Annie Dillard, once said: “Faith would be that God is self-limited utterly by his creation – a contradiction of the scope of his will; that he bound himself to time and its hazards and hopes as a man would lash himself to a tree for love. That God’s works are as good as we make them. That God is helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen. (Holy the Firm, p. 47)
That is deeply insightful. God never dynamites his (or her) way into our world as an overpowering superstar who takes our lives by storm. God still enters the world, in the same way as Christ did, as the result of a special gestation process which produces a baby which must then be picked up, nurtured, and coaxed into adulthood.
Hence the birth and presence of God in our world depend, at least within the dynamics of the incarnation, upon a certain human consent and cooperation. Simply put, for God to have concrete flesh and power in this world, and for us to have faith in God, a certain pattern must occur. That pattern, modeled by Mary, is the paradigm for God taking on actual flesh in the world. It is also the blueprint for how faith is born into our lives.
What is that pattern? When we look at how Mary gave birth to Christ, we see that there were four moments to this process:
i) Impregnation by the Holy Spirit
ii) Gestation of Christ within herself
iii) The pangs of giving birth and
iv) The nurturing of an infant to adulthood
To meditate on these is to take a bath in the essence of advent:
1) Impregnation by the Holy Spirit. We are told that Mary pondered the word of God until she became pregnant with it. What an extraordinary notion! This doesn’t just mean that Christ had no human father and that, physically, Mary got pregnant from the Holy Spirit, it also means that Mary so immersed herself in the Holy Spirit (in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, faith, mildness, fidelity, and chastity) that she become pregnant with them, their seed took root in her.
2) Gestation of Christ within herself. She then gestated them into real flesh. In the silent recesses of her heart and body, and not without that particular kind of nausea that is part and parcel of pregnancy, an umbilical cord developed between herself and that seed of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, faith, mildness, fidelity, and chastity. Through that cord she gave to that seed of her own flesh so that it grew into an actual child which, at a point, pushed to be born into the outside world.
3) The pangs of childbirth. With much groaning of the flesh is a baby born. It is always excruciatingly painful to give birth to the outside world something one has lovingly gestated inside oneself. This was true of Mary, despite many pious treatises that would make of Jesus’ birth something miraculously unnatural vis-à-vis birth pangs to his mother.
4) Nurturing an infant to adulthood. After a woman has given birth to a child, she has a baby, not an adult. This was also true of Mary. Mary gave birth to a baby, Jesus, but what she ultimately gave to the world was the adult Christ. Like all mothers, after the baby was born, she had to spend years nursing, nurturing, coaxing, and loving her child to adulthood.
Our task in looking at all this is not so much admiration as it is imitation. Mary is not an icon to be reverenced, but the pattern for how the incarnation is to continue, for how God continues to take flesh in this world. And that pattern is perennially the same: We must ponder God’s word until we become pregnant with charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, faith, mildness, fidelity, and chastity. Then we must, complete with the morning sickness this causes us, gestate them into real flesh within our own bodies and, when the time is right, with much groaning of our natural flesh, give them concrete birth into the world. Finally, we must spend years nursing and coaxing that helpless God (“self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen”) into adulthood. That’s the way the incarnation works.
That is also how faith works. How do you prove that God exists? You don’t! God is not found at the end of some logical syllogism or some experiment of reason. No. God has to be gestated into our world in the same way as Mary did all those years ago at the first Christmas.