Sunday, December 10, 2006

Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary

THERE is a father of the Church called St. Tarasius, and I'm sorry to say that I know nothing whatever about him, except that an extremely long and rather trying passage from one of his sermons came into the office yesterday, the Saturday in the Octave of the Immaculate Conception. He addresses our Lady in a series of very elaborate titles, mostly taken from the Old Testament; and among other things he says, "Hail, thou light cloud, that dost scatter the heavenly rain". At first, you rather wonder what he is talking about; but if you know your Bible very well, which I'm afraid most of us don't, you will remember that the prophet Isaias once said, "Behold, the Lord shall go up on a light cloud, and shall enter into Egypt". Well, that begins to put the thing more in its proper setting, and it's rather a nice idea, really, to think of the Flight into Egypt in that way--St. Joseph trudging along, on those hard winter roads, and our Lady jogging along on the donkey's back, which isn't a really comfortable way of going long distances, though it's all right just for a few hundred yards at Folkestone, on the soft sand. But our Lord, you see, rests quietly on our Lady's breast, borne along as if on a light cloud.

And you can think of it in another way; you can think of a country all parched with drought, and the farmers all scratching their heads and tapping the barometer and hoping for a nice drop of rain because what'll happen to the roots otherwise, and then a light cloud rising in the monotonous calm of the sky, with the promise of rain at last. That's how the world was, you see, when our Lord came, parched, dry, waiting for its redemption. And the cloud which brought promise of rain was the appearance on earth of our Blessed Lady, ready to bring down from heaven the precious Dew of Grace which would bring life into our starved natures once more.

But there's another thing about clouds, since we have started talking about them. They look different when you catch them in different lights, from different angles. When you are in a cloud, it's just a sort of dank mist all round you. When you look up at it from below, it may be a nice fluffy white thing, like a piece of cotton wool hanging in the air. Or again, it may be a dark, threatening presence in the sky, like an enormous blot on your letter home. Or it may catch the colours of sunset, and be all red and gold wreathing itself into strange shapes that make you think of a golden stair-way or a harbour jutting out into calm seas. But it's all the same cloud, really. And so it is that the figure of our Blessed Lady presents itself in different ways to the minds of men in different ages, according to the special needs of one age or another.

I was saying to you at the end of my sermon last Sunday that I didn't think we use the words "our Lady" quite in the same way as we use the words "our Lord". When we call Jesus Christ our Lord, we mean that he owns us, because that title comes down to us from an age when you thought of a " lord" as a man who owned slaves. But the title "our Lady" doesn't come down to us from very far back in history. I may be wrong, but I think you could read all through the Missal and the Breviary without finding the Blessed Virgin referred to as "our Lady" once. That title, I think, comes down to us from the Middle Ages, from the days of the troubadours; in those days, you talked about "your lady" meaning the woman you were in love with. In the very early days of the Church, you thought of the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God, because that was what the heretics wouldn't see. In the Middle Ages, you thought of her as our Lady, because the whole notion of man's love for woman was being refined into something purer and nobler than it had been hitherto. After the Reformation, when kings and queens became much more important in the world, you thought of the Blessed Virgin as the Queen of Heaven. And today, when family life is so important, and people have begun to take more notice of children, we are apt to think of her more simply as the Mother of the Infant Jesus.

All that I dare say you find rather boring. Well, this afternoon, discussing these two clauses in the Credo, "Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary", we've got to think of our Lady not under any fancy title, but in terms of plain fact. Our Lord was born--that is to say, our Lady was really his Mother; his body was really built up from hers, just like the body of any other human being. His body wasn't a phantom, wasn't a special creation; it grew, before and after birth, as human bodies grow. So we do well to think of our Lady as the patroness of motherhood. But at the same time, our Lady is a Virgin, and the patron of Virginity. When we pronounce the words "Blessed Mary ever-Virgin"--we usually try to pronounce them as one syllable--we are saying three separate things. The first is, that our Lady was still a Virgin when our Lord was conceived. She had not, like all other women who have achieved the dignity of motherhood, given herself to a man; our Lord had no father. The second is, that she was a Virgin when our Lord was born. Her child-bearing cost her none of that pain which child-bearing costs other women, and left, in her, no traces of its happening. And the third is--what we should expect--that she remained a Virgin the rest of her life.

Now, remember--all this seems quite obvious to you and me. I don't say it seems quite natural, because clearly it isn't natural; but it seems quite obvious. Granted that our Lord was what he was, we should expect him to come into the world in some supernatural way. If you are given a concertina by your father for a Christmas present, you like it to be all wrapped up in shiny paper with robins on it, and tied with gold string. I don't say that that will happen this year, because the paper controller may not want to release enough paper to wrap up a concertina in, if it's a good large concertina, to rouse the echoes of the dormitory with; and for all I know the string controller will say there's no more gold string left, because it's all been used to pack land-mines. But that's the idea of the thing, that's what you expect. If your father is going to give you something really splendid and really expensive, you don't expect him to take it out of a drawer and throw it across the room at you and say, "Hi, here's a concertina"; the thing has got to be done properly. And so it is, if we may compare very big things with very little things, in this matter of our Lord's birth. God was giving us the most splendid present, the most expensive present, that anybody has ever given anybody. And you would expect that this present of his should be wrapped up in an air of supernatural mystery; that angels should come wandering into poor folks' houses at Nazareth, and odd things going on up in the sky should worry the astronomers in Chaldaea. It all seems so obvious; surely anybody could understand that bit of the Credo, unless he didn't believe in miracles at all.

