A Critical Reflection on:
“…by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
The Nicene Creed is the profession of the Christian faith and contained within in it are all of the core beliefs of the faith. By proclaiming these words, the Christian is providing verbal assent to the contents of the Deposit of Faith. While these words seem basic on a superficial level, many doctrines and implications are bound within them. This paper will provide a close examination of the words “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Monumental truths about the person of Jesus and how his mother illuminates these truths can be extracted from this seemingly simple statement.
The foundational scripture passage for the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in the virginal Mary is found in Luke 1:26-38. The angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, telling her she will conceive a child and she shall name him Jesus. Alarmed, Mary asks the angel how it is possible since she is a virgin and Gabriel reveals to her that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her and she will conceive her son. Obedient to God’s will, Mary provides her “Fiat”, her consent, and the event is completed with the angel’s departure. The words in this passage are very straight-forward and do not leave room for misunderstanding the statement, “by the power of the Holy Spirit he born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” However, with further examination into the account, much more is revealed about the mission of the Blessed Trinity and Mary as well as how she illuminates the truths of her son.
The fact that the Holy Spirit is the one to descend upon Mary in order to conceive Jesus shows how the mission of the Spirit is always connected to the mission of the Son. Other scriptural verses that allude to this joint mission of the Spirit and the Son are Galatians 4:6, John 3:34, and John 7:39. The Spirit and the Son are intimately connected in the life of the Blessed Trinity and are inseparable. The revelation of that connection is established in the account of Jesus’ conception and continues to be reinforced in following scriptural accounts.
Mary’s virginity is also very significant. In order to remove any possibility for an argument that Jesus had a human father, Mary had to be a virgin. This establishes Jesus’ true humanity which he only obtains from his mother and his true divinity which he receives only from his heavenly Father. Mary’s divine motherhood is further supported throughout Scripture as she is called “the mother of Jesus” and “the Mother of my Lord”. The early Church Fathers relied on this scriptural foundation to define the doctrine of “Theotokos” which establishes Mary as the “Mother of God” or “God-bearer”. In his article, “Christ-Centered Catechesis through Mary”, Dr. Petroc Willey asserts that Mary is a mirror of the truths of the Faith, or a living Catechism. Through the doctrine of Theotokos, the unity of the two nature of Jesus, human and divine, are solidified. The development of this doctrine is first revealed in Scripture.
Mary’s free consent to the will of the Father is also scripturally significant. Jesus’ very mission was for the salvation of man which was lost with the first sin of Adam and Eve. Frank Sheed provides extensive scriptural references that define the mission of Christ which are all bound up in the ultimate mission of salvation. The Son came to “take away the sin of the world.” Before examining Mary’s consent, it is important to first go back and examine the free consent under which sin entered the world. Adam and Eve were created with free will. In eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, they lost their trust in God, abused their freedom, and willfully disobeyed what God commanded. It was fitting that the remedy for that sin came about by willful obedience to God’s will. In Lumen Gentium the Church confirms it is appropriate that, because death that was brought about by the consent of a woman, life would be restored by the consent of a woman. It is true that early Church fathers interpreted Scripture the same way as St. Iranaeus proclaimed in “Against Heresies”, “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” (Irenaeus AH, Book III, Chap 2)
Because Mary freely cooperates with the mission of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to bring about salvation for humanity, and because the truths about her reflect the truths about her Son, it is of the upmost importance that the statement regarding her is placed in the Creed as a central belief. With her prominence in the central proclamation of belief alongside the Holy Spirit and her Son, the Deposit of Faith establishes the importance of teaching about her early and often as she illuminates the Christocentricity of all Church teaching. Johannes Hofinger states that Marian dogma leads to a “fuller understanding of the mystery of Christ”. (Hofinger p. 14) In light of this, the authors of the Catechism find it fitting to place the dogma of the Immaculate Conception within the teaching on this line in the Creed.
It has already been established, based on the discussion of Mary as Theotokos, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine in one man. With this truth in mind, it is appropriate that the Church defines the Immaculate Conception, the dogmatic teaching that Mary herself was born without original sin, since God is not compatible with sin and could not exist within a body containing the stain of sin. In his work, “The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and her Immaculate Conception”, Fr. Peter M. Fehlner establishes the scriptural proofs that salvation cannot come about through a vessel stained by sin and therefore Mary must have a unique holiness. Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail, full of grace” implies that she was spared from the effects of Original Sin, since one who is stained with sin cannot be “full” of grace. Further, the incompatibility of God and sin is established in the Old Testament. The Ark of the Covenant cannot be touched by a sinful man or he will be struck dead. Therefore, if Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant, Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant and, according to a precedent set by God himself, cannot contain sin. This truth about Mary only serves to elevate the truth of the divinity of her Son. While the Immaculate Conception has always been a truth, the unfolding and understanding of doctrine happens slowly over time in response the particular needs of the faithful. This dogma was fully declared by the Magisterium in the document, Ineffabilis Deus in 1854.
