By Rev. Dr. Andrew T. Dibb
A Christmas Doctrinal Class by Rev. Andrew M.T. Dibb
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
So begins the wonderful story of the Lord's conception in the Gospel of Luke. The scene is familiar to each of us: Mary is at home, when suddenly she sees the angel Gabriel and hears his words of great joy:
"Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!" (Luke 1:28)
An angel is a messenger of the Lord. In the Word angels came to bring wisdom and comfort, hope and the good news, the “euangellion” or Gospel, to those to whom the Lord wanted His presence revealed. This Gospel is the teaching that the Lord Jesus Christ was born into this world, that He made it possible for all people to be saved and brought into His kingdom. Thus the angel Gabriel came in excitement to Mary to inform her that she was the Lord’s choice as His natural mother.
When Mary saw the angel Gabriel, she didn't know that he was the human form of an entire society of angels. Nor did she know that his greatest love is to tell people about the Lord, especially that He would be born into the world to save the human race from spiritual bondage.
The scene of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, and call His name Jesus, is one of the most poignant in the Word. Mary was a simple person, living in Galilee far away from the centre of worship at Jerusalem. She was neither highly educated nor socially well connected, except that she descended from Israel’s greatest king, David. There is a beautiful innocence in Mary’s simplicity. The last thing she expected in life was to see an angel. The image we have of Mary is of a demure young maiden, a virgin in every sense, for, as she said to the angel, 'I do not know a man'. Her state of life was that of a young woman about to embark on her married life to Joseph, but still living at home with her parents. The marriage had not yet been celebrated.
It is central to the Christmas story that Mary was betrothed to Joseph when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. This fact is mentioned in the lesson we read in the Gospel of Luke, where it is plainly stated that she was a 'virgin betrothed'. In Matthew we are again told that Mary was 'betrothed to Joseph'. This means that she had been promised as a wife to Joseph. In our culture, we would say that they were engaged to be married.
There are several good reasons why Mary should have been in this state when she conceived the Lord:
- In the Jewish Church of that time betrothal was considered marriage, although the marriage had not yet been consummated. This meant that the people around her considered Mary a woman, and it also meant that her mind was focusing on the upcoming marriage and future life as a wife and a mother.
- She was expected, during this period of betrothal, to remain in a state of order. She was not free to come into romantic contact with any other man, and she certainly was not permitted to have sexual intercourse with any man, including her husband to be.
The angel appeared to her in this state precisely for that reason - the child who was to be conceived needed to be conceived in a state of virginity, and there could be no question down the ages that Jesus was the son of an ordinary man. This is why Mary protested that she could not conceive because she 'had not known a man'.
There is a very good reason for this: the doctrines tell us that the human soul is transmitted as the living principle of the masculine seed. That soul, or internal human is passed from father to child, is an image of the father's own soul - although the life in it is from the Divine Itself. When a child is conceived, that human soul can receive life from the Lord, and, using the life in it, begins to draw from the mother the various substances needed to form the human body. When the child is born, he or she becomes an individual, drawing life from the Lord, and potential spiritual things from both mother and father, and the body from the mother. Thus there is a complete mixing of parents in the birth of a child.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, he announced the birth of the Lord. It was to be a miracle of all miracles, for according to prophecy a virgin would conceive and bear a son. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit. His soul was Divine, given to Him by the Father, or, put another way, the soul within Jesus was not limited and finite as our souls are, but infinite and eternal, and capable of overcoming the powers of hell and saving the human race.
Here's an excerpt from Swedenborg's work, Arcana Coelestia 1999: "But the Lord's Internal was Jehovah Himself, since He was conceived from Jehovah, who cannot be divided or become the relative of another, like a son who has been conceived from a human father. For unlike the human, the Divine is not capable of being divided but is and remains one and the same. To this Internal the Lord united the Human Essence. Moreover because the Lord's Internal was Jehovah it was not, like man's internal, a recipient form of life, but life itself. Through that union His Human Essence as well became life itself. Hence the Lord's frequent declaration that He is Life, as in John,
As the Father has Life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have Life in Himself. John 5:26."
Yet even a soul such as that, if it is to live and walk amongst the people of this earth, must be clothed in a body. The Lord always operates within the boundaries of the order of creation - and order dictates that a soul must be clothed with a material body.
