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I was born, I'm currently living, and will eventually die. After that I face my judgment, and we'll talk then.


Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beating the dead horse of abortion part 3: Biden

Sorry this is so late in coming, but hopefully, upon reading, you'll see why.

Note for the previous post: you can read the transcript of Rep. Pelosi’s interview on Meet the Press here.

“There is a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge, that's existed. Back in ‘Summa Theologia,’ when Thomas Aquinas wrote ‘Summa Theologia,’ he said there was no--it didn't occur until quickening, 40 days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith? And that's the reason I haven't.”

Rep. Pelosi’s interview on Meet the Press caused a great scandal throughout the country, prompting lectures from bishops and cardinals, including Pelosi’s own bishop, directed towards the Speaker of the House, trying to explain to her how wrong she was. Her response to this correction will be seen next time, but for now we’ll stick with the immediate fallout.

As a result of her interview, Vice-President Joe Biden, at that time a senator and now-President Obama’s running mate, appeared on Meet the Press to discuss political issues (the transcript of the interview can be found here. As before, Tom Brokaw brought up the issue of when life begins. Biden explained his view thus:

“I know when it begins for me; it’s a personally and private issue. For me as a Roman Catholic, I am prepared to accept the teachings of my Church. . . . But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”

Biden later defended his stance in the quote at the beginning of this post. It is an appeal to the greatest thinker in the Catholic Church, quite possibly the greatest thinker of all time: St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, Biden recalled, held life did not begin until “quickening,” about 40 days after conception. Like Pelosi’s appeal to Augustine, Biden’s appeal to Aquinas is wanting and does not take into account many factors. As with Pelosi, we will examine the validity of Sen. Biden’s claims concerning St. Thomas’ views of life and abortion and use the Angelic Doctor to counter this wayward, Pro-Choice Catholic.

Biden was a little more specific in his citation of Thomas than Pelosi was of Augustine. Biden references the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas’ greatest work and one of the greatest works of Western Civilization. It consists of three parts, containing hundreds of articles dealing with everything from the existence of God to the sacraments to morality to the proper ordering of the state. It encompasses all Christian thought to that time. To reference it vaguely as Biden did is like saying “It was somewhere in the Bible. . . .” Fortunately, many men throughout the centuries have commented on and indexed subjects from the Summa and from Aquinas’ other works, making an investigation into St. Thomas relatively easy. It is not too easy, however, as we shall see, for there is a lot of Thomas to read, and not all of it is in English.

We begin with the issue at hand: Did St. Thomas Aquinas hold that ensoulment occurred after conception. Thomas discusses ensoulment in regards to the nature of man, and it does seem Aquinas assents to the view, as discussed in the previous post, that the rational soul entered the fetus at “quickening,” around 40 days for men and around 80 days for women, which correlates with when the unborn child is felt moving in the mother’s womb. The science behind Aquinas’ understanding of “quickening” is strikingly different from our current understanding of embryology and human development. The fact that the child starts moving around 40 days means, according to Aquinas, that the rational soul has appeared in the child. The body of the fetus prior to ensoulment does not lack a soul. Rather, it is a lesser, non-rational soul. It is a process of sorts, as Thomas discusses in his other great work, the Summa Contra Gentiles (2.89), where he says

“The more noble a form is and the further removed it is from the elemental form, the more numerous must be the intermediate forms, through which the ultimate form is reached step by step, and, consequently, the intervening generative processes will be multiplied too. That is why, in the generation of an animal and a man, wherein the most perfect type of form exists, there are many intermediate forms and generations—and, hence, corruptions, because the generation of one thing is the corruption of another. Thus, the vegetative soul, which is present first (when the embryo lives the life of a plant), perishes, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, both nutritive and sensitive in character, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this passes away it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without, while the preceding souls existed in virtue of the semen.”

This process of ensoulment dates back to Aristotle. What occurs, according to Aquinas, is the semen from the man mixes with menstrual blood from the woman, which then somehow turns into a fetus. It is the woman’s contribution to this whole thing that provides the matter for development (see Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 118, a. 1, ad 4). The embryo is always alive, Aquinas says, but it lives a different life before it becomes rational. The semen from the father provides the vegetative soul, the basic spark of life. Thus the early embryo is “human” materially, but it needs the rational soul to be completely human. As the embryo develops, as it must do due to the divide between man and his vegetative state, the previous soul is destroyed by the arrival of the succeeding soul. The rational soul comes into the active embryo, Aquinas thinks, because that is when it seemingly has the minimum attributes of a person. At that point in the fetus’s development, there is a small human body, perfect for the rational soul to inform.