But you know, it's not quite so simple. You may find yourself arguing with somebody who isn't a Catholic, isn't even much of a Christian, but is prepared to regard miracles as possible; and still you may find that he doesn't want to believe in this miracle of the Virgin Birth. He will say something like this: "The Resurrection, yes, I understand that. And I can see that if it is possible for a man to rise again when he has been three days in the tomb, it is possible for a man to be born without a father. But I don't quite see why anybody should have wanted the Virgin Birth to happen. After all, you make a great point of it that in the Incarnation God really became man; it wasn't just a phantom or an apparition, it was a real man of flesh and blood who was, all the time, Almighty God. Surely we should have felt much more certain of that if he had been born just like anybody else, if he had had a father as well as a mother? And you Catholics are always telling us that marriage is a high and holy vocation, that there's nothing wrong about sex, sin only comes in when sex is used as it wasn't meant to be used; surely we should have felt much more certain of that if the Blessed Virgin had been really married to St. Joseph, and they had had a family just like other people?" When it's put like that, the difficulty isn't quite so easy to answer.

I think the right answer is this. The Resurrection, through which our Lord passed out of his mortal life, is meant to assure us that life is a bigger thing than death. The Virgin Birth, by which he entered into his mortal life, is meant to assure us that spirit is a bigger thing than body. Let me just explain what I mean.

Adam and Eve, when they were in Paradise, had bodies and souls tied together just as yours and mine are, just as mysteriously as yours and mine are. But, with them, the soul was always and obviously the leading partner in that companionship. The soul gave orders, and the body obeyed them. I even read a book the other day-not by a Catholic, but by a very intelligent man-which suggested that, before the Fall, man's will directed his digestion. Think how nice it would be if you could digest your meals at will, like brushing your teeth. And if Mother Clare, on a bright summer day, said, "You can't go and bathe yet, because you haven't digested your lunch ", you would say, " All right, Mother, give me two minutes, and I'll do that now ". Instead of that, we have to wait for our lunch to digest itself; and sometimes we get indigestion, and you will find that with older people, sometimes even with schoolmasters and school- mistresses, indigestion puts them in a bad temper. Indigestion puts them in a bad temper-do you see what has happened? Indigestion, which is a matter concerned with the body, has given rise to bad temper, which is a matter concerned with the soul. The body, which ought to be taking its orders from the soul, is giving its orders to the soul instead! That is the kind of thing the Fall has let us in for. It puts the cart before the horse. If you can imagine Princess, harnessed the wrong way round in a ponycart, so as to face it, being pulled by the pony-cart down a very steep hill-that is the sort of thing that is happening to us all the time since the Fall. I don't mean that the body always gets the better of us. But we can never be sure when it will get the better of us, and we can never be sure, from moment to moment, whether it isn't getting the better of us. It's got an unfair pull, and it's always trying to run away with us, wanting to eat too much, wanting to lie in bed too long, and so on. We always find ourselves thinking, "Now, was that really all right; that last eclair, that last five minutes? Or did my body take command of the situation when my soul kind of wasn't looking? " We are never quite certain of ourselves, are we?

And that complicates, enormously, our feelings about love and marriage. The love of man and woman is, perhaps, the highest and noblest thing there is in the natural order. And yet, where marriage is concerned, the body comes in so much that we're always afraid of this high and noble thing degenerating into mere passion. Don't mistake me; the body's got to come in; marriage was instituted before the Fall, not after it. But, since the Fall, as I say, we are uneasy about the body; we are always afraid of its trying to get the upper hand. So many people go wrong over this business of sex, wreck their peace of mind over it and, we fear, lose their souls over it, that the whole subject becomes embittered for us. It humiliates us to see the human race so often at the mercy of its passions; the body so often tyrannizing over the immortal soul. And sometimes we are almost tempted to throw up the whole thing, to admit, in spite of our better judgement, that matter is superior to mind, that our bodies are the things we ought to live for, not our souls.

And then Christmas comes round, and with Christmas the memory of the Virgin Birth, and we know it's all right. Just as Easter tells us we were fools to doubt life is stronger than death, so Christmas tells us we were fools to doubt that the soul, not the body, is the nobler part. "Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary "-spirit first, then matter. St. Leo, in a passage we read in the divine office on Christmas Day, has a fine phrase: "she who was to be entrusted with this sacred charge was to conceive in the mind first, and only afterwards in the body." You see, it is as if the message brought by Gabriel first imprinted on her thoughts the image of the Saviour who was to come, and thereupon the reality of that image began to form itself in her womb. The doubters, the defeatists were wrong: the Word was made flesh in order that we, creatures of flesh, might be brought, once more, under the power of the Spirit.

Msgr. Ronald Knox, The Creed in Slow Motion, Chapter VIII

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