A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS.” (Lk. i. 30, 31).
The truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is the first principle of the Lord’s church. This truth is more vital to the Church on earth than any other, to the degree that “the church does not exist in any one who does not confess this truth that He is the Son of God” (TCR 342:2). Thus, the doctrine of the virgin birth is also of supreme importance, for Jesus could not be the Son of God if He were the son of a man.
The Lord’s conception in a virgin is clearly miraculous, but it does not have to be a mystery. The Lord performed even this miracle according to His laws of order. The Lord’s conception in the virgin Mary is actually very much like the miracle of man’s own spiritual rebirth, or regeneration, and not so different from natural conception and birth.
God assumed the Human in the world so that He could accomplish three things: Liberation of the human race from hell’s overwhelming influence; subjugation of the hells; and the ordering of the heavens.
The Lord’s purpose was to re-establish spiritual freedom, or liberate man from hell by driving the devils out of the world of spirits and back into hell, and ordering heaven by introducing new truths concerning Himself. This could not have been done in any other way than by assuming a Human from the world, for only in this way could the hells approach near enough to tempt Him, and only through resisting their temptations could the hells be brought back into order.
The Lord assumed the Human to accommodate Himself to the states of men on earth, and He did it according to His laws of order. Since, in the order of creation, the soul comes from the father and the body from the mother, the Lord had to be born of woman without an earthly husband.
This miracle has been denied by some, and not understood by others, but the Heavenly Doctrines reveal how this happened according to order. The Lord was conceived of Jehovah. Thus His soul is from Him, and the Lord has the Divine Essence, and the Human is the Father’s Human. Jehovah and Lord are one as the soul and the body are one.
Although Jehovah descended as the Divine truth, the Lord was not only the Divine truth clothed in natural flesh, but the Divine Good, or Jehovah, as well. It is taught concerning His conception in Luke that “the power of the Highest will overshadow you,” (Lk.i. 35) and by the power of the Highest is signified the Divine Good, that is, Jehovah. (See TCR 88) The Human is actually the Son of God, because He was conceived of Jehovah God as Father, and because the soul is from the father and the body from the soul through the mother as means. (See TCR 82, 92)
Jehovah descended as to the Divine Truth, for that is what appeared to the eyes of men on earth. They could not see the soul, the Divine Good with Jesus, they could only see His Human form. Even though they could not see it, the Divine Truth was not separate from the Divine Good – there were not two Gods, only one. “He who has seen me has seen the Father; …Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John xiv. 9, 10).
Mary was probably a quiet and humble young woman who thought of herself as quite unremarkable. When Gabriel appeared to her telling her that she was “highly favoured” (Lk. i. 28) by God, she must have been troubled and frightened, because she had no warning and did not understand.
Since we all fear those things we do not understand, she was afraid of Gabriel. Mary was in a state of holy fear. “Holy fear, which is sometimes conjoined with a sacred tremor of the interiors that are of the mind and sometimes with the hair standing on end, supervenes when life from the Lord enters in place of one’s own life. …In like manner and angel said to Mary, ‘Do not be afraid’ (Lk. i 30). Also an angel said to the shepherds, round about whom the glory of the Lord shone, ‘Do not be afraid’ (Lk. ii, 9, 10).” [AR 56]
Just exactly what is to be understood by a “sacred tremor of the interiors that are of the mind” (Ibid.) we do not know, but it is very interesting to note this in conjunction with another remarkable teaching of the Heavenly Doctrines, found in the True Christian Religion: “…man’s seed is conceived interiorly in the understanding, formed in the will and transferred therefrom into the testes where it clothes itself with a natural covering. It is thus conveyed into the womb and so emerges into the world.” (TCR 584)
During this state of holy fear, the interiors of Mary’s mind were undergoing tremors of some kind, which were accompanied by life from the Lord entering her and replacing her feeling of life as-of-self. Since, as before said, the Lord’s birth had to be through a virgin, the seed could not come from a human male, but had to be formed in some way from Jehovah directly in Mary. The sacred tremor in the interiors of her mind may have been a preparation for the reception of the spirit which was to form the innermost essence of the seed.
Since Gabriel told her not to fear, we know from the internal sense that she was in a state of profound humiliation. We might wonder why this was needed. The Writings teach that the Lord requires such things as humility, adoration, thanksgiving and many other things from man for man’s own sake, for only when a man is in a state of humiliation can he receive good from the Lord, because then he is separated from the love of self and its evils. These are obstacles to heaven, and therefore the Lord wills humiliation so that He may flow in with heavenly good, thus saving man. (See AC 5957)
This complements the teaching about the state of holy fear, for we can see that it is necessary for man to be separated from his proprial loves so that good from the Lord can flow in.
In a similar fashion, Mary had to be in a state of holy fear, where her feeling of self-life was suspended so that life from the Lord could flow into her mind, and thence her womb. This one time with Mary, it produced Jesus. In a man being regenerated by the Lord, it takes the form of loves in the new will.