It becomes clear, when examining Thomas’s philosophy of humanity in light of his place in the history of science, that he was onto something. There is something basic about what makes us human. Aquinas held that our rational soul distinguishes us from the animals, as clearly shown in his understanding of ensoulment, but even at our material level there is something special about men. When in the early stages of man’s life, Thomas says, the animal attributes of man are suppressed and controlled by the human attributes, it can be said that the resulting creature is a man, pure and true. This statement concerning human nature is not a theological statement, however, but a philosophical one, which men can discuss and have discussed over the centuries. The philosophical declaration of Aquinas concerning ensoulment is not a theological explanation and should not be treated as such. This debate of history does not mean that there is not a final answer to the question, one which Thomas had actually rejected. This finale to the ensoulment debate will be discussed in the next post, where the declarations of modern science, which has picked up where the philosophy of St. Thomas and other philosophers was forced to stop, explain just when life begins.

So the short answer to Biden’s statement is yes, Thomas Aquinas did believe that the rational soul entered after conception. Thomas holds that there is already human life, which is more than what many today hold, but it is not fully human. It is a point that Biden did not qualify in his comments.

The next logical question stems from the now established fact concerning Aquinas and human life. Did Aquinas accept abortion? Surely he would disagree with the modern view that abortion is wrong, since life does not begin at conception. Would he approve of Biden’s Pro-Choice views, that the abortion issue is not an issue that has a set right or wrong stance?

The specific topic of abortion is only occasionally mentioned in St. Thomas’ works, usually in the context of Thomas’ moral discussions. The most famous references to the morality of abortion are in Thomas’ Commentary on The Sentences of Peter Abalard, an earlier medieval theologian who’s Sentences became a sort of textbook for later scholars and university students. As part of his university studies, Aquinas had to write a commentary on the seminal work. It is in this commentary that Thomas discusses the morality of abortion. Unfortunately, Thomas’s commentary on the Sentences is not available in its entirety in English. As a result, the quotes from the Commentary given below are rough translations by fellow blogger Sheila, who is better at Latin than this author.

In Book IV, distinction 31, art. 3 (not distinction 1, as a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times dated October 17, 1984 states) of his Commentary, in the “exposition of the text,” St. Thomas discusses abortion; like Augustine, it is in the context of human sexuality. Prior to the mention of abortion, Thomas notes that it is licit for a couple to marry in order to control lust and prevent serious sin. Thomas then says the following:

LATIN: “Qui vero venena sterilitatis procurant, non conjuges, sed fornicarii sunt. Hoc peccatum quamvis sit grave, et inter maleficia computandum, et contra naturam, quia etiam bestiae fetus expectant; tamen est minus quam homicidium; quia adhuc poterat alio modo impediri conceptus. Nec est judicandus talis irregularis, nisi jam formato puerperio abortum procuret.”

ENGLISH: “Whoever then procure a drug of sterility, are not spouses, but fornicators. This sin however is grave, and should be reckoned among evil deeds, and against nature, because even beasts await their young; however it is less than homicide; because so far there was another method to impede conception. Nor should it be judged to be as irregular [or “lesser”], [except] when the infant is already well-formed when the abortion is procured.”

Taking a “drug of sterility” is a phrase which usually covers both contraception and abortions. This sin is a mortal one according to Aquinas (for those who don’t know basic Catholic morality, a mortal sin separates the soul from God, and if not forgiven condemns the soul to Hell). It is a sin against chastity, and a married couple who uses such drugs is acting not as a married couple but as fornicators, those who opt for a one night stand to satisfy sexual desires. It is an attack on marriage and the marital act, but is it against life? Aquinas seems to say so. Although the sin is “less than homicide,” which makes sense in light of Aquinas’s view concerning ensoulment, it is still against life in that it prevents conception, or if the abortion is early enough, prevents the rational soul from entering the already formed body. This is why it is a mortal sin: abortion and contraception attack life at its earliest stages. As for abortions “when the infant is already well formed” (that is, with a rational soul), Aquinas is saying that this sin is even worse than preventing conception. The abortion of a fetus with a rational soul is not the mortal sin of preventing life but rather is the sin of murder.