In proclaiming the foundational truths of the Catholic Faith in the Creed, certain implications arise as to how they are to be celebrated in Liturgy, the Christian life, and in prayer. It is not enough to simply believe something. It must be internalized and fully lived if it is firmly believed to be Truth.
With regard to celebration in Liturgy, the statement “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man” is a reminder of the mission of salvation for men and the role each of the persons of the Holy Trinity. Mary was spared from the effects of Original Sin by the merits of her Son which were applied to her outside of time. The grace she enjoyed from the beginning is the grace that is available to all men, bestowed by the Father through the merits of the Son. Thus the reception and participation in this grace is the goal of the liturgy. Mary’s fiat indicates her cooperation in bringing about the Son who has come to redeem the world. Without her consent, there would be no liturgy to celebrate. Jesus receives his human flesh from his virginal mother and it is the same flesh that is consumed in the Holy Eucharist. Likewise, the same flesh that was contained within Mary is also contained in those who consume the Eucharist allowing for a “sacramental and ecclesial communion with Mary”. Man is able to become a living tabernacle just as she was a living tabernacle. Because of the unique role Mary plays in providing mankind access to the liturgy as well as to the flesh of her Son, it is fitting that there are certain days in the liturgical calendar to celebrate the truths about her that illuminate the truths about her Son. Liturgical celebrations devoted to her remain consistent with the all liturgy being ordered to the goal of man’s participation in the reception of his divine grace.
Another result that came about from Mary’s fiat is that he obtained from her a human face for man to gaze upon and worship. Prior to Jesus’ Incarnation, there was no way to produce a physical image of God. Since man was made in the image and likeness of God, and Jesus was God made man, Jesus reveals in his physical body what was intended for man upon his creation. Sacred images of Jesus and his mother on whom the Holy Spirit descended serve as reminders of the perfect image of God and thus, Christ is glorified through their use in liturgical celebrations. In the 8th Century, Andrew of Crete explains the normal and acceptable use of icons in the early Church in his work, “On the Veneration of Sacred Images.” Andrew states that there is nothing abnormal about the use of icons in Christianity and lists three specifics examples of their use and how they glorify the Christ by revealing his humanity which he obtained from his mother.
Another facet for approaching what is declared in the Creed is to ponder what the call to action for members of the church might be in terms of positively responding through an active Christian life. When Mary provided her free consent for the Holy Spirit to descend upon her, her fiat was a perfect act of faith. Faith is the theological virtue that allows a believer to completely trust God’s will and act accordingly by living in a way that reflects their faith in God through action. Mary’s witness of perfect faith, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon her because of that faith, helps Christians understand what it means to have faith and act on it in their own lives. The virtues that radiate from her through her response to Gabriel, because of her foundational virtue of faith, are humility, chastity, and obedience. Expanding on Mary’s example of a virtuous life, St. Bernard of Clairvaux urges his audience to use her a model for a virtuous life, saying:
“O man, if it is beneath your dignity to follow the example of a man, surely it will not be beneath you to follow your Creator. Maybe you can no longer follow him where he stooped for you. That is to say, if you cannot follow the high road of virginity, at least take the sure road of humility. If anyone, even a virgin, should turn aside from this strait way, it seems he does not follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”
Here, St. Bernard clearly recognizes the difficulty of a perfectly virtuous life due to man’s sinful nature. However, he asserts that even if higher virtues are too difficult, a Christian should still strive for virtue according to his greatest ability. In not pursuing any virtue at all, one cannot call himself a Christian because he is not following Jesus.
The Virgin Mary’s fiat which allowed the Holy Spirit to descend upon her to bring about Savior of the World is also an example of perfect Christian prayer. To say, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” is to faithfully consent to God’s will with complete trust that he will provide all of the strength and grace necessary to carry it out. While Christian prayer can consist of many elements including praise, thanksgiving, and petitions and be meditative or verbal, it reaches its perfection in complete surrender to his will as demonstrated by Mary’s fiat. Therefore, the line in the Creed – “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” – is a call for Christians to give their own fiat to God. In an article that discusses Mary’s fiat with regard to its application in catechetics, author Gary Sullivan beautifully states the following: “Catechists formed in Mary’s mould are like little arks. In her pattern we have been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, filled and empowered in Confirmation, and impregnated with the liturgical Word.” It is the goal of Christian prayer “to be wholly God’s, because he is wholly ours.” By responding with faithful prayer, the Christian allows the Holy Spirit to descend upon him and facilitate a close and intimate encounter with the person of Jesus, just like Mary.
