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Instead of saying that Jesus “was born of the Virgin Mary”, the New Roman Missal has us saying he “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” Why?
To say, “Jesus was born of Mary” sounds like she gave birth to God. The original creed in Latin emphasized her participation in providing flesh (a human body) for Jesus, i.e., the “incarnation” of Jesus. BUT — Among the most controversial and misunderstood arguments over the years goes back to a very early Council of the Church, in which Mary is defined as the “theotokos” or Mother of God. Irenaeus wrote: “The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God” (Against Heresies, 5:19:1 [A.D. 189]).
The incarnation means that Jesus was born of Mary, doesn’t it? No. And this is a good example of why many people are having a hard time accepting changes in the Missal. They want to know: Why is it even necessary to change the words? We all need to become more aware of words, paying attention to semantics and the true meaning of words, rather than remain on automatic pilot, so to speak, making assumptions about meanings based on how one has used the words in the past. That’s one of the main reasons why Church authorities decided to change the Missal. An example would be how we so readily say “I love pizza” when in fact what is meant is “I enjoy eating pizza”; one cannot “love” an inanimate object, because love is an act of doing good for and caring about someone.
To “bear” God and to “give birth” to God have two different meanings or intentions. We all bear God within us, since our baptisms. To “bear” means to “carry”. For example, “I am bearing a heavy load.” To “give birth” to God means that God did not exist until conceived in and produced from Mary’s womb.
Mary is the “Mother of God” only by the fact that she carried or “bore” Jesus the Son in her womb and mothered him throughout his childhood years. She did not carry God the Father or God the Holy Spirit in her womb, although her womb did hold Christ’s unity with the Father and the Spirit. And she certainly did not precede God, not even God the Son Jesus.
Semantically-speaking, for Jesus to be “born” of the Virgin Mary means he did not exist until conceived in her womb.
Because we’ve not been careful with our semantics, we the Church have caused some confusion about our beliefs. It has led Protestants to think that Catholics believe that Mary preceded God. And even within our own Church, it’s hard for those who have not been well formed in the Faith to think of Jesus as existing before he was conceived in Mary’s womb. Did you know that the Old Testament has stories of the pre-incarnated Jesus?
© 2011 by Terry A. Modica
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