In the Gospel of St Luke we have the simple yet awesome account of the Annunciation (Luke: 1:26-28): namely what Catholic doctrine describes as the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary of Nazareth.
"From the first formulations of her faith, the Church has confessed that Jesus was conceived solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, affirming also the corporal aspect of this event: Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit 'without human seed'." (Council of Lateran)
The early Church Fathers saw in the virginal conception the sign that it was truly the Son of God who came in humanity like our own. Thus St Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century declared: "You are firmly convinced about Our Lord, who is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and the power of God, truly born of a Virgin 'he was truly nailed to a tree for us in his flesh under Pontius Pilate', he truly suffered, as he is also truly risen" (Quoted in Catechism of Catholic Church, 496).
In the Second Book of Samuel, an Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled (7:1-5), where we are told that the House of David, Jesus' house, would emerge into an eternal kingdom - an entirely new world with a fresh creation. Just as the world and man were God's first creation, so through Jesus, born of the race of Adam and Eve, God would recreate the world and man.
This is why Jesus was virginally conceived: to emphasise that God was giving mankind a fresh start; and a new covenant. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary's womb because he is the New Adam, the one who inaugurates the new creation. As St Paul tells us: "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust, the second man is from heaven" (1 Cor.15:45, 47).
From the moment of conception, Christ's humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God "gives him the Spirit without measure" ( John 3:34). And from "his fullness" as head of redeemed humanity "we have received grace upon grace" (John.1:16).
It should also be noted that Mary the Mother of Jesus was visited by the Archangel Gabriel in her home town, Nazareth, a place never mentioned in the Old Testament, unlike both Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Nazareth therefore becomes a new Scriptural name, one that points, as it were, to a fresh beginning.
It is significant that the Archangel Gabriel was chosen to inform Mary of her divine election, for in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament (Chapters: 7-9), Gabriel foretold the end of the Old Covenant and the anointing of the Holy One - the Messiah - who would fulfil all the prophesies and begin a new and everlasting Kingdom.
From the Prophets of the Old Testament, namely those authorised to speak for God, we are told that the hope of future salvation will be accomplished by an anointed king of the family of David. Even such details as the place of the Messiah's birth, Bethlehem, were foretold by the prophets, as they gradually unfolded the divine plan of salvation in their prophesies and writings.
As the Catechism reminds us (64): "Through the prophets, God forms his people in the hope of salvation, in the expectation of a new and everlasting Covenant intended for all, to be written in their hearts. The prophets proclaim a radical redemption of the People of God, purification from all their infidelities, a salvation which will include all the nations."
This Messiah, this Christ, is of course God-made-man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Eternal Word of God, born of the Virgin Mary. He is the fulfillment of all the prophecies pointing to the Saviour of the world; he is the one anointed by God to reconcile sinful man with God.
The word "Christ" comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah, which means anointed. It became the name proper to Jesus only because he accomplished perfectly the divine mission that "Christ" signifies. In effect, in Israel those consecrated to God for a mission that he gave were anointed in his name. This was the case for the kings, for priests, and, in rare instances, for prophets.
This had to be the case all the more so for the Messiah whom God would send to inaugurate his kingdom definitively. It was necessary that the Messiah be anointed by the Spirit of the Lord at once as king and priest, and also as prophet. For Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in this threefold office ( Catechism of the Catholic Church, 485).
The Christ is born of the Virgin Mary; he is the one who recreates the world and gives all mankind a new beginning, regardless of the past. All who acknowledge him as Lord in loving repentance and believe the Good News he announces to the world are to be redeemed.
The Blessed Virgin Mary found favour with God (Luke 1:26-28) and through Jesus' work of redemption we all have found favour with God our Father. In Jesus we can begin anew. In Jesus we have a Messiah, a Saviour, who grants us a new start. God has willed to take away our past so that we can begin anew in his merciful love.
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is a priest of the Lismore Diocese who resides at Port Macquarie, NSW.