1:18. Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. While his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before their coming together, she was found to bear a child in her womb by the Holy Spirit.
The Greek language can be so rich in expression, so visceral and incarnate, that it can be startling to read the flesh-and-blood words of Scripture after our much more conceptual way of speaking in our current world. For example, the phrase for pregnant in this text is en gastri ekousa, literally translated “in her womb having.” Our word “pregnant” does not at all convey the same depth of feeling, does it, though it means the same thing? “I have a child in my womb!” the pregnant woman wants to cry, from the heart of her own experience and all that it entails. The child is something—someone—so intimately present, at first unfelt except in the affection of the heart, and then so vividly tangible that it is impossible to ignore. All that is at first known is that man and woman “came-together” (another word we’ll speak about in a moment) and then that the woman’s monthly period has stopped. At first so small, but communicating so much: the gift has been given and the gift has been received; no longer then is the woman’s body awaiting the gift that makes her fruitful, rather, she is now harnessed in sheltering and nourishing the new life conceived in her. This is the ordinary course of events.
The woman’s body stands in readiness, her womb, her gastri, is empty, not with hollowness but with receptivity to life and love. And then, after the gift meets her receptivity, her womb is filled: in gastri ekousa, in her womb she is found to be bearing, to be bearing a sacred mystery and an unrepeatable life. But in the case of Mary, the mother of Jesus, things occurred differently. She was found to be bearing a child in her womb before she and Joseph came together, before any act occurred that could generate new human life in this womb…that is, any act except that referred to by the terse and yet significant words, “by the Holy Spirit,” ek pneumatos hagiou. “Before they came together, Mary was found to be with child in her womb by the Holy Spirit.” The phrase for coming-together here is sunelthein autous, literally meaning “came together themselves,” or “brought themselves together.” It is a compound of syn- and elthein, with autous referring to the persons, Joseph and Mary, who are being brought together. It makes one think of other words: synod, synergy, synergistic. It implies a flowing together of two persons, two energies, into a single life.
This phrase refers not just to the sexual act, however, but also to particularities of Jewish practice. For the state of marriag in which Mary and Joseph were when she conceive was the betrothal, a time in which promises had been made but the fullness of marital union had not yet been fulfilled. It was a time in which the betrothed couple lived separately, awaiting the marriage feast in which the husband would take his wife to live with him in his own home, which he prepared for her. It was thus, so to speak, a pre-marriage marriage, and provided the perfect place for God to accomplish in Mary his wondrous plans of the incarnation of his Son. For she was entrusted into the care of a man, Joseph, who would protect and care not only for her (and for the mystery of her virginity), in the chastity that God had fashioned in him, but also for the child to be born of her. It may go without saying, but we’ll mention it here, that the “before” in this passage—i.e. “before they came together” does not imply that they had intercourse afterwards (the Church teaches Mary’s perpetual virginity, and this alone does full justice to the inner harmony of the mystery). It refers rather precisely to what we said: that the conception takes place in this “pre-marital” engagement state and also before any sexual act has occurred, and thus it can only be precisely what it claims to be, namely, “of the Holy Spirit.”
Let us return to the passage and to the significance of the words: “before they came together Mary was found to be with child in her womb by the Holy Spirit.” The language that Matthew employs is significant. He is explicitly putting Joseph’s begetting capacity side by side with that of the Holy Spirit, in effect saying, “not this, but this,” in other words, “not a natural human begetting, but the begetting effected by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit” (to use Luke’s phrase, cf. Lk 1:35). Here the synergy of two beings, the coming-together of two persons, is not man and woman, but woman and the Holy Spirit, who enters into her and commingles his own being and activity with hers, thus bringing to conception within her the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Yes, the coming-together of man and woman is replaced, here, by the coming-together of God and woman, by the kiss and marriage, in the singular person and experience of the Virgin Mary, of God and humanity.
Here we see present in seed all the richness of the meaning of Mary’s virginity and her motherhood. As daughter of the heavenly Father, she is capable, in the purity of heart that springs from the security of belovedness, to offer her own body as spouse to the gift of God, in virginal and nuptial receptivity. And as the fruit of this coming-together, this meeting of God’s gift and her receptivity, there is a kiss of human and divine, a primal intimacy of body and spirit that is an example and a hope for all humanity: spousal communion with God. But obviously this is not the only fruit; the fruit is also, as we are so used to thinking and saying, “the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Mary, through her virginal spousehood, through offering her whole sexual and maternal capacity directly to God, conceives the very Son of God in her womb, and becomes the mother of God.
And this makes the statement we paused on previously even more amazing: not only is Mary found to “be bearing in the womb,” but she is found to be bearing God himself! She is found to be with child in her womb of the Holy Spirit, and this child is none other than the Son who is begotten in the bliss of eternity from the bosom of the Father by the power of the same Holy Spirit. What happens for all eternity in the innermost mystery of the Trinity’s life has now extended itself outward, in gift and vulnerability, to become flesh in time and space: the Son is begotten of the Father in the joy of eternity, now the Son is begotten, as a human being, in the sanctuary of the Virgin Mary’s flesh. Thus she becomes “God’s little heaven,” the temple of his presence and the ark of his covenant. The infinite and eternal God, boundless in power and wisdom and encompassing the entire universe in the womb of his love, deigns to become fully present, a mere dot, and yet full of overflowing life, in the womb of Mary.