As Mary makes her weary way to Bethlehem the Christ within her is about to face one of the most dangerous moments of his existence. For both mother and child the journey from womb to outside world in first century Palestine comes with a high mortality risk; their fates entwined together, either might kill the other.
St Luke gives few insights into the unborn Christ, telling us briefly of how John the Baptist, himself yet unborn, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visits. But that account, taken with the story of Gabriel’s visit, is enough to establish that the Son of God did not take on human form at any point later than conception. It’s not a point I’ve heard dwelt on by preachers and theologians, and liturgically it all gets lost in the joy of Christmas when we gaze in awe at the infant in the manger, yet the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy matter.
The Early Fathers had a knock down argument for the necessity of the incarnation; “What has not been assumed (by God) has not been saved”, they stated. The salvation of humanity could only be accomplished, and was fully accomplished, by true God becoming truly human. Christ became first a single vital cell, then a rapidly dividing clump of cells, then embryo and foetus. Just as the creed affirms that at Easter Christ descends to hell to save the dead, so, in these nine hidden months God works the salvation of the many that will never see the light of day: the miscarried; the aborted; the stillborn.
At the same time he himself is being fashioned both by God and Mary. A recent academic study found that human metabolism is fixed before birth, so that, inter alia, mothers who diet during pregnancy are more likely to have children with a lifelong tendency to obesity. How Mary has lived during these nine vital months will affect, indeed quite literally shape, her son for the whole of his life. She is no passive incubator of the divine child but fully part of his formation. He shares not just her genes but the consequences of her actions. We, who share her flesh, are both active in the drama of salvation and shapers of the living Christ that is revealed to the world.
In little over a couple of days the full joy of Christmas will be upon us; for today the task is to pause, and be with Mary in her pregnancy, and all that it means for us.