Aquinas explains the gravity of these sins later in his exposition, when he notes the following:

LATIN: “et in primo semper est peccatum mortale, quia proles sequi non potest, unde totaliter intentio naturae frustratur”

ENGLISH: “And in the first it is always a mortal sin, because offspring cannot follow, from which the whole intention of nature is frustrated.”

Not only is the sin of contraception (and early abortion) a mortal sin, but it is specifically a sin against nature. This is not merely a matter of Catholic theology or morality. This is an issue of natural law, of the fundamental principles that regulate our lives. To fight against such a law would be like trying to fight against gravity. The whole world starts to fall apart. This is perhaps the most frightening aspect of Biden and his fellow Pro-Choice politicians, Catholic or not, and their stance on abortion. Their support of abortion and contraception is against the natural law and is an attack on humanity and nature. To allow it because it is “someone else’s point of view,” as Biden does, is dangerous, as the appealer to that logic directly supports an attack against nature. In an age where people place so much emphasis on complying with nature, it is upsetting to see a blatant disregard for nature take such a prominent place in the public square.

The Commentary on the Sentences is not the only place where Aquinas discusses abortion, although elsewhere the discussion is in reference to unintentional miscarriages. In the Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 64, a 8 (Part 2 of the Second Part, Question 64, article 8), Thomas discusses accidental murder. One of the objections cites the passage in Exodus 21:22, which says “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.” St. Thomas determines that “He that strikes a woman with child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death either of the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide, especially seeing that death is the natural result of such a blow.” There is an attempt in several pro-choice circles to claim St. Thomas did not see abortion as homicide, but this passage seems to say otherwise. The murder of either the mother or the unborn child is homicide. Even if the death is accidental, the fact that an intended violent crime led to someone’s death must be seen as murder. This principle exists today in cases of murder that are tried as manslaughter.

After revealing the evidence, it becomes clear that then-Senator Biden’s appeal to Thomas Aquinas was risky. Biden was right in saying that Thomas held human life began 40 days after conception, if by human life one means the actualization of the rational soul. If the question was whether or not the human embryo is human, then Thomas would say it is, since it is made up of the matter from human parents. Also, Thomas’s other teachings concerning abortion and life issues are opposed to the position taken by Biden and other Pro-Choice people. The purpose of Biden’s reference to Aquinas was merely to show that there was disagreement in the history of the Catholic Church on when human life began. This point does not take into account errors in the scientific philosophy of Aquinas and other philosophers who lived prior to the advent of genetics.

The appeal to Aquinas also ignores the deep devotion of the Angelic Doctor to the Magisterium of the Church. Aquinas frequently states throughout his works that if there is a disagreement between his writing and the Magisterium, that the Magisterium is correct and that he, Thomas, is wrong. Would Thomas today hold that the soul enters the body 40 days after conception, as he had when he was alive? The answer lies in the position taken by the Magisterium of the Church. The position of the Magisterium should solve the problem for Catholic politicians of where to stand in the abortion debate, and the position reveals where Augustine and Aquinas would stand if they were alive today.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Beating the dead horse of abortion part 2: Pelosi

Our discussion of Catholics supporting abortion first targets the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Rep. Pelosi’s comments involving abortion are famous, and have caused great scandal in the Church in America. To defend her views on abortion, Pelosi cites St. Augustine as stating that life does not begin at conception, and that it is therefore licit to perform abortions, since what is dying is not a human person.

Pelosi made the controversial comments in August 2008, when she appeared on an episode of Meet the Press. During the interview, Pelosi was asked what she would say if Obama asked her when life began. This was her response:

“I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator–St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose. . . So I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this.”

Pelosi turns to St. Augustine, not a bad ally in a theological debate, to support her view. Unfortunately, she does not cite where in Augustine’s numerous writings he mentions when the soul enters the body. In my research for this post, I could not find the exact citation in Augustine for the soul existing “three months” after conception, as Ms. Pelosi states. I did find reference to Augustine holding, like Aristotle before him and St. Thomas Aquinas after him, that the soul existed 40 days after conception in boys and 80 days after conception in girls. This does not necessarily mean that the embryo inside the mother is not a human being, and that killing that embryo is morally ok, as Pelosi and other pro-abortion activists hold.

It makes sense that Augustine would hold such a view concerning ensoulment due to the limited scientific understanding of gestation in his time. Aristotle was the scientist for 2,000 years after his death. Genetics and embryology would not develop until the mid-1800s, 1400 years after Augustine’s death, about 2100 years after Aristotle’s death. In that 2100 year period, the greatest thinkers of western civilization took the scientific philosophy of Aristotle, however incomplete it was, and used it in their philosophy. An estimation of 40 days made sense for ensoulment because that was when the child inside the mother first started moving around. It was clearly alive after 40 days, and thus Aristotle and those after him knew that by that time the fetus had been ensouled. The difference of time between male and female ensoulment was merely because men were seen as more rational than women, a statement which Rep. Pelosi would understandably deny.

But I digress. Lets return to Pelosi’s specific argument.

After some digging, I may have found the passage to which Rep. Pelosi was referring. The passage is from Augustine’s Enchiridion of Faith, Hope and Love, written in AD 421. Here is the passage (23.86) as translated by William Jurgens in The Faith of the Early Fathers (Vol. 3):

“It can be investigate and disputed most meticulously among the most learned men, though I know not whether man can find an answer, when it is that a human being in the womb begins to live, and whether there is also a certain kind of hidden life there which is not yet apparent in the movements of the living being. It seems very rash to deny that those fetuses ever lived, that are cut away and ejected limb by limb from the wombs of the pregnant, lest the mothers perish too, if the fetuses be left there dead. But from whatever time a man begins to live, from that time on certainly he is able to die.”

It seems at first glance that Pelosi is right. Augustine had no idea “when it is that a human being in the womb begins to live,” and to leave the argument with that quote is rather troubling. But reading the rest of the passage resolves the issue. Augustine says it is “very rash” to say the fetus was never alive when a doctor has to pull the dead fetus out if the mother miscarriages. The fetus was once alive, for it is now dead. It did not die in childbirth but before it, and at the birthing the mother expels a corpse. It is a sad image, but one which Augustine uses to teach a moral lesson, namely that the child inside the mother is alive and a person.

Elsewhere, Augustine is clearer in his stance against abortion. In his work "On Marriage and Concupiscence,” Augustine cites abortion as a sin against chastity and marriage. He writes in paragraph 17,

“It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honorable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct.”

Augustine is making a statement against contraception. Married couples who have intercourse without the intention of bearing children is not a good thing, due to the centrality of childbearing in the marital act, but it is not a mortal sin. Those that use contraceptives, however, are the equivalent of adulterers. To artificially prevent conception in the way that contraceptives work is a more direct attack on the marital act, and is thus always evil. Augustine continues with his discussion:

“Having also proceeded so far, they are betrayed into exposing their children, which are born against their will. They hate to nourish and retain those whom they were afraid they would beget. This infliction of cruelty on their offspring so reluctantly begotten, unmasks the sin which they had practiced in darkness, and drags it clearly into the light of day. The open cruelty reproves the concealed sin. Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or, if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born. Well, if both parties alike are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife; and if such were their character from the beginning, they have not come together by wedlock but by debauchery. But if the two are not alike in such sin, I boldly declare either that the woman is, so to say, the husband’s harlot; or the man the wife’s adulterer.”

Here Augustine deals with abortion directly. It is a mortal sin. Augustine is pretty clear in his condemnation of the practice. It attacks marriage as well as the baby, and thus is a double sin. In expounding this, Augustine is echoing a theme found throughout revelation, something which is equally clear in today’s world, namely that sins of violence are often connected with sexual sins. For example, David committed adultery with Bethsheba and had her husband killed. God told him to repent, and he did (see Psalm 51). In a similar way, the sin of artificial contraception (sexual) can lead to the sin of abortion (violent) if the contraception does not work. Augustine is clearly making this connection in the above cited paragraph, and it is equally clear that he would not support abortion if he were alive today, especially in the militant manner it is supported by Pelosi and other “Catholic” politicians. Those who hold that Augustine did not think abortions killed are sorely mistaken.

Next time, we will examine another politician who has scandalized many with his claim to be Catholic and support abortion.

Beating the dead horse of abortion part 1

I love to beat dead horses. I find it easy and fun, and with luck, my word-based beating rod will flay and flail about over the selected carcass. I do this with all sorts of issues, mostly because people don't seem to realize the horse is dead. Isn't that the reason to beat a dead horse? Such beatings only occur when one party (either the viewer or the beater) does not realize the horse is dead.

This is the case with abortion, a horse which for some reason needs to be beaten on an almost daily basis.

With January 22, the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade and the annual March for Life fast approaching, it is time once again to post posts of a pro-life persuasion. This year the focus is theological to a degree, although the issue of abortion transcends theology. This year’s focus is also political, as the subjects of my examination are political figures who have shamelessly and scandalously dealt with the issue of abortion.