At first the father’s soul is clothed with human elements, for it begins as a reproduction of the father’s own soul, then,
"during its descent, … the soul is enveloped by elements of a type that have to do with the father's natural love. This is the source from which hereditary evil springs." (Conjugial Love 245)
And so the Lord needed an orderly environment in which to be born. Mary was chosen as His mother because, according to the Lord's all-seeing wisdom, He saw that she would be willing to carry this child, and she would be able to nurture Him in such a way that He would grow up prepared for the great work ahead of Him.
Yet Mary had to be in a state of order herself. In ancient Israel, to bear a child meant that she had to be married, and yet to preserve the honesty of the conception and ensure that the soul was Divine, not human, she had to be in the state before actual physical union with Joseph had taken place - otherwise the Lord could have been Joseph's son. So she had to be betrothed, and no motive should be found as a basis for accusations against the Virgin Birth.
It was partly for this reason that when Joseph heard that she was carrying a child he decided to put her away. Effectively this meant he planned to divorce her. According to the law of Moses, a betrothed woman carrying a child had broken the rules. Ideally speaking, the man responsible should be put to death. Joseph had no idea who the man was, but assumed that there was one. He was, however, a kind man, and so decided not 'to make her a public example', but to put her away privately.
It was at this juncture that the angel Gabriel came to Joseph in a dream, and soothed his fears. 'The child she is carrying,' the angel said, 'is conceived by the Holy Spirit.' Now Joseph understood, and the state of betrothal could continue, and order could be maintained so that the Lord could be born into this world with the full appearance of two loving parents, bound together in marriage after an orderly betrothal.
We now need to expand our vision of the Lord's life in this world. The conception of the Lord was but the first step in his development. He had to be born and grow up. His mind and body had to develop as does our own. The home of Mary and Joseph was needed to provide a stable and orderly environment for Him where He could live and grow, undergoing not only physical and mental development, but also the very processes by which His Divine soul could become present within His natural mind.
In picking these two people to be his 'parents' in the natural world, the Lord was able to provide for the future as well. The Word does not tell us anything about the marriage relationship between Joseph and Mary. We know that Joseph was obedient to the angel when he was told to take Mary and the infant Lord down to Egypt to escape Herod's cruelty. We know that each year they travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. We know that had other children, whom likewise they loved and nurtured. But that is about all we know.
The book, Conjugial Love, by Emanuel Swedenborg, however, gives us some insights into the kind of orderly relationship they had. They begin in the concept of Betrothal, for betrothal is introductory to marriage. The kinds of preparation people make for their marriages determine a great deal the course their marriage will follow. The fact that Mary in her betrothed state had 'not known a man' indicates that she took the responsibilities of that state serious. Similarly, the fact that Joseph immediately knew that he was not the father of the child Mary carried indicates a similar seriousness about the state of betrothal. They were both innocent of any wrongdoing, and were obviously committed to building a life together based on the firm foundation of proper preparation.
Their betrothal prepared them for their future life together as man and wife, and, thus as the Lord's parents on earth. Betrothal is a preparation for marriage. It is a time when the minds and spirits of the two partners begin to grow together.
The teachings of the New Church tell us that true marriage, or conjugial love as it is often called, is a meeting and union of two minds. A true marriage is one in which the couple recognises the essential differences between masculinity and femininity, and rejoices in those differences without any attempt to dominate the other. In order for a couple to come into a true appreciation of each other, they need to put aside physical love to foster and nurture spiritual love. This is why Mary and Joseph lived apart during this stage of their relationship, and why they refrained from sexual activity, for in that way they made it possible for their minds to soar, and be united at the highest levels of idealism.
The book Conjugial Love tells us that in this state the mind of each partner is opened by his or her spiritual love. They are able to reach higher levels of love and commitment to each other as they foster the growth of mutual understanding unencumbered by physical things. The passage describing this development, then, goes on to describe how when a couple marry their love descends from the mind to the body. It is worth reflecting on the statement that
"It needs to be known that the quality of conjugial love as it comes down is determined by the height to which it climbs. If it reaches the heights it comes down chaste, but if it does not, it comes down as unchaste." (Conjugial Love 302).
With Mary and Joseph we can but only assume that their love reached its heights during their betrothal, and that their marriage was one of purity and chastity. Chastity in this sense means a marriage love between two people that has been cleansed of all impurities. In such a state the husband and wife enjoy the full pleasures of marriage, beginning on the spiritual level with a full meeting of minds, and descends into the body, where their love is consummated.
