Bringing Forth Jesus

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. ~ St. Luke 1: 30-31

Of all the promises that have ever been spoken in human hearing, whether by man or by angel or by God himself, surely this is the most marvelous: Thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son.

These words, spoken to the Virgin as the chosen vessel for the Incarnation of his Son, contain the mystery of the means for the achievement of God’s redemptive purpose in the world, because this Jesus, whom Mary will bring forth, is to save his people from their sins.  But they also sum up, as no other words can, God’s purpose in creation itself, in the whole sweep of human history, in his Word as given to us in the Old and New Testaments, and in the life of every person brought forth by means of physical birth.

For, if it should be asked why God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that in them is, here is the truest and simplest reply: to bring forth his Son. Or, should we seek his purpose in the millennia and vicissitudes of man’s history on earth, we shall fall short if we find it in any other end than this: to bring forth Christ. Let diligent search be made regarding the common concern of the writers of the Old Testament—our conclusion can be none other than that they desired to bring forth the Messiah, the Son of God. And to what other goal, we may well ask ourselves, can the Holy Spirit possibly be guiding his Church through the teaching of the writers of the New Testament, if not to the bringing forth of the only-begotten God? 

Finally, should any human being inquire about the meaning of his existence, that person need look no further than this one supreme purpose of God: that he too, like Mary, might conceive and bring forth a son, that is, the Christ.

To “bring forth” is the Bible’s way of saying, to “give birth,” or to “bear a child.” Of Mary alone, of course, can it be said that—through the literal implantation of the divine Seed and physical labor pains—she actually gave birth to a baby named Jesus, who would grow up under her care to become the Savior of her people. But to “bring forth” has a second meaning also, that being to “make evident or manifest,” to “bring out of obscurity and into the light.”

It is in this metaphorical sense that creation, history, the Holy Scriptures, the Church, and the individual man and woman may be said no less truly to “bring forth” Jesus, through a process analogous to natural conception, gestation, and birth. Seen in this way, each plays its ordained role in the great eternal purpose of God to make known his grace and wisdom to the angels (Ephesians 3:9-11) by bringing his Son, who is himself the true light (John 1:9), out of a dark place (2 Peter 1:19) and into the glorious fullness of his promised manifestation.

Because Jesus is the central figure in this greatest of all dramas, it is only fitting that we take special notice first of his birth, or his “bringing forth,” not only because his Incarnation was necessary to the work of redemption accomplished in his human body on the cross, but because his birth through Mary established the pattern for the spiritual birth required of anyone who would enter the kingdom of God.  

The miracle of the Incarnation lies, of course, not in the birth itself, which took place according to nature, but in the mysterious conception of life in the womb of a virgin. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit supernaturally implanted the divine Seed within Mary,  so that she was—quite without her understanding how it came to be—found to be with child (Matthew 1:18). 

This certainly did not happen against her will, for she had voluntarily submitted herself to the Lord, but neither was it the result of her own volition, for nowhere are we told that she sought the honor of bringing forth the Messiah. Quite to the contrary, elsewhere we learn that none of God’s children is born as a result of human will, but by the will of the Father. So it was in the case of Mary, the mother of our Lord’s humanity, that the Father chose by whom and through whom his Son would be brought forth.

Having observed these things about the conception of the Christ, we can turn our attention to the growth of the Holy One in the Virgin’s womb. It was during her nine-month pregnancy that the Word of God was becoming flesh,  or being made in the likeness of men.  In this connection we may perhaps be permitted to notice the great hymn of praise to God—the Magnificat—that Mary spontaneously brings forth in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55). 

As a whole it is patterned after the prayer of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, upon conceiving and bearing the son whom she had requested from and promised to the Lord,  but its phrasing, traceable to many passages in the Old Testament, is a beautiful testimony to the intimate familiarity of Mary with the Scriptures, which she had evidently held in her heart and pondered, just as she would later hold in her heart and ponder the words of the shepherds and her Son’s own sayings.  

Thus we see that within her in whom the personal Word of God literally dwelt during his formation as a man, the verbal utterances of God also dwelt richly, and no doubt increased in fruitfulness even as the Christ-Child within her grew, until that blessed time that she brought him forth, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger. 

We need not dwell overlong on the role that creation plays, or will play, in bringing forth Christ. In the beginning, it provided a stage upon which redemption could be worked out, and at the end, it will rejoice together with us at the manifestation of the sons of God, when Christ returns in glory and creation too will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of that glory. But until that time, St. Paul tells us, all of nature is enduring birth pains of its own, as it eagerly awaits with us the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:19-23). 