It is significant that the angel spoke to Mary while she was awake, rather than while she was dreaming, for by being awake, it gave the appearance of a natural voice to her. A voice in the Word signifies what is announced from the Word, that is, Divine truth being presented to man in an accommodated form. In Mary’s case, the Divine truth accommodated Itself to her in a unique fashion, preparing her to conceive and bear the Divine Human. Similarly, when we read the Word in a state of humility and innocence, the Divine truths speak to us in a living voice. If we receive these truths in simple obedience, the Lord can then be born in our hearts. (See AC 6971)
Mary’s first words to Gabriel were, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Lk. i. 34) The angel had told her incredible things, and her reply reflects neither fear, nor unbelief, but contains the tacit acceptance that shows that she believed with her heart that these things must be so, because the angel had told her. She has heard the words, and will willingly obey. But her understanding needed to know what she must do to cooperate.
Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Lk. i. 35) We can be sure that she did not really understand this explanation, but it was enough for her to know that this was a miracle from Jehovah – and that she did not have to break her betrothal to Joseph to marry some other man. Her understanding was satisfied. She was persuaded that the case was so, and her response is a thing of great beauty, and example to each of us: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk. i. 38)
The word ‘maidservant’ is a translation problem, in that there is no word or short phrase in modern English usage that properly renders the meaning of the Greek. The Greek word is usually translated ‘slave.’ But ‘servant’ or ‘slave’ carries the idea, today, of unwilling service. At the time the Gospel of Luke was written, this word carried the idea of one who serves without pay, but in total freedom, from love. Perhaps the word ‘subject’ comes closest, if we think of it in terms of someone who willingly follows and serves a good and wise king.
In any case, we are not to think of Mary as an obedient hired servant doing her master’s bidding to avoid punishment or out of fear. We should think of her instead as a subject in the Lord’s kingdom, serving her God and King from true humility and innocence. Her obedience was from love, not from fear.
This idea is integral to understanding how the Lord assumed His Human, for we are taught that whatever is done in freedom is conjoined; affection is what receives, and it receives only what is in accord with the life. (See AC 2875)
Mary’s obedience to the will of the Lord had to be from freedom, in order that the Holy thing might be conjoined with her, that is, that she might conceive of the Holy Spirit. “The truth of faith is indeed learned, but is not acknowledged, still less received by good, unless there is consent from each faculty, namely the will and the understanding” (AC 3157). As Mary said, “How shall this be?… Behold the maidservant….” (Lk. i. 34, 38)
The Lord’s conception rested on Mary’s state of reception. “Conceiving signifies reception, and bearing signifies acknowledgement, that is, in the spiritual sense conceptions and births are reception of truth from good, and the consequent acknowledgements” (AC 3919). While this teaching applies primarily to man’s regeneration, it may also be seen that the spiritual sense teaches us about the Lord’s incarnation at the same time. Mary’s conception was indeed a reception of truth from good, that is, the Divine Human from Jehovah, or the Divine Truth from the Divine Good.
Mary’s reception of the Divine Truth was in the ultimates of her body only. Nothing of the Divine was conjoined with her spiritual life. She was, and still is, no different from any other woman on this earth. Swedenborg saw her in the spiritual world, and reports that, “…once Mary, the mother of the Lord, passed by, and appeared over head in white raiment, and then, stopping awhile, she said that she had been the mother of the Lord, and that He was indeed born of her, but that He became God, and put off all the human from her, and that therefore she now adores Him as her God, and is unwilling that any one should acknowledge Him as her Son, because in Him all is Divine” (CLJ 66).
The literal sense in the Gospels tells us little about Mary and Joseph, but it is enough to see how she was prepared for the miracle of the Lord’s birth.
We are told that Mary was a virgin, espoused to Joseph. This means that she was looking forward to the time when she would be married to him, her mind and affections yearning for the uses of marriage and motherhood. Who is not delighted by the sphere of a young woman, about to be married to the man she loves?
Although marriage had fallen into a low state in those times, we know that Joseph truly loved Mary in return. When he found her with child, he decided to put her away privately, since he knew no better than that she had committed adultery. This is proof of her virginity, if any is needed, for if they had been living as man and wife, he would certainly have assumed the child his, and not accused her of adultery.
The law permitted him to have her stoned for this transgression of their marriage contract. From his intended actions, we can only assume that he felt genuine sorrow that this had come about, for he wished her well even when he believed that she had betrayed him. When the angel appeared to him in a dream, he was quick to accept the angel’s message. We should take this as a further indication of his love, for although this was an incredible idea, he was able to accept it, return to Mary, and raise the child as if his own.
The image is complete. We see a young woman, a bride prepared for her husband, looking forward to the joys of marriage. A woman who lived within the Mosaic law, and believed in the strength of Jehovah, the God of fathers. As the time for her marriage to Joseph approached, her preparation for reception was completed, and the Angel of Jehovah appeared to her. The interiors of her mind which had been brought into a state of reception by her preparation, received a special influx by which the power of the Highest became clothed in such a way that she conceived a child in her womb who was the Son of God.
Every aspect, every detail of the story of Mary’s acceptance of her role in the Lord’s Advent has its parallel in the life of the man of the church who would be regenerated. If we hear the voice of the Lord in His Word, study the parts we don’t understand with affirmation, and then are willing do what we know we must from the Word, in short, if we will only not refuse to be led by the Lord, we, like Mary, can freely serve the Lord, be conjoined with Him, and He will be born in our hearts every day. AMEN.
Lessons: Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:26-38, TCR 342 (port.)