Unfortunately for the world, not just our country, there are several high-ranking political figures here in America who have taken a supportive stance on the issue of abortion (it is interesting to note that these figures have moved beyond the pro-choice view of abortion; their support is no longer in defense of choosing but rather a radical and disturbing defense of even the most unnecessary abortive procedures). Our president, most regrettably, is pro-abortion, as are most of his political allies, each one a symbol of troublesome party politics. It pains the Catholic commentator to see so many of his brothers and sisters in Christ, his fellow Roman Catholics, have broken away from Christ and His Church because they are persistent in their immoral political beliefs. Although a point-by-point counter to the political theories for each individual lawmaker would be a great undertaking, it is beyond the scope of this series of posts. What will be discussed are rather scandalous statements involving the Church and abortion from Catholic politicians who should know better.

The main focus of this series will be the two immediate successors to President Obama should anything happen to him in office: Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. These two figures are high ranking, highly influential politicians who have sought to destroy the pro-life cause, and in the process have stated rather scandalous statements involving the Church and her stance on abortion. Though the main statements we will examine were offered almost 2 years ago, it is still appropriate to examine these political ramblings, as they are still supported to this day.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth (part 4)

Last part. To read the earlier parts, please see above.

Part 4 - Christmas

For nine months Mary bore God in her womb. Only three (maybe four) people understood the importance of Mary’s pregnancy (Mary, Joseph, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s husband Zachariah).

Around that time, Caesar Augustus called a census to determine just how many people he had in the empire. He did this several times throughout his reign, one in 28 BC, which recorded all the Roman citizens and the inhabitants of Gaul, one in 8 BC which had been for Roman citizens, and another that started between 6 and 5 BC, encompassing Palestine and Egypt. All families had to return to their hometowns to be counted. Joseph, with his pregnant wife, had to travel to Bethlehem, the town of David, to be counted. There he and his wife had to stay with the animals, a sort of makeshift room because all the proper rooms in the inns had been filled by other people who had come for the census. There Mary gave birth to Jesus. Angels appeared to some shepherds who were watching their flocks that night, and they came to the manger and worshipped the child. Mary and Joseph were probably surprised and at the same time understanding of the strange events occurring in front of them.

The Holy Family remained in Bethlehem for some time, no more than a couple years. Joseph probably worked with some family members, to provide for his growing family. Jesus grew as all babies do.

Then, one day, some strange visitors arrived to see Jesus. In the Far East, as mentioned in an earlier post in this series, Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion distantly related to the faith of the Hebrews, had developed over the centuries. Around the time of Christ’s birth, some sort of astronomical sight appeared in the sky. Some priestly scholars of Zoroastrianism, the Magi, traveled from Persia to Israel, following the pattern of the astronomical sign in hopes of finding a king. What exactly the Magi followed has been debated throughout the centuries. Was it Haley’s Comet? Was it Jupiter or Saturn in a specific constellation? Did the Magi see the visual echoes of a supernova so many years in the past? We do not know for sure, but what is known is that magi came and visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem. The Magi stopped at Herod’s palace on the way there. Herod was the king of Israel, but not in the same sense that Saul, David, and Solomon had been kings so many centuries before. Herod was more a puppet king of the Romans. It was still a position of power, however, and Herod was vicious in his attempts to keep control of his “kingdom,” even to the point of killing members of his family in fits of paranoia. He did not take well the Magi’s request for the location of the King of the Jews. He told the foreigners to return to him and tell him where the King was, so that he could honor the newborn. His intention was not to honor the king but to kill him. The Magi were warned of this by an angel in a dream, and they returned to Persia through another route.

Herod, in his rage, ordered the death of all male babies under the age of two. The Holy Family had escaped, however, to Egypt, where they lived until Herod’s death in 4 BC; afterwards, the Holy Family returned to Nazareth, where Jesus grew to manhood.

We know very little of his life after his birth before his public ministry, save the episode when Jesus was about 12, where he was lost in the Temple in Jerusalem. We see him again, probably in his early 30s, meeting his cousin John in the desert near the Jordan River. It is John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin, who declares to the disciples and to us the command that all should take to heart: “Behold the Lamb of God.”

And with that command, the Church closes the Christmas season.

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth (part 3)

Hey, guess what? Its still CHRISTMAS!!!! So I get to finish my series on Christmas!!!!