The end and purpose of all human history, much like its beginning in creation, is shrouded in mystery. This much we do know: history’s goal is the resurrection of the dead, followed by the final consummation, when Christ the King will be brought forth by the Father to put all enemies, including death, under his feet, and to deliver up the Kingdom to his Father, that God may be all, and in all (1Corinthians 15:24-28). 

This ultimate “bringing forth” of Christ, hidden in its details even from the human understanding of Jesus (Matthew 24:26), is a matter the time and place of which it is best not to speculate, but simply to await with perfect assurance and eager anticipation, knowing that it will be an event glorious beyond all that we can ask or think.

While those secret or hidden things having to do with the Second Coming properly belong to God alone, the things he has chosen to reveal belong to us,  and so we may with profit trace the Old Testament history leading up to the bringing forth of Christ at his First Advent. Indeed, God’s entire revelation to man between creation and the days of John the Baptizer was given primarily to prepare the way for the coming of his Son. 

The promise made to Adam and Eve on the occasion of the Fall was that the seed of the woman would one day bruise the head of the serpent.  And so we see that from the first man, Adam, began the direct line that would lead in time to the Second Man, the Last Adam, the Lord from heaven,  who would, by bearing their sins in his body on the cross,  redeem Adam and all his descendants who would believe in that same promise.

The New Testament itself affirms this line of descent by providing us with the genealogy of Jesus. St. Matthew’s Gospel shows that the Messiah is “the son of David, the son of Abraham,” and St. Luke traces his ancestry even further back, to its ultimate source in Adam, “the son of God.” Each generation in the line contributed to the bringing forth of Christ, according to the Father’s working and calling from the beginning. The Lamb without spot or blemish would come in spite of his ancestors’ sin and failure and rebellion. Those chosen to carry on the Messianic line unbroken were not the wise, the mighty, and the noble, but the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised—in short, unworthy sinners like Judah and Tamar, Rehab the harlot, David and Bathsheba, and yes, Mary and Joseph.

No reader of the Old Testament can fail to be impressed by its story of human suffering and pain. Joy is found within its pages, too, of course, but more often than not as a kind of postscript. Take the Book of Job, for example. The righteous man’s years of prosperity and blessing both before and after his calamity, while far outnumbering the years (or months) of his tribulation, are dispensed with in but a few verses.  

The same holds true, for the most part, from Genesis to Malachi. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel—all these lived lives characterized by affliction, hardship, and labor, poignantly reminding us that God had decreed that the lot of fallen man should be to eat his bread in the sweat of his face, and to bring forth fruit from the ground with sorrow.  But we fail to recognize the true significance of this if we do not constantly attend to God’s purpose through it all: to bring forth Christ. After all, did not the Lord say to the woman, “I will greatly increase your sorrow and your pain in pregnancy, and in sorrow you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16)? What else could he have intended but that her Seed would not be brought forth except through much tribulation? 

As God’s chosen people, Israel was the vehicle for the accomplishment of the divine purpose. Isaiah even sums up the nation’s role by likening her to a woman in labor, and calling attention to the necessity of her history of affliction.  “Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day,” he asks, “or shall a nation be born at once?” Of course not! No one ever heard of such a thing! That would be like a woman bringing forth her child before she travails. It was quite clear to him that the promised Messiah would not come except Israel endure a difficult pregnancy and painful labor. But the Lord’s reassuring word to the people through Isaiah was that he would cause them to deliver. “Shall I bring to the birth, and not cause to bring forth?” he asks them, clearly intimating that God would in no wise abort what he had begun.

Jesus spoke of Israel’s part in the divine plan when he said to the disciples, “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come…” (John 16:21a). The last prophets of the Old Testament were agreed in proclaiming that Israel’s hour had indeed come. After a period of divine silence between Malachi and the voice of John the Baptizer crying out in the wilderness, she could break into song,  because, having brought forth the Christ-Child, “she remembered no more the anguish, for joy that a man was born into the world.” 

We have seen that God’s purpose in creation, in history, and in the revelation of the Old Testament (especially as it pertains to Israel) is to bring forth his Son, Jesus, and to make him fully manifest to the world. It remains for us to show how this is also his purpose in his Church and in the life of every individual believer, through the teaching of the New Testament, and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

In the New Testament, specifically in St. Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, the Church is called the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). As such, it is designed to be the visible manifestation of the Son of God in and to the world. Just as the eternal Word had to become flesh, or take on a human body, in order to be revealed to men, so the Church is spoken of as a body—his Body—because of her purpose to make the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ evident for all to see.