The fundamental belief stated in the Creed that “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man” has a kerygmatic message at its core. The kerygma is essentially the proclamation of the gospel message which is to restore humanity to a filial relationship and life in the Holy Trinity. Therefore, Mary is the first deliverer of the kerygma to God’s people. In her obedience, Mary undoes what Eve did through her disobedience. The grace and life in the Holy Trinity that were lost with the first sin could now be restored through Mary’s fiat. Her free consent allowed the Holy Spirit to bring about the Incarnate Word of the Father for the sake of the salvation of souls. She allows the complimentary mission of each person of the Holy Trinity to use her body, so that the Son might have his own body through which to communicate with his people. That human body would go on to preach, tell stories, perform miracles, and have relationships in order to further reveal God. That human body would eventually suffer, die, resurrect, and ascend, taking all of the sin that came about from man’s first fall upon his own flesh and later glorifying that tortured flesh. The kerygma itself begins with Mary’s fiat and the Holy Spirit’s descent upon her.
The seemingly simple words of the Creed are permeated with implications and responsibilities. In proclaiming their Truth, not only is belief proclaimed, but believers are called to celebrate the liturgy, live a virtuous life, and participate in fervent prayer. In drawing out all of these aspects of the Catholic faith in the Creed’s words, the Christian has a close and personal encounter with the person of Jesus and can, in return, introduce him and his mission to others. Hofinger wisely highlights the importance of the teacher to have his own personal relationship with Christ in order to introduce him to others. In order to provide an effective proclamation of the Gospel message to others, a teacher must cultivate “kerygmatic virtues” which are all perfectly exemplified in Mary.
Andrew of Crete. “On the Veneration of Sacred Images” in Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, edited by Luigi Gambero, Translated by Thomas Buffer. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999.
Father Luigi Gambero’s work evaluates and unfolds what the early Church Fathers had to say with regard to the Virgin Mary. This process shows how the Marian doctrines and dogmas have slowly been unveiled over time without contradiction to what has been known about her from the earliest stages of Christianity. Reading the works of the early Church Fathers helps with the process of passing on the Deposit of Faith because it shows that the current understanding of Mary is not new or invented. It was all contained in the deposit from the beginning. Andrew of Crete provides an 8th Century understanding of the importance of sacred icons is both appropriate and historical. Mary, giving Jesus his human body, enabled God to be depicted in religious art in a real and tangible way.
Bernard of Clairvaux. Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Translated by Marie-Bernard Said. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993.
Pius IX. Ineffabilis Deus. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1854.
This book is a collection of four homilies written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the 11th Century. St. Bernard had a deep love of Mary and expressed it in these homilies. What is notable about his works is that they are permeated, or impregnated, throughout with citations to Sacred Scripture. He knew Scripture very well and unabashedly drew from it extensively to show what was revealed about Mary through a careful reading. In the cited quotation, he finds in Mary a perfect model of Christian virtue and implores his audience to follow her example to the best of their ability. This is relevant with regard to the proclamation of the Creed because what is understood about the Virgin Mary by the Church is revealed by the inspired Word of God.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2007.
Fehlner, Fr. Peter M. “The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and Her Immaculate Conception” in Mariology: A guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians and Consecrated Persons, edited by Mark Miravalle, 213-276. Goleta: Seat of Wisdom Books, 2007.
Mariology is an extensive collection of in-depth essays by theologians regarding the Virgin Mary. The book would be difficult for a person with limited understanding of Marian doctrine and dogma and is not a good starting point for learning about Mary. However, for those responsible for handing on the Deposit of Faith, these essays can help deepen their understanding of Mary and her role in Salvation History. This deeper understanding will, in turn, help to facilitate a more intimate relationship with Jesus through his mother. Father Fehlner’s essay focuses on the Immaculate Conception. Illuminated by an understanding of the Immaculate Conception, deeper implications can be extracted from the words of the Creed.
Hofinger, Johannes. The Art of Teaching Christian Doctrine: The Good News and its Proclamation. Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2016.
Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” in Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, edited by Luigi Gambero, Translated by Thomas Buffer. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999.
Father Luigi Gambero’s work evaluates and unfolds what the early Church Fathers had to say with regard to the Virgin Mary. This process shows how the Marian doctrines and dogmas have slowly been unveiled over time without contradiction to what has been known about her from the earliest stages of Christianity. Reading the works of the early Church Fathers helps with the process of passing on the Deposit of Faith because it shows that the current understanding of Mary is not new or invented. It was all contained in the deposit from the beginning. In the 4th Century, St. Irenaeus is able to illustrate the link between Eve’s first sin and Mary’s co-operation in the reparation for that sin.