A marriage of this kind provides the most wonderful environment, for the love between the husband and wife provides a state of tranquillity and peace in which children can be reared. This is the kind of environment the Lord chose to be born into. He knew that during his life in this world He would have to face the most terrible of temptations. He knew that He would have to battle against hell continuously, and face the disbelief of the people around Him. His first thirty-three years were a preparation for this work lying before Him. And so He chose to be born to a couple who were in a state of order, who because of that order, were willing to receive Him into their lives, to nurture Him as if He was their own.
There is a message in this for us. Each one of us wants the Lord to be born into our own lives, and He is willing to come to us. "Behold,' He says, 'I stand at the door and knock'. Yet He can only enter into us to the degree that we bring our lives into order. Mary and Joseph clung to their betrothal - they committed themselves and stood fast. That is what the Lord wants us to do: to commit ourselves to Him, to live according to His Word in every detail of our lives, especially in our relationships with others, in our preparation for marriage, and in our marriages themselves. As we do, then He enters into us, establishes His presence there, and lifts us up to heaven.
Conjugial Love 302
By Rev. William Woofenden
(This commentary was originally written as a sermon delivered in 1955.)
"The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever." Revelation 11:15
Additional readings: Isaiah 46, Psalm 138, Psalm 139
These words were written nearly two thousand years ago. When written, they were a prophecy, yet the present tense is used. In the prophecy in Isaiah concerning the coming of the Lord into the world the present tense is also used: "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" (Isaiah 9:6). This is because what the Lord purposes will surely come to pass. "My counsel shall stand…. I have purposed it, I will also do it" (Isaiah 46:10-11).
And we should note that according to the Gospel of Luke the angel Gabriel, sent to tell Mary that the Lord would be born of her, says that the Lord will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and that of His Kingdom there will be no end, as Isaiah also prophesied (Luke 1:26-38).
This week our nation celebrates the ninetieth anniversary of the close of the Civil War, which marked one of the steps in the advancement of human freedom. Since that time, although there has been peace within our own borders, the world at large has been afflicted by its two greatest wars.
Yet we should find quiet encouragement in the words of our text: "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever." In view of the disorders, wrongs, and enmities that are so widespread and so great this may not seem to be true. To some it seems that the world is getting worse instead of better.
Yet we can surely see that the world is better than it was when the Lord came upon the earth. The world seems so evil only because a higher and keener sense of right makes injustice and wrong appear more shocking.
The Lord's kingdom is first of all in the minds and hearts of men, and it is with this that we should be primarily concerned. It is in the heart and mind that war or peace is made. If the love of self rules, the kingdom within us is evil; but if justice and the desire to do right rule, the kingdom within us is the Lord's. Everyone who is trying to do right because it is right is in the Lord's kingdom.
For nearly two centuries spiritual forces have been at work trying to bring about a better world, and they have been contending against mighty adverse forces, individual selfishness, the love of the world and its riches, and the love of preeminence and power.
These evils are brought to light in wars, which lead people to see, to acknowledge, and to seek the means of overcoming them. And this makes the minds of men more receptive to the Word of God. Defects and evils cannot be removed until they are seen. Multitudes have overcome some evils. They would not lie, steal, or cheat. Groups of people, states, and nations are bound by the same laws, and it is clearly seen that the self-centered and self-derived principles in which men and nations have placed their confidence in the spheres of religion and morals, economics, and politics are what brought into being the conditions that led to war.
The last war left large parts of the world to be rebuilt. But, what is more important, in the realm of thought and conduct rebuilding on a vast scale is called for, and there is given an opportunity such as men never had before to rebuild on better, sounder, and saner lines. There are principles on which a new and true human society can be built, but it cannot be built without the Lord. "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain" (Psalm 127:1).
God created man that man might know Him, live according to His laws, and be blessed with happiness and peace. His laws cannot be changed, because they are the laws of infinite wisdom and love. To live in violation of them can bring nothing but disaster. There is but one Prince of peace. Human cooperation is a factor, however, and becomes operative in the measure in which men understand the Divine laws, believe them, and apply them to life.
The victory the North won in the Civil War was the Lord's victory, not the victory of the winning army. So it was in the last war. Our thanksgiving should be to Him. And our rejoicing should show itