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The New Reality that Begins for Us When We Believe the Creed: “Who was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary”

September 7, 2013

nt_nativity_iconThe Virgin Birth is what takes humanity from the tired world of the Old Testament and introduces it to the miraculous incorruptibility of the New; it is what makes the descent of heaven to earth a reality with flesh and blood; it is what makes communion with God possible on a level beyond anything the daughters of Eve and sons of Adam could have ever imagined. The Virgin Birth is the hidden proclamation of the prophets, the secret expectation of the righteous, the unconcealed sweetness of angels, the indomitable courage of martyrs, and the cherished delight of monastics. Yet, many Christians pay little attention to it and pay even less regard to the integral role it plays in our human condition and our salvation. It introduces an entirely new way of being in the world.

According to Saint Maximus the Confessor, the virginity of Mary in relation to the Incarnation of Christ is not accidental. It has real anthropological and theological import. In order to properly comprehend this, it is necessary to explore briefly what Saint Maximus taught about pleasure and pain. For him, both pleasure and pain, as we experience them, were not part of God’s original intent. Humanity was meant to experience delight from communion with God. In the Fall, the eyes of the spiritual heart (or nous) were misdirected downward toward sensual creation and away from the Uncreated that should have been the focal point of attention and desire. When man sought ultimate pleasure in created things rather than in the Uncreated, pain was a natural consequence. Since the time of the Fall, pleasure and pain have been inextricably linked, with pain being allowed by God to redirect the human nous to its proper end beyond this vicious cycle, in other words to redirect us to the God of our heart.

If you think about the observations of Saint Maximus, you may recognize the profundity of his insights regarding pleasure and pain. For example, the joy a married man and woman sense in collaborating with God in creating a new human life is mingled with the pain of childbirth. The pride and joy of witnessing the wedding of one’s daughter is mingled with the pain of loss at her departure. This co-mingling of pain and pleasure observed by Saint Maximus is borne out by experience to our present day. There is no escaping it.

Commenting on this teaching of Saint Maximus, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos notes, “Therefore, pleasure precedes pain, since all pain is caused by pleasure, and this is why it is called natural pain. For Adam and Eve, pleasure was without cause, that is, it was not preceded by pain, while pain, which is a natural consequence of pleasure, is an obligation, a debt, paid by all men who have the same human nature. This is what happened to Adam and Eve. For their descendants, things are a little different; the experience of pain leads them to the enjoyment of pleasure. After the Fall and the entry of the law of sin and death into his existence, man is in a tragic state, because, even though pain reverses pleasure and annuls its active movement, man cannot reverse and eliminate the law of death which is found within his being….Herein lies the tragedy of man, who may cure pleasure and obtain inner balance through voluntary pain (asceticism) and involuntary events (external grief, death) but is unable to liberate himself from pain, which is determined by the law of death.”

This is precisely where the importance of the Virgin Birth in the history of our salvation can be seen. Unlike all other human beings born after the Fall, the birth of Christ was not punctuated by pain. The Virgin birth was of an entirely different order for the Lord Christ was “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary”. Man was in an impossible state-unable to escape the quagmire of pleasure and pain. God had to intervene on His behalf. Again, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos explains, “It was absolutely impossible for human nature which had fallen to voluntary pleasure and involuntary pain to return to the former state ‘had the Creator not become man’. The mystery of Incarnation lies in the fact that Christ was born human, but the beginning and cause of His birth was not sensual pleasure, for He was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, outside the human way of generation, and He embraced pain and death by His own free choice. For man, pain came as a result of sin, it was involuntary. While for Christ, who was born without sensual pleasure, pain was received by choice.”

Jesus Christ, in assuming human nature, voluntarily takes on what was thrust upon us involuntarily-namely, pleasure and pain. In the Virgin Birth, devoid of sensual pleasure and pain, the foreshadowing of our true destiny may be seen. The Virgin Birth gives us a glimpse of what the Lord Christ wrought for us in His death and Resurrection: namely, salvation that will free us from the dialectic of pleasure and pain.

What would it mean if belief in the Virgin birth were a core belief influencing behavior, thought, and feeling? First, it would mean that pure attention towards God that remains willingly outside of the enticement of pleasure and the threat of pain would be a cardinal virtue that could inspire Christian heroism. The realization that such a stance can lead to something wonderful, holy, and new would make adopting the commandments of Christ and following the strait and narrow a joy and an adventure. Second, it would mean that virginity and fertility would become categories that would characterize our choices in life, entailing a sense of being set aside for God on the one hand and a sense of being generous in offering of ourselves to the world around us on the other. We would strive to be like the wise virgins who kept the oil of virtue, love, and compassion in their vessels. Third, we would see that being Christians and Christ-bearers calls us to unify the best of all worlds, theoria and praxis, prayer and service, heaven and earth.

Saint Nicholai of Zycha sums up the significance of confessing Christ incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary in this way: “Every wisdom in heaven and on earth is begotten of the Virgin and the All-Holy Spirit….What the chastity of the Father is in heaven, the virginity of the Mother is on earth. What the action of the Holy Spirit is in heaven, His action is on earth. What the begetting of the wisdom is in heaven, the begetting of wisdom is on earth. O my soul, my eternal surprise! What happened once in heaven and once on earth must happen to you. You must become a virgin, so that you can conceive the Wisdom of God. You must be a virgin, so that the Spirit of God may fall in love with you.” (Prayer X, Prayers by the Lake).

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