In these past days, as Advent draws to a close and birth of Christ draws near, the readings at Daily Mass have recounted the divine initiative in the miraculous births of John the Baptist, and Samson. To this list we could add Isaac, Samuel and, of course Jesus. In these cases, women who were barren, or aged, or, in Mary’s case, a virgin, all conceive as the result of God’s special act.
For, although God most often acts to create us through the natural order of things, it remains true that God can overrule the usual course, such that a woman in her 90s (Sarah) can conceive, or that other women though aged or barren (Such as Elizabeth, Hannah, and the Mother of Samson) bring forth Children in very unlikely circumstances. Most miraculously of all is Jesus who is, in terms of his human nature, born of Mary, though clearly a virgin.
Stories like these highlight God’s involvement in the origin of human life. There are other texts as well that speak to the fact of God’s specific intention in creating us and of His role in bringing us forth.
Hence we are told in Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5). And thus we are taught that God knows of us, and plans for us, long before we are conceived, and that it is He Himself who forms us in our mother’s womb.
We also read in Psalm 139: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:13-14). In these magnificent verses, it is clear that we are God’s personal handiwork, and thus we are wonderful, and that a holy fear should surround the existence of every human being.
As we approach Christmas we ought to ponder the magnificence of human conception, gestation, birth and life. Even as we extoll the birth of Jesus, we also do well to acknowledge the awesome and mysterious truth that every human person emerges not merely from a biological process, but from the very mind and heart of God, from his will and as an act of his love. None of us are here by accident.
Yet in modern times there are many ways that God’s sovereignty over human conception and life are usurped or ignored. Among these are:
1. In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) In IVF, a fertilizable ovum is removed from a woman’s ovary and put in a petri dish (the Latin for dish is vitrum) to which a few concentrated drops of sperm are added. This removes human conception from the marriage act, its sacred and proper place, where God acts to bestow life. IVF puts it in the laboratory where man controls the process and conception is treated as a technology and consumer product, rather than as part of a mystery of fruitful love caught up in the marriage embrace and the love God.
There is a sense on the part of many today that couples (even single people) have a right to have a child. Hence they proceed to do what they please to exercise their right. Never mind that “excess” embryos are frozen or destroyed, it’s all for a “good cause,” namely, to give the parent(s) what they want, and supposedly have a “right” to.
From a faith perspective, IVF simply rejects God’s “failure” to act in accord with the wishes of the parents, and removes the decision from God. God may be teaching something to the couple due to their infertility. Perhaps he wants them to adopt, perhaps he has a special work or cause he wants them to be devoted to. But IVF suspends such discernment, and forces the solution.
In this way the mystery and divine origin of human life is both compromised and undermined. When life is merely a technology to do with as we please, it is not long before we end up in some pretty dark places.
2. Irreverence for sexuality - Human sexual activity is sacred because it is tied to the ordinary ways in which God brings us into existence. But having set aside a deep appreciation for the sacredness and divine origin of human life, it is evident that human sexuality is both misunderstood and treated irreverently. It is ridiculed by comedians, treated casually by fornicators and degraded through the explosively high levels of pornography.
Through contraception we have sown in the wind, and are now reaping the whirlwind. For if sex is just about fun and pleasure and not linked to children, marriage or the dignity of life, then just about anything goes: teen sex, “gay” sex, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and ten thousand other aberations. Whatever feels good and gives the participants pleasure. Contraception severs the connection between sex, and life, and God. Thus endless confusions ensue, and grave darkness has come upon us as our families disintegrate, sexually transmitted diseases proliferate, teenage pregnancy and abortion escalate, and homosexuality ingratiates itself into a deeply confused populace.
But, for the Church, sex is sacred and linked to the dignity of human life and its creation by God. Conception is holy, an act of God, and those who would engage in the holy act of sex that points to conception, must do so from the sanctity of the marriage bed (for children deserve parents and a stable home), in an act open to and inviting of God, who alone is the author of sex, its meaning and the life that flows from it.
3. Abortion - We have spoken here at length of the tragedy and evil of abortion. Man usurps God’s role and claims for himself the right to kill that which God has clearly created, and is knitting together in the womb. Abortion snatches the knitting from God’s hands and says boldly to him “What are you doing?! ….This shall not be.” The mystery and dignity of every human person is undermined and endangered by this.
4. Rejection of the disabled and the imperfect – God permits, and allows that some among us have special needs. While we may wonder as to God’s ways, anyone who has worked with the disabled or had them as a member of the family know that, though hardships are surely present, the disabled bring many gifts and call forth great strength in those with whom they live and interact.
My own sister’s mental illness was a great trial for our family and yet I must declare she bestowed gifts and brought forth love in me I never knew I had. I will never forget her struggle that ended tragically, and the gift of her life and example are with me always.
But today, there are many who jettison these gifted people through abortion. A recent issue of the Ethics and Medics states the problem well:
Increasingly, the delivery of a healthy baby is perceived less as a blessing from God and more as an entitlement, a modern benefit associated with ever progressing medical technology. As a result, when there is a poor prenatal diagnosis, the medical focus shifts away from the baby’s condition to the pregnancy itself as a medical problem.
In a survey conducted by the American College of obstetricians and gynecologists, 90% of the doctors who responded considered abortion a justifiable treatment option for fatal fetal anomalies, and 63% considered it justifiable for nonfatal anomalies. [Monica Rafie & Tracie Windsor in Ethics and Medics Vol 36.10]
Tragically, just over 90% of unborn babies with a Down Syndrome prognosis are aborted. It is a horrifying rejection to behold. True enough, a poor prenatal diagnosis can be earth shaking, but human life is sacred and the disabled bring gifts. And even if those gifts seem to come in strange packages, God works his wonders still. Maybe they are the very way God will save us, and disarm our pride and self-reliance! Trust God, no one is an accident, no one is a mistake.
I am mindful of a quote that pertains to this last issue but also brings us back to where we started. It is from Isaiah:
Woe to him who contends with his Maker; a potsherd among potsherds of the earth! Dare the clay say to its modeler, “What are you doing?” or, “What you are making has no hands”? Woe to him who asks a father, “What are you begetting?” or a woman, “What are you giving birth to?” Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, his maker: You question me about my children, or prescribe the work of my hands for me?! It was I who made the earth and created mankind upon it; It was my hands that stretched out the heavens; I gave the order to all their host. It was I... (Isaiah 45:9-15)
At Christmas we celebrate the glory of conception, birth and the dignity of human life joined to divine life. God is the author of every human life. Not just the ones we we like, find acceptable, useful, pretty or perfect. All life comes from him and belongs to him. Jesus came to us miraculously from the Virgin Mary. And this is a solemn reminder that the initiative is always God’s. It is he who acts.
And though most all of us have been conceived in the more usual way, we too miraculously stir forth from the mind, the heart, the love of God. Human life is sacred. Sexuality is sacred, conception, gestation, and birth are all sacred. The great feast of the incarnation affirms all of this.