Part 3 – Israel and Christ's Advent

Immediately after the Fall of Man, God gave the first couple a promise of a savior. Genesis 3:15 records this prophecy, where the offspring of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. The salvation of the world therefore did not start with Christ, but rather reached its climax with Him. The path for this ultimate act of redemption was foretold throughout Israel’s history. Prophets throughout the centuries offered hope to a nation that constantly found itself under the rule of foreign rulers and sinful kings. Most of the Hebrew prophets offer predictions of the coming Messiah. Isaiah foretold the nature of his birth and his death. Jeremiah offered songs appropriate to the Messiah’s suffering. Even minor prophets, like Micah had prophecies about the Messiah (Micah mentioned that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem). This history of prophecy provided not merely a hope of a Messiah, but an assurance that the Messiah would come.

When Alexander the Great’s empire broke apart, the ruler of Palestine imposed the pagan beliefs on the Hebrews. The Maccabees would not stand for such scandal, and they stood up in revolt of their oppressors. This revolt was so successful that many Jews thought the Messiah would come from the Maccabee family, not from that of David, as held in the prophets mentioned above.

By the time the Romans possessed Palestine, the prophecies of the Messiah swelled to a peak. Several false messiahs abounded in Palestine (hence why Christ’s ministry was so striking: Here was a man who claimed to be the Messiah and who actually acted like one), each one claiming the title of savior. Political and spiritual organizations formed in connection with beliefs concerning the coming Messiah. Hebraic zealots set up small political revolutions against the occupying Romans. One of Christ’s Apostles (Simon the Zealot) was a member of this political revolution, before abandoning it to follow Christ. Barabbas, the revolution freed by Pilate instead of Jesus, may have been a zealot as well. On the spiritual side, a community of scholars met in the caves around the Dead Sea, recording the Hebrew Scriptures on animal parchment and papyrus. John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin and herald in the desert, may have studied with these scholars. Also around this time, the Targums, which were spiritual interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures by rabbis in Judea, were published. How, these rabbis wondered above all else, would the Messiah be called Yahweh, as he clearly is in the Hebrew Scriptures? Would he be God, God’s servant, or somehow both?

These political and spiritual circumstances swirled through the minds of Mary and Joseph as they gave birth to the Savior of the World.

The immediate personal circumstances around Christ’s birth reflect the history of the times. Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived in Nazareth, and was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter who was a descendent of King David. An angel appeared to Mary while she was working in her house in Nazareth. The conversation between angelic messenger and the human listener is a fascinating insight into the nature of Christ’s birth, and we deviate here from our broad historical survey to examine this passage in Scripture. We turn to the Gospel of Luke, which reads like a historical document. The passage (Luke 1:26-38) describing the conversation between Mary and the angel, called the Annunciation, reads as follows:

In the sixth month 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. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But 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; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How shall 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. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.

The passage is rich in theology, and has been examined throughout the Church’s history. The angel greets Mary as “O favored one,” or “Full of Grace,” as some translations read. Mary, being immaculately conceived, that is, conceived without original sin, bears as her name that which best reflects her nature. She is the “favored one” of God. The angel’s message is even more amazing as he reveals that Mary will conceive and give birth to the Son of God. The angel speaks to Mary in the future tense, of things which will happen. Mary’s reply, interestingly enough, is in the present tense. The angel says Mary “will conceive.” Mary asks “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” She is betrothed, as mentioned in the second verse of the passage, to Joseph. She could very well have relations with Joseph after they are married, and thus conceive the Son spoken of in the angel’s prophecy. But Mary is puzzled how it is to happen.

The answer lies in a spiritual practice in Israel at the time. Young girls were dedicated to God, and as a sign of their dedication vowed not only to be perpetually chaste, but to remain virgins. The practice has a pagan counterpart in the Vestal Virgins of Rome. In both cases, the virgins were to remain free from sexual relations. If it was found that these virgins had broken their vows, they were treated like adulterers and were stoned. Vows bore great weight. Mary’s present tense reply, that she does not have a husband, seems to imply that she has not had sexual relations, nor does she intend on having them (this explanation is emphasized in other translations, where Mary says “How can this be, since I do not know man”). The angel’s explanation, that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, overshadow her, and through that act of the Spirit, the Son will become incarnate in her womb. It would have been beyond Mary’s understanding, but she assented, and at the moment of her “let it be,” the Incarnation occurred.

Et Incarnatus est. . .