Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary ...

"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. (Luke 1.35). Our gaze is led beyond the covenant with Israel to the creation: in the Old Testament, the spirit of God is the power of creation; he it was who hovered over the waters in the beginning and shaped chaos into cosmos (Gen 1,2); when he is sent, living things are created (Ps 104 {103} 30). So what is to happen here to Mary is new creation: the God who called forth being out of nothing makes a new beginning among humanity: his Word becomes flesh.

The other image in this text - the "overshadowing by the power of the Most High" - points to the Temple of Israel and to the holy tent in the wilderness where God's presence was revealed in the cloud, which hides his glory as well as revealing it (Exod 40.34; 1 Kings 8.11). Just as Mary was depicted earlier as the new Israel, the true "daughter of Sion", so now she appears as the temple on to which descends the cloud in which God walks into the midst of history. Whoever puts himself at God's disposal disappears with him in the cloud, into oblivion and insignificance, and precisely in this way acquires a share in his glory.

The birth of Jesus from a virgin of whom things like these are reported in the gospels has long been a thorn in the flesh of rationalisers of every kind. Clarifications of sources are supposed to minimise the New Testament testimony, references to the unhistorical thinking of the ancients are supposed to remove the event to the realm of the symbolical, and insertion into the context of the history of religions is supposed to show that it is a variant of a myth.

The myth of the miraculous birth of the child saviour is indeed found all over the world. It expresses a longing on the part of humanity, the longing for the austere and pure embodied in the intact virgin; the longing for the truly maternal, protective, mature and kind, and finally the hope that always arises again when a man is born - the hope and joy signified by a child. It may be regarded as probable that Israel too had myths of this sort; Isaiah 7.14 ("Behold, a virgin shall conceive ...") could certainly be explained as the echo of an expectation of this sort, even though it is not absolutely clear from the text of this passage that a virgin in the strict sense of the term is meant. If the passage should properly be understood by reference to such sources, this would mean that via this detour the New Testament had taken up humanity's confused hopes in the virgin-mother. Such a primordial theme in human history is certainly not just meaningless.

But at the same time it is quite clear that the immediate antecedents of the New Testament accounts of Jesus' birth from the Virgin Mary lie not in the realm of the history of religions but in the Old Testament. Extra-biblical stories of this kind differ profoundly in vocabulary and imagery from the story of the birth of Jesus. The main contrast consists in the fact that in pagan texts the Godhead almost always appears as a fertilising, procreative power, thus under a more or less sexual aspect and hence in a physical sense as the "father" of the saviour-child. As we have seen, nothing of this sort appears in the New Testament.

The conception of Jesus is new creation, not begetting by God. God does not become the biological father of Jesus, and neither the New Testament nor the theology of the Church has fundamentally ever seen in this narrative of the Annunciation or in the event recounted in it the real ground for the divinity of Jesus, his "Sonship" of God. For this does not mean that Jesus is half God, half man; it has always been a basic tenet of the Christian faith that Jesus is completely God and completely man.

According to the faith of the Church the Sonship of Jesus does not rest on the fact that Jesus had no human father; the doctrine of Jesus' divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage. For the Sonship of which faith speaks is not a biological but an ontological fact, an event not in time but in God's eternity; God is always Father, Son and Spirit; the conception of Jesus does not mean that a new God-the-Son comes into being, but that God as Son in the man Jesus draws the creature man to himself, so that he himself "is" man.

So far as the theology of the Church is concerned, does it not speak continually of the "physical" Sonship of Jesus, and does it not thereby reveal its mythical background? Indubitably the formula about the "physical" Sonship of Jesus is extremely unfortunate and wide open to misunderstanding; it shows that in about two thousand years theology has not succeeded in freeing its conceptual terminology from the shell of its Hellenistic origin. "Physical" is meant here in the sense of the ancient concept of "physis", that is, nature, or, better, "being". It signifies that which belongs to being.

"Physical Sonship" therefore means that Jesus is from God in his being, not just in his conscious being; the word consequently expresses opposition to the idea of the mere adoption of Jesus by God. Obviously the being-from-God indicated by the word "physical" is meant to be taken not on the plane of biological generation but on the plane of the divine being and its eternity. The word is asserting that in Jesus human nature was assumed by him who from eternity belongs "physically" (= really, by his being) to the tri-une relationship of the divine love.