If it may be said that the Church was born at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit sealed his mission and her ministry,  then we must naturally find her conception (and therefore the beginning of her existence) earlier: that is, precisely when the first man and woman believed the promise of God that a Redeemer would come (Genesis 3:20-21).  Consequently, as we have already seen, the Old Testament shows us the Church in what might be called her “pre-natal” development. And even the Gospels, which relate the earthly life of the incarnate Christ, are merely preparatory to the emergence of the Church as his mystical, spiritual Body.

But how does the Church “bring forth” Christ? The answer to this question has at least two dimensions. The first, in line with what we have said previously, is historical. In the same way that the human body grows from infancy through childhood and adolescence to adulthood, so has the Body of Christ grown in the two thousand years since its birth. And just as the human body, in the process of its development, more fully reveals the personality and character of the one to whom it belongs, so too the Church, that spiritual Body, has more completely articulated who Christ is.

Throughout her history God has tested his Church with afflictions and troubles in order to season and refine her. Always the divine intent is to bring forth Christ by gradually bringing his people into their spiritual majority as a Body, and the means ever abide the same: the Word of God, the Sacraments, and the Holy Spirit. He has given teachers to his Church through the centuries to mature the members so that they might be better equipped for the work of the ministry, that the Body of Christ might grow to completion, “unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Then, and only then, will Christ have been brought forth in this world to the satisfaction of the Father, insofar as imperfect human beings are able to manifest him.

The other dimension of the Church’s role in bringing forth Christ has to do with her faithfulness in every generation to proclaim the Word. Jesus himself commissioned the disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations, teaching them about him and “bringing him forth,” so to speak, before them, as St. Paul would openly portray Christ on the cross for the benefit of the Galatians. The testimony of the Church in the world is the witness to who Jesus Christ is. It is by this testimony that the Lord adds souls to the Church,  enabling her to grow in size and stature.

In this connection, finally, it is God’s desire for every person to bring forth Christ in a unique and individual manner.  What Mary did in a literal way, any man, woman, or child, can do in a figurative, but no less real, sense. But just as no women can bear a child unless life first be conceived within her, so no man, woman, or child can bring forth Christ unless Christ first be conceived within by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and washing of regeneration in Holy Baptism.  Nothing can happen until there be a miraculous conception such as Jesus was referring to when he said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above.”  When once this has taken place, as the moment when one believes in Christ as Savior, then all else can follow, after the analogy of natural generation, leading eventually to a birth—not now one’s own, but the bringing forth of Christ.

The way this occurs is set forth for us beautifully in St. John’s telling of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). Here we see, in its most profound sense, the wonderful “way of a man with a maid” spoken of by the writer of Proverbs. The man Jesus meets and talks with her in a place that the patriarch Jacob had given to his son Joseph, and in which, as Scripture elsewhere informs us, Joseph’s bones had been buried (Joshua 24:32). 

Mysteriously—for John nowhere tells us that it happens, and yet nothing is more certain than that it does—the Holy Spirit acts upon the woman to persuade her to believe in the Messiah who has come,  and as soon as she has “conceived,” he begins to knit together within her, not the bones of Joseph (which have of course long since disintegrated), but the “bones” or body of the Christ whom Joseph represented. This is that which is spoken of in the Scriptures: “As thou knowest not what is the way of the Spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child, even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.” 

But how can we tell, you ask, that Christ is being brought forth, even from that moment of faith, within her? We can tell by one of the sure signs, or fruits, of the conception of Christ’s life: the woman leaves her waterpot and goes to show her neighbors Jesus, thereby bringing him forth to and for them.  Without her even being aware of it, she is manifesting him to them, and doing it so plainly that they believe without seeing him for themselves. This is her manner of bringing forth Christ. In it, she who had previously lived unto herself at long last discovered the purpose of her creation and life.

For the believer, bringing forth Christ is a lifelong process, during which Christ is being formed within him.  There is only one “conception,” at the moment of believing baptism, but there may—indeed, must—be many individual “births” by which this Christ who is being formed is manifested outwardly. These are invariably preceded by trials, difficulties, hardship, and failures, all of which serve in the spiritual process much the same purpose that labor or birth pains serve in the physical: to prepare and open the way for the Lord to come forth, and then to magnify the joy that comes with the realization that not just any man, but the Man, Christ Jesus, is being brought into the world.

Imagine for a moment the rejoicing in the heart of Mary as she gazed in wonder upon that newborn Babe, miraculously conceived and now actually come forth, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger. The weariness of bearing him matters not to her now, nor the smell of the stable, nor the cold and dark of the night, but only the thought that she has been chosen and used by God to do what only God can do: bring forth his Son.

May the Lord grant that this joy and rejoicing be in our hearts, too, these Advent and Christmas seasons, and every day of the coming year.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.