The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”Luke 1:35
The doctrine of the “virgin birth” has long been a matter of disturbance to some and a source of separation among various Christian denominations and sects. Its spectacular claim is, to put it mildly, an attention grabber. Those who want to belittle Christian revelation and tradition use it as a hammer to break what they take to be the illusions of the tradition’s adherents. On the other hand, believers can see it as a true measure of one’s faith that God intervenes miraculously in the lives of humanity, most especially at this unique moment of Divine Incarnation.
Although I lack the both the depth of spiritual and theological acumen to offer a definitive opinion on the matter, I do recall the words of Huston Smith which I quoted the other day: “The scriptures are too true to be merely literally and historically accurate.” Other than an attempt to prove that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise of the Hebrew scriptures, as reflected in today’s reading from Isaiah, we can ask, “What is the real significance of Jesus’ being born of a virgin?” The answer, I think, lies in the words of the angel to Mary’s question of how she can conceive, as she has not yet had sexual intercourse with a man. The angel tells her that what will happen is the work of God in her, so that her son will be called the Son of God.
I have often repeated the story of a friend who was a priest in a religious community and who would work on retreats with students of high school age. Occasionally, as the students became very familiar with him and the nature of the speaking at the retreat grew deeper and more personal, they would ask him if he was a virgin. His answer invariably was: “Not yet.” Today’s gospel teaches all of us who desire to do good in the world that if we are to do God’s will and God’s work, we must become, as our life develops, increasingly virginal. The angel tells Mary, as the prologue of John’s gospel describes it, that her Son, her great work in the world, will be born “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13).
What makes Mary such a unique figure in the scriptures is how profoundly she recognizes and responds to the work of God in her. As Jan van Ruusbroec points out, Mary’s response to this extraordinary call is that of the most profound humility. She praises God who has done this work in her, a lowly one, and she then immediately goes out to help her cousin Elizabeth. Mary wholeheartedly gives her heart, body, and soul to God that God might do with her as God wills, and is moved from that place to serve Elizabeth and ultimately the entire world and course of history by allowing Jesus, the Christ, to come to birth in her.
As with every aspect of our human being, our work lives have many and varied motivations, some of which we are aware and others that we are not. The spiritual teaching we hear in today’s gospel and in the life and story of Mary is that the unique work of God that we are called to do in the world manifests most fully as we, in a sense, disappear. This is not a self-depreciative disappearing. It is not the way we long not to be seen when we feel shame. It is rather a purity of heart, a single-mindedness that we develop to the degree that we live only to be who we are called to be and to do what we are called to do.
Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation and whose entire young adult life was lived in the shadow of her eventual arrest and deportation. Her journals, which became gathered in the text entitled An Interrupted Life, reflect her vibrant inner life and her quest for an integrity and authenticity in life that comes from living one’s own life and experience to the full whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves. She realizes that to find such integrity, to do what is hers to do, requires her to attune as fully as she can to all the dimensions of her life (body, soul, spirit) and all the vicissitudes of her thoughts and emotions. To some this my seem narcissistic preoccupation in the midst of an external horrible threat. It becomes apparent, however, that her own brutal honesty and self-examination is really her way to self-transcendence, a transcendence that becomes a source of inner strength for her. This strength allows her to bear with the constant impending threat from her environment and also purify her intentions in her love and work relationships with others.
In the passage quoted below we hear her say: “I don’t fool myself about the real state of affairs, and I’ve even dropped the pretense that I’m out to help others. I shall merely try to help God as best I can, and if I succeed in doing that, then I shall be of use to others as well. But I mustn’t have heroic illusions about that either.” Adrian van Kaam says that our inner spiritual conflicts occur because of the contest between our Christ form and our pride form. Our pride form is that in us which cherishes “heroic illusions” about ourselves. Karen Horney calls this “the search for glory.” In all we say and do, there is always something of these “heroic illusions” at play. It may well be that the cause of what we experience as “unfairness” in life is the truth that the world does not cater to our illusions. We are troubled by the fact that our attempts to do good, to be of service, even to spread the gospel, are not received as fulsomely as we believe they should be. We feel as if our “heroic” efforts are underappreciated.
Etty HIllesum never ceases to challenge the ambiguity of her motives. She sees the pretense in her personal narrative that what makes her life good or valuable is that she is out to help others. She says she must drop even that and “merely try to help God as best I can.” But she even then must raise the question of authenticity, of purity of heart. Even in ‘merely” trying to help God, she can sense the intrusion of “heroic illusions.”
Mary’s virginity signals that what is occurring in her has nothing to do with any personal effort or cause on her part. It is in her emptiness that she is of service to God’s will and work in the world. As long as what we do is an attempt to be someone, to build a life of which we or others can be proud, “all is not well with us,” to quote Meister Eckhart. None of this is meant to suggest that we are to lack initiative, or zeal, or energy, or commitment in our work. Precisely the opposite is true. The way on which we are to walk, however, is the way that Etty Hillesum suggests. it is the way of brutal integrity and honesty, the acknowledgment of those pretenses that constitute aspects of our motivation. We can only drop those pretenses that we recognize and acknowledge. Another way of speaking of these is as the demands we make on life and on others. Just recently I found myself, in the midst of a rage at those who had, I felt, diminished me, stating to them in my mind that I did not demand affection but only respect. Yet, what right do I have to demand the respect of others? And what makes this so important to me?
I realized that one of my hidden motives for acting, for helping, for working as I do is my desire and demand to be respected. I think as the youngest in my extended family, I always felt that I was at best tolerated. I felt that in my “childishness” I was often an object of ridicule. As always small in size and with a minor but visible birth defect, I perpetually sensed a lack of real acceptance by others. Over the course of life, I have let go of many of these perceptions and concerns. And yet, most subtly, the residues of my fear of unacceptability persist in my demand for respect.
Etty Hillesum speaks of becoming stronger as her awareness and appropriation of her own being depend less and less on any demand or expectation she makes of others and the world. In the gospel we see that Mary’s self-definition is, finally, as “the handmaid of the Lord.” Her great work and great act is that God’s will “be done” to her. We are the instrument of God’s work in the world. It is the Christ form in us that lives and works only and exclusively in obedience to God’s will. It is that exclusivity that is the call and meaning of virginity. Along with my friend, we also can honestly say that we are not virgins yet. The more we grow in awareness, however, of the truth of ourselves and of the world, the more we recognize in humility the truth of who we are. We become “virgins” to the degree that we cease having and working from our “heroic illusions” and become simple and humble servants of the Lord.
I catch myself making all sorts of minor but telling adjustments in anticipation of life in a labor camp. Last night when I was walking along the quay beside him in a pair of comfortable sandals, I suddenly thought, “I shall take these sandals along as well. I can wear them instead of the heavier shoes from time to time.” What goes on in my head at moments like that? Such lighthearted, almost playful good humor. Yesterday was a hard, a very hard, day when I suffered agonies. Yet once more I was able to brave it all, everything that came storming at me, and now I can bear a little more than I was able to bear yesterday. And that probably explains my cheerfulness and inner peace: that I am able, time after time, to cope all by myself, that my heart does not shrivel up with the bitterness of it all, and that even the moments of deepest sadness and black despair finally make me stronger. I don’t fool myself about the real state of affairs, and I’ve even dropped the pretense that I’m out to help others. I shall merely try to help God as best I can, and if I succeed in doing that, then I shall be of use to others as well. But I mustn’t have heroic illusions about that either.Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, p. 174