If the conception of Jesus by the Virgin through God's creative power has nothing to do with his Sonship, at any rate directly, what kind of meaning does it possess? The phrase "Son of God", in contrast to the simple expression "the Son", belongs to the Old Testament theology of election and hope, and marks out Jesus as the true heir to the promises, the king of Israel and of the world. The context in which the phrase is to be understood now becomes clearly visible: it is Israel's faith and hope, which, as we have said, did not remain completely unaffected by heathen hopes of miraculous births but gave them a completely new form and a totally changed meaning.

The Old Testament contains a whole series of miraculous births, always at decisive turning-points in the history of salvation: Isaac's mother, Sarah (Gen 18), Samuel's mother (1 Sam. 1-3)) and the anonymous mother of Samson (Judges 13) are all barren and all human hope of their being blessed with children has been abandoned. With all three the birth of the child who eventually contributes to Israel's salvation comes to pass as a gracious manifestation of the mercy of God, who makes the impossible possible (Gen 18.14; Luke 1.37), elevates the lowly (1 Sam 2.7; 1.11; Luke 1.52; 1.48) and puts down the mighty from their thrones. With Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother, this process is continued (Luke 1.7-25, 36), and it reaches its climax and goal in Mary.

The meaning of the occurrence is always the same: the salvation of the world does not come from man and his own power; man must let it be bestowed upon him, and he can only receive it as a pure gift. The virgin birth is not a lesson in asceticism nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus' Sonship; it is first and last theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance, as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world. This idea of salvation through God's power alone is formulated magnificently in the Book of Isaiah in the passage which runs: "Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord" (Is 54.1; cf Gal 4.27; Rom 4.17-22)

In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, despairing mankind, a new beginning which is not the product of human history but a gift from above. Even every mere human being represents something unspeakably new, something more than the sum of its chromosomes and the product of a certain environment, in fact a new creature of God; but Jesus is the truly new, coming not from mankind's own resources but from the spirit of God. For this reason he is Adam for the second time (1 Cor 15.47) - a new incarnation begins with him.

In contrast to all those chosen before him Jesus not only receives the spirit of God; in his earthly existence he is only through the spirit and therefore he is the fulfillment of all prophets: he is the true prophet.

It should not be necessary to point out that all these assertions only have a meaning on the assumption that the happening whose meaning they seek to elucidate really took place. They are the interpretation of an event; if this event were removed they become downright dishonest.

Christian faith really means precisely the acknowledgement that God is not the prisoner of his own eternity, not limited to the solely spiritual; that he is capable of operating here and now, in the midst of my world, and that he did operate in it through Jesus, the new Adam, who was born of the Virgin Mary though the creative power of God, whose spirit hovered over the waters at the very beginning, who created being out of nothing.

The meaning of the divine symbol of the virgin birth, if properly understood, indicates at the same time the proper theological place for a devotion to Mary that lets itself be guided by the faith of the New Testament. Devotion to Mary cannot be based on a Mariology that represents a sort of miniature second edition of Christology - such a duplication is neither right nor justifiable on the evidence. If one wanted to indicate a department of theology to which Mariology belonged as its concrete illustration, it would probably be the doctrine of grace, which of course goes to form a whole with ecclesiology and anthropology. As the true "daughter of Sion", Mary is the image of the Church, the image of believing man, who can only come to salvation and to himself through the gift of love - through grace.

The saying with which Bernanos ends his 'Diary of a Country Priest' - "Everything is grace" - a saying in which a life which seemed to be only weakness and futility can see itself as full of riches and fulfilment - truly becomes in Mary, "full of grace" (Luke 1.28), a concrete reality. She does not contest or endanger the exclusiveness of salvation through Christ; she points to it. She represents mankind, which as a whole is expectation and which needs this image all the more when it is in danger of laying aside waiting and putting its trust in doing, which -indispensable as it is - can never fill the void which threatens man when he does not find that absolute love which gives him, meaning, salvation, all that life really needs.