New American Bible, Student Edition. World Catholic Press, 1987.
Paul VI. Lumen Gentium. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1964.
Lumen Gentium is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church which was a product of the council of Vatican II. There was some debate about the inclusion of a chapter on Mary and whether that should be in a separate document in order to not alienate non-Catholic Christians. It was determined that since Mary has an important role both in the Church and in Salvation History, it should be included. Including Mary in a Constitution on the Church is fitting as her inclusion in the Nicene Creed was equally important in the earliest Church. She is the first disciple, the first Christian, and a cooperator in the delivery of the kerygma.
Roy, Fr. Neil J. “Mary and the Liturgical Year” in Mariology: A guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians and Consecrated Persons, edited by Mark Miravalle, 607-666. Goleta: Seat of Wisdom Books, 2007.
Mariology is an extensive collection of in-depth essays by theologians regarding the Virgin Mary. The book would be difficult for a person with limited understanding of Marian doctrine and dogma and is not a good starting point for learning about Mary. However, for those responsible for handing on the Deposit of Faith, these essays can help deepen their understanding of Mary and her role in Salvation History. This deeper understanding will, in turn, help to facilitate a more intimate relationship with Jesus through his mother. Father Roy’s essay elaborates on how Mary’s role into the Church necessarily draws her into the second pillar of the Catechism. Given her cooperation in the bringing about of redemption for man, it is fitting that she be incorporated into the celebration of the Christian mystery.
Sheed, Frank. Theology and Sanity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.
Sullivan, Gary. “From Fiat to Magnificat: A Catechetical Journey” in The Sower, 30.4.
Gary Sullivan writes a short essay showing how the words Mary speaks in Scripture provide catechetical lessons. As the first follower of Christ, it is appropriate she is also the first catechist. For the purposes of this essay, a focus on her fiat helped with drawing out the words of the Creed. Without Mary’s fiat, the Holy Spirit would not have descended upon her and make the Father’s Word Incarnate. With regard to catechizing, her fiat provides a perfect example of a response of faith to God which results in an intimate relationship with his son. The purpose of catechesis and handing on the Deposit of Faith is to inspire the same type of response in all Christians, intending the same type of intimate encounter.
Willey, Petroc. “Editor’s Note: Christ-Centered Catechesis through Mary.” In Catechetical Review, 32.2.
In his short article, Dr. Willey explains that what the Church teaches about Mary reveals more about her son with the result of bringing him greater glory. Common misunderstandings about Mary “worship” are cleared up by Dr. Willey. Mary receives the grace and honor she does because of who her son is. Therefore, any truth about her mirrors a Truth about Jesus. In order for the hypostatic union of Jesus’ two natures in one person to be true, he necessarily had to born of the Holy Spirit and virginal woman. Therefore, the statement in the Creed regarding being born by the Spirit to a woman, reveals this hypostatic union.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2007), #185-186.
 CCC #485.
 CCC #689
 Luke 1:43; John 2:1, 19:25; CCC #495
 CCC #495
 Petroc Willey, “Christ-Centered Catechesis through Mary” in Catechetical Review 32.2.
 Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 233-237.
 John 2:29
 CCC #397
 CCC #494
 Paul VI, Lumen Gentium (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1964), 56.
 St. Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” in Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, edited by Luigi Gambero, Translated by Thomas Buffer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 54.
 Fr. Peter Fehlner, “The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and Her Immaculate Conception” in Mariology: A guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians and Consecrated Persons, edited by Mark Miravalle, (Goleta: Seat of Wisdom Books, 2007), 232-233.
 CCC #491; Luke 1:28.
 2 Samuel 6:7.
 Pius IX. Ineffabilis Deus. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1854.
 CCC #492
 CCC #1077
 Fr. Neil J. Roy, “Mary and the Liturgical Year” in Mariology: A guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians and Consecrated Persons, edited by Mark Miravalle, (Goleta: Seat of Wisdom Books, 2007), 610-611.
 Ibid, 611.
 CCC #1159
 CCC #1161
 Andrew of Crete, “On the Veneration of Sacred Images” in Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, edited by Luigi Gambero, Translated by Thomas Buffer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 398-399.
 CCC #1814
 Bernard of Clairvaux. Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, translated by Marie-Bernard Said, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993), 12.
 CCC #2617
 Gary Sullivan, “From Fiat to Magnificat: A Catechetical Journey” in The Sower, 30.4.
 CCC #2617
 Johannes Hofinger, The Art of Teaching Christian Doctrine: The Good News and its Proclamation, (Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2016), 198.
 Ibid., pp. 199-202