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"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An excerpt from Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed

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In the twelve months before his sudden death, Hans Urs von Balthasar had been writing a series of reflections on the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed. These texts, which are undoubtedly among the last things he wrote, take on the character of a legacy, a spiritual testament. For they amount in their extraordinary compactness and depth to a little "summa" of his theology. What he had set out in detail in numerous books over five decades, he summarizes in Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed in contemplative plainness and simplicity.

All the characteristics that make von Balthasar's work so distinctive and valuable are to be found here: breadth of vision, loveliness of style, and an intuitive-contemporary passion that allows him to "pray intellectually and think 'cordially'."

The following is von Balthasar's reflections on the phrase, "Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary".


"Conceived." This is said of the Son of God, but it sounds passive; an Other is active in this conception, and he will be named immediately: the Holy Spirit. And an Other is she who conceives: the Virgin Mary. Just as a child is passive when conceived, whereas the parents take part actively. But it is only later on that a child awakens to consciousness, whereas the Son of God possesses eternal consciousness and also the will to become human. To be sure. Yet still we acknowledge in faith that he does not incarnate himself, does not himself take hold of the human nature that he will inhabit, but allows himself to be conveyed, as the "seed" of the Father, into the virginal womb by the Holy Spirit. But this means that the occasion of his Incarnation is already the beginning of his obedience. Theologians have very often claimed the opposite, on the ground that the union of the human and the divine natures occurs solely in the Son as the Second Person in the Divinity.

However, the creed describes not a "taking of something to oneself," but an "acquiescing in something that happens to one." In this pretemporal obedience, the Son still differs profoundly from naturally engendered human beings, who are not asked whether they wish to come into being or not; the Son permits, in full consciousness and with full consent to the divine plan for redemption, himself to be used as the Father wishes. But already here, he does so in the Holy Spirit of obedience, through which he will atone for the disobedience of Adam and "infiltrate" it. He does not, like a capitalist, cling to the treasure of his divinity as if he had earned it himself (Phil 2:6). He has received it from the Father and can "deposit" it with the Father in order to bring clearly to the fore, out of his eternal devotedness to the Father, the aspect of obedience that inheres in that devotedness and exemplifies what a creature should show in relation to God.


"'By the Holy Spirit." He is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. But now, when the Son becomes human, he, the indivisible Spirit of both, becomes, in the Father, the Spirit who issues directives and, in the Son, the Spirit who receives directives. Already so in the act of the Incarnation itself, since the Spirit conveys the Son, as "seed of the Father," into the Virgin's womb, and the Son, in the same Spirit, allows himself to be so conveyed. If the Holy Spirit, as a single Person, is both fruit of, and testimony to, the mutual love between Father and Son, then it is evident here how much the directing by the Father and the obeying by the incarnate Son are, right down to their deepest roots, consummate love. For us humans, that will mean that our obedience, which we owe to our Creator and Lord and to all his direct and indirect commands, can be, in Jesus Christ, and even must be, an expression of our love; so that any love of God or other human beings which excludes obedience, or wishes to get beyond it, does not at all deserve the name love.


"Born of the Virgin Mary." Here we have a great theater of war. If he is to become a human being, then why no normal human conception? And if this virginal birth (about which there was obviously no knowledge until relatively late; Paul still knows nothing of it, nor does Mark) is to be understood as an act of homage to a Jesus who is venerated as God, then must that not be connected with the influence of Hellenistic legends or rather more plausible Egyptian myths? And finally, even assuming that the (already married) Virgin could have conceived without male participation, are we to assume, even more improbably, that she also gave birth as a virgin? And is there not, by the way, ample talk of brothers of Jesus? So why make an exception solely for the "first-born" (Lk 2:7)?

A whole host of questions, which would require a book to answer. Here only in shorthand: the Virgin Birth stems directly from the early stages of the Old Covenant, when God restores sexual power to a waning body (Abraham, Zechariah and his barren wife), and the miracle that the "barren" woman will have more children than the fertile one is a stock symbol of God's power to reverse things.

That is most likely the reason why the prophecy of Isaiah ("the young woman [or: virgin] shall bear," 7:14) is resolutely translated by "virgin" already in pre-Christian times (Septuagint). "Brothers" is used today, among many Arabic peoples, as a term for more distant relatives; this undoubtedly lies in the background to the Greek adelphos, which implies, in the narrower sense, "brother." And how typical of our age of minimalistic faith is the conceding of a virginal conception while dispensing the believer from having to accept a virginal birth. As if the second would not be as easy for God to bring about as the first. But then why? Because in the New Covenant the fruitfulness of virginal life (consider above all the Eucharist of Jesus), a fruitfulness not toward regenerated mortality but into life everlasting, will be a decisive feature of the new meaningfulness of body and sex.

To be noted well: this is not to deny to Mary the (messianic) pains, spiritual and physical, of her Advent-they represent solidarity with the chosen people and, in an anticipatory way, with the body of her Son (cf. Rev 12:2); but at Christmas, the Old Covenant and its expectations pass over into the quite different fulfillment of the New. All this is pure biblical logic, and all parallels with antiquity are lacking in the decisive depth that pertains to revelation.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles on Advent and Christmas:

What In Christmas Season Grows: On the Days Leading Up to the Nativity of the Lord | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Turn Your Hearts! | A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent | Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
The Perfect Faith of the Blessed Virgin | Carl E. Olson
Come, Lord Jesus! The Meaning of Advent | Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Mary Immaculate | Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen on Advent | From Through the Year With Fulton Sheen
Mary's Gift of Self Points the Way | Carl E. Olson
Immaculate Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
The Medieval Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
The Mystery Made Present To Us | Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.
Remembering Father Alfred Delp, S.J., Priest and Martyr | A Conversation with Father Karl Adolf Kreuser, S.J.
Assumed Into Mother's Arms | Carl E. Olson
The Disciple Contemplates the Mother | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis
The Incarnation | Frank Sheed
"Born of the Virgin Mary" | Paul Claudel
The Old Testament and the Messianic Hope | Thomas Storck
Christmas: Sign of Contradiction, Season of Redemption | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles. Read more about his life and work in the Author's Pages section of IgnatiusInsight.com.

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