Psalm 25, says, “Make known to me, Oh Lord, your ways, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.”
The Letter to the Philippians includes the great hymn of Christ, which says, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and coming in human likeness.”
This bit of Scripture speaks to the Incarnation, that God became Man and dwelt among us. The incarnation and the resurrection are critical to our faith, and they are the two greatest feast seasons on the Church calendar. It’s why we bow during the Creed. It’s why we are pro-life. God became Man. Today, I would like us to consider the great question of when did Jesus become human?
The church is not a political organization, and therefore it does not tell its members how to vote, as a labor union or a local party might. But the church is the custodian of the deposit of faith revealed through the scriptures and to the apostles.
The Church is here to teach us the Lord’s paths and guide in his Truth, so we can know how to prioritize the political issues as we walk into the voting booth. The American Bishops have written a document in which they explain that among the many important issues voters must consider, the issue of the protection of natural human life is pre-eminent, or the highest-ranked. And what I’d like to do this morning is to reflect upon why they teach that pro-life outranks other important issues like peace and justice.
I have three births I think we should look at this morning: we need to look at how Jesus came to become human, we need to consider the story of Tamar in the Book of Genesis, and we need to hear about Grandma who was born in 1913 and died at age 98 about ten years ago.
The third joyful mystery of the Rosary is the birth of Jesus. The first two joyful mysteries are set nine months beforehand. In the Annunciation, we are told how he was conceived — how he became human. In the Visitation, we are told John recognized Jesus even though John’s mother was six months pregnant and Mary was not even six weeks pregnant.
The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, and that’s how Jesus was conceived. After the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, we are told she went straight away to see her cousin Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant. As Mary is walking in to see her cousin, Elizabeth tells her how John leapt with joy at the presence of his Lord.
Why is this important? It’s important because Jesus is God and he chooses to become human. We celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas on December 25th, but Jesus became human at the Annunciation on March 25th.
It tells us that the church knew on a supernatural level more than the science of the day could know on a natural level: that Jesus was a human person from the day of his conception. So when the church teaches us that every Life starts from the moment of conception, we Catholics should be reminded that God told us this many centuries before science confirmed it. Our morals are not limited to what science can prove or the ways of the world. Our morals should be what God has taught us, they should be God’s paths and his ways, for he is our savior.
Historians have shown that at the time of Jesus’s birth, unwanted babies were discarded, and the Christian teaching against abortion of any kind was a radical change in thought which took centuries to become the default posture in the broader culture. Somehow, we seem today to have come back around full circle.
In coming in human likeness, coming into Mary’s womb in March and being born in December, Jesus consecrated human life even beyond the dignity it received at Creation. Just as Jesus consecrated Holy Matrimony with his first miracle at the wedding in Cana and consecrated Baptism by allowing John to baptize him, Jesus consecrated human life by going through the natural method of growing in the womb and coming through the birth canal. Babies had been born forever, but we learned in the conception and birth of Jesus that God is the source of the human soul and every life is precious to him.
So what about this woman Tamar?
Tamar appears in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, as the wife of one of Judah’s sons. He dies childless, and the law and tradition was that she would become the wife of the next son, Onan. Onan did not want to have a child, so he refused to be with his wife completely, and God punished Onan with death for his unwillingness to be open to life. Now Tamar should have become the wife of Judah’s next son, but Judah did not follow the law. And Tamar in desperation tricked Judah into having a child with her through a scandalous method that I’ll let you go and read about in Chapter 38. The product of this unusual conception was Perez, who is listed along with Tamar in the genealogy of Jesus that opens Matthew’s gospel.
The book of Genesis is filled with conception and birth stories that we might find odd, even horrifying, yet the Scriptures were not cleaned up to suit our ears but written to teach us God’s ways. I chose the story of Tamar as one example because she is important enough to be listed in the genealogy of Jesus, but also because I think it serves as a warning for us about presuming we know more than God knows. God is the author of Life. He chose human life for his Son. He chose a natural human birth for his Son. He chose bizarre circumstances for the conception and birth of his Son.
He did likewise repeatedly in the story of salvation in the Old Testament. Conceived out of wedlock, conceived through deception, conceived between family members; it’s all a bit too much for our polite modern ears. He clearly does not care about the circumstances of conception and birth, but only that every human life is precious. If he puts no limits on that, then who are we to impose limits God would not? In Philippians we read today that Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, though he was actually God. We, who are not God, should follow the example Jesus set. We should pray as the Psalm prays, “Teach me your ways, O Lord.” We should ask God why he values human life as he does, and we should ask to grow in our own appreciation of human life.
So now let me tell you about Grandma. Her story is a personal confirmation for me of how God loves the human person without regard for the circumstances of how that human came to be.
Grandma is actually my wife’s grandmother, so it’s not my story as much as it is hers. Grandma, or Miss Betsy as we called her, was a grand dame of the South, born in 1913 and raised in a proper Atlanta home. She was never told anything about her birth parents. And nobody said anything more than that she was adopted, and Miss Betsy died at 98 ignorant of the circumstances of her birth.
Miss Betsy died before ancestry.com and retail DNA testing. But her daughters and grandchildren got tested to discover a significant percentage of Senagalese blood in their DNA. Senegal is in Africa, so somebody in Miss Betsy’s line was not Caucasian, which was a scandal in Atlanta in 1913. We recently learned that Miss Betsy’s slave-owning grandfather had a child with one of his slaves, and that son was raised as the plantation owner’s son. That son was a ladies’ man and had an affair with a white woman, and their child was Betsy. My wife’s great-grandmother adopted this little girl and raised her as her own daughter.
God does not care about the circumstances of these conceptions and births, only that they be allowed to go to their natural end. I would not have my wife or my children if Sylvester’s wild-catting ways had been covered up with an abortion rather than handled by a loving adoption.
Every human life is precious in God’s eyes. We must be taught to see as he does. We must be open to being like the man in the story from today’s Gospel who says “I will not” and then changes his mind and does what he did not want to do. Life is the preeminent issue in our political discussion because Jesus has consecrated life just as he consecrated marriage and baptism. We can have no justice, no peace, if we do not have life. God has shown us that the details of conception pale in comparison to the dignity of the life that results. We should let him guide us in his truth and teach us, for he is God, our savior.