The birth narrative of Luke portrays Mary as the archetype of the Christian contemplative, whom Gabriel declares “full of grace” and “blessed among women” (Luke 1:28). For Luke, the same Spirit who “in the beginning” hovered over the Abyss (Gen 1:1) now overshadows a young virgin on the forgotten margins of an ancient empire:
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 holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
This new overshadowing inaugurates a new creation marked not by the repetition of nights and days as we saw in Genesis 1, but by the dawning of an endless day in Christ. For in Jesus, the Eternal is birthed in time even as the long road of cosmic history is now stretched to meet the horizon of eternity. To Mary “God the Father speaks his Eternal Word” in time, and the Word, eternally begotten from the Father is joined to human flesh in the womb of a Virgin. It is the manner of her conception that the contemplative seeks to emulate: an act of listening that opens the way for the ongoing birth of Christ in the world. Commenting on the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, John of the Cross observed,
The Father uttered one Word; that Word is His Son: and He utters Him forever in everlasting silence, and in silence the soul has to hear It (Selected Works, vol. 2, trans. David Lewis, 2007, §284).
In silence, the Word is spoken from eternity, and in silence spoken into history. So too in silence the Spirit conceives the inconceivable and hope is born in the most unexpected of places. As with Mary, so also the contemplative.
Since the fourth century, the church fathers expressed the virginal conception metaphorically as an act of silent listening on the part of Mary. “Through her ear the Word entered and dwelt secretly in the womb.” Thus, Mary is the archetype of a contemplative in the world. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This is Mary’s fiat, her consent to the presence of God within her. Yet, as von Balthasar observed, Mary’s fiat—her “yes”—is not a once-for-all consent at the moment of conception but an openness to the work of the Spirit within her for the duration of her life. She must say “yes” even when Christ seems to dismiss her (Mark 3:31-35); she must say “yes” when he all but refuses to obey her at Cana; she must say “yes” when he is taken into custody and tortured; she must say “yes” as he slips away on the cross. She must say “yes” to his resurrection and “yes” to his ascension. Even after giving birth to the infant Jesus, she never ceases to give birth to Christ within. (cf. von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison, 1986, p. 28).
This trusting receptivity becomes the womb from which we too birth Christ in the world; a fertile receptivity by which we too listen to the silent Word spoken in our hearts, urging our consent to birth Christ in the world and indeed to Christ’s birthing in all things. As Paul reminded the church in Rome, “faith comes from hearing, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Receptive listening is the basis for the contemplative vocation to birth Christ in the world. By the Middle Ages, we see the widespread sentiment that objective redemption is meaningless if not interiorized and relived subjectively within the heart of every Christian. In modern times, this insight on the subjectivity of the incarnation, falsely attributed to Meister Eckhart, nevertheless summarizes this tradition beautifully:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good it is to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us (von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible, trans. D. C. Schindler, 2004, p. 42).
For the Christian, the incarnation is not just a powerful metaphor. It is a historical event. But as Eckhart insists, neither should we think of it as a singular moment in history, having come and gone with the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. With Mary, we too must ceaselessly give birth to Christ in our own “time and culture.” Eckhart says this is possible because at the deepest core of every person is what he calls the “Ground” of being. He describes this as a silent abyss beyond all form, thoughts, experiences, or perception. Like the Virgin’s womb it is the eternal meeting place between the divine and human within every person. Each of us comes to embody the ongoing and ever expanding enfleshment of God across time and space, made manifest whenever Christ is “begotten in us.”
The reflection I offer here is adapted from a small portion of my book, Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and the Interior Life (Liturgical Press, 2018). It serves as part of a larger reflection on what Christian tradition refers to as the inevitable outcome of the Incarnation: that all of us have been deified in Christ. Or to put it as did St. Athanasius in the 4th Century, “God became human that humans might be made divine.” That is the meaning of deification: to be “made divine” in Christ. The joy and significance of this most radical claim of Christian faith is often underestimated or completely misunderstood by the modern church. Yet Christmas—the Feast of the Incarnation—offers an opportunity to contemplate on this deepest of Christian mysteries: the Birth of God as an interior reality as much as a historical one (cf. Contemplating Christ, 85-87).
Fr. Vincent Pizzuto, PhD, is an Episcopal priest and Professor of New Testament and Christian Mysticism in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the vicar of St. Columba’s Church and Retreat House in Inverness, CA.