Lateran Council in 649, which taught that "the mother of God...Mary...conceived (her Son) through the power of the Holy Spirit without human intervention, and in giving birth to him her virginity remained uncorrupted, and even after the birth her virginity remained intact" (DS 503).

1.  Mary's consent

This faith is presented in the teaching of the apostles. For example, we read in the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians: "When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman...so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4:4-5). The events linked to the conception and birth of Jesus are contained in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, generally called "the infancy Gospel," and it is to them that we must refer.

Luke's text is particularly well known, because it is frequently read in the Eucharistic liturgy and used in the angelus prayer. This passage of Luke's Gospel describes the Annunciation to Mary, which took place six months after the announcement of the future birth of John the Baptist (cf. Lk 1:5-25).

"The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary" (Lk 1:26). The angel greeted her with the words, "Hail, Mary," which became the Church's prayer (the "angelic salutation"). Mary was disturbed by the angel's greeting: "She was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High'.... Then Mary said to the angel: 'How can this be, since I have no husband?' And the angel said to her: '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'" (Lk 1:29-35). In making the announcement, the angel presented as a "sign" the unhoped-for maternity of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, who had conceived a son in her old age, and added: "With God nothing is impossible." Then Mary said: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:37-38).

This text of Luke's Gospel is the basis of the Church's teaching on the motherhood and virginity of Mary from whom Christ was born, made man by the power of the Spirit. The first moment of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God is identified with the miraculous conception which took place by the power of the Holy Spirit when Mary uttered her "yes": "Be it done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).

Matthew's Gospel completes Luke's narrative by describing certain circumstances which preceded the birth of Jesus. We read: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins'" (Mt 1:18-21).

As is evident, both texts of the "infancy Gospel" agree on the fundamental facts. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and was born of the Virgin Mary. They are complementary in clarifying the circumstances of this extraordinary happening; Luke in reference to Mary, Matthew in reference to Joseph.

To identify the source of the infancy narrative one must go back to St. Luke's remark: "Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Lk 2:19). Luke states this twice—after the departure of the shepherds from Bethlehem and after the finding of Jesus in the temple (cf. Lk 2:51). The evangelist himself provides us with the elements to identify in the mother of Jesus one of the sources of the information used by him in writing "the infancy Gospel." Mary, who "kept these things in her heart" (cf. Lk 2:19), could bear witness, after Christ's death and resurrection, in regard to what concerned herself and her role as mother, precisely in the apostolic period when the New Testament texts were being written and when the early Christian tradition had its origin.

The Gospel witness to the virginal conception of Jesus on the part of Mary is of great theological importance. It constitutes a particular sign of the divine origin of Mary's Son. The fact that Jesus did not have an earthly father because he was generated "without human intervention" sets out clearly the truth that he is the Son of God, so much so that even when he assumed human nature his Father remained exclusively God.

The revelation of the intervention of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus, indicates the beginning of the history of the man of the new "spiritual generation" which has a strictly supernatural character (cf. 1 Cor 15:45-49). In this way the Triune God "is communicated" to the creature through the Holy Spirit. It is the mystery to which the words of the Psalmist may be applied: "Send forth your Spirit, and they are created, and you renew the face of the earth" (Ps 104:30). In the economy of this self-communication of God to the creature, the virginal conception of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit is a central and culminating event. It initiates the "new creation." In this way God enters decisively into history to activate our supernatural destiny, or the predestination of all things in Christ. It is the definitive expression of God's salvific love for the human race, which we spoke about in the reflections on Providence.

A participation on the part of the creature always occurs in the realization of the plan of salvation. Thus Mary participated in a decisive way in the conception of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Enlightened interiorly by the angel's message about her vocation as mother and the preservation of her virginity, Mary expressed her will and her consent and agreed to become the humble instrument of the "power of the Most High." The action of the Holy Spirit ensured that in Mary, motherhood and virginity are simultaneously present in a way which, although incomprehensible to the human mind, enters fully within the scope of God's predilection and omnipotence. Isaiah's great prophecy is fulfilled in Mary: "A virgin shall conceive and bear a son" (7:14; cf. Mt 1:22-23). Her virginity, an Old Testament sign of poverty and availability to God's plan, became the sphere of the exceptional action of God who chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah.

The exceptional character of Mary is seen also in the genealogies contained in Matthew and Luke. In accordance with Jewish custom Matthew's Gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus (cf. Mt 1:2-17) and, starting from Abraham, lists the generations in the male line. Matthew is concerned to make evident, through the legal paternity of Joseph, the descent of Jesus from Abraham and David and, consequently, the legitimacy of his claim to Messiah. However, at the end of the list of ancestors we read: "Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ" (Mt 1:16). By emphasizing the motherhood of Mary, the evangelist implicitly underlines the truth of the virginal birth: Jesus, as man, did not have a human father.

According to Luke's Gospel the genealogy of Jesus (cf. Lk 3:23-38) is in ascending order. From Jesus through his ancestors it goes back to Adam. The evangelist wished to show the link between Jesus and the whole human race. As God's collaborator in giving human nature to his eternal Son, Mary was the instrument that linked Jesus with the whole of humanity.