“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
The local radio station begins playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving, setting the mood for a wonderful season. So, like Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song,” long before Christmas morn, I dream of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at my nose, and tiny tots with their eyes all aglow. Yuletide carols being sung by a choir help us make the season bright, yet there is more to it.
The words spoken to Isaiah, the prophet, remind us of the axial point of Christmas: Immanuel, God with us. These prophetic utterances presuppose God’s downward movement from lofty grandeur to make his dwelling among mortal human beings. Taking the initiative, God comes to us as a baby named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6b).
Matthew and Luke provide the backdrop to the advent of the Christ child. Mary, who was a young girl from Nazareth engaged to Joseph, became pregnant without natural human conception. Moreover, her experience is wrapped in the most wonderful narrative of angelic visitation, prophetic fulfillment, and divine intervention. Mary was chosen to be the Theotokos and announcer of Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel; God is with us.
The Conceiving Wonders of Advent
Luke writes about how the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, taking over the process of human fertilization. Human conception involves a single male sperm attaching itself to a female egg. The sperm provides 23 chromosomes that join the other 23 in the egg. Through this process, two sets of chromosomes join to create a unique genetic code that determines an individual’s sex, hair color, and contributes to many other human characteristics. Indeed, this is a beautiful process.
This fertilized egg is called a zygote. Through a process of cellular division called mitosis, the single-celled zygote becomes a multicellular organism. This clump of cells becomes a fully formed embryo. During gestation, a baby is formed and birthed. I know this is an abbreviated description of the process. Still, it reminds us of how wonderfully and fearfully we have been made (Psalm 139:14). Now, it is impossible for us to know how these processes worked when Jesus was an embryo, but we can rest assured in the wonders of God’s perfect works.
We know that the folk from Nazareth were unfamiliar with terms like fertilization, chromosomes, DNA, or zygotes. But they knew how babies were made. Therefore, Joseph’s reaction (undoubtedly symbolic of the town’s rumor fodder) to Mary’s angelic story was more than reasonable. When our most basic human responses fail to consider God’s power, he shows up and fulfills his eternal purpose. Let’s listen afresh to the words spoken by Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Can you see it? Can you see God’s miraculous intervention? As if the marvel of human conception were not enough, God breaks into the scene with wonders to redeem and bring salvation to his alienated sons and daughters. “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
- Check out biologist Ruth Bancewicz’s take on “When Jesus Was an Embryo.”
- In this video, animator Thomas Schwenke brings us a spectacular visual account of the process of human conception, development, and birth.
- In the article, “Cells, Waiting and the Birth of Christ,” biologist Ciara Reyes-Ton writes about the process of cellular division.
- You can also stroll through our carefully curated resources for an in-depth look at how science can help you approach the advent season.
What Child is This: Looking at the Wonder of the Christ Child
William Chatterton Dix, a 19th-century businessman and hymn writer, penned “What Child is This,” one of the most profound Christmas hymns. The familiar refrain rings during the season: “This, this is Christ, the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” The words are a poetic retelling of the prophetic hopes for the Messiah fulfilled by Christ. They weave a wondrous tapestry of the eternal Logos, who came down from his royal throne and made his dwelling place with us through the miracle of conception.
In listening to our Catholic brethren, we’re reminded by Pope St. John Paul II that Jesus was born not to make the season bright, but to bring hope, freedom, and peace to a world burdened by sin and needing salvation. On Christmas, Emmanuel answers the prayers of his people: “Come, Lord, Save us!” On Christmas, a tiny human baby “becomes a school of faith and life.” Therefore, as we strip away all the trappings associated with the season, we can come and encounter the face of the miraculously enfleshed God through the eyes of a tired and frightened young mother.
On Christmas, God took his place among us humans, bringing true salvation. Pope St. John Paul II declared: “The grace of God appearing in Jesus is God’s merciful love, which dominates the entire history of salvation and guides it to its definitive fulfillment.” In a world marked by scarcity and oppression, the baby wrapped in swaddling cloth becomes “a sign of love and consolation for those who feel lonely and abandoned” and for those suffering from conflicts of every kind. He is a sign of freedom to the oppressed.
It is the most wonderful time of the year, but not because of the reasons given by Emmy winner and American singer Andy Williams. It is the most wonderful time because we are reminded of a God who moves toward us, who breaks free, and who cannot be contained. In Christ, God shows up and pours out his love by taking on flesh and dwelling among us. This is the sign and wonder of Christmas.
Rachel Held Evans, the late author, says it better: “The whole story of Advent is the story of how God can’t be kept out. God is present. God is with us. God shows up—not with a parade but with the whimper of a baby, not among the powerful but among the marginalized, not to the demanding but to the humble.” Let us gaze anew at this time of signs and wonders.
In Nobis Regnat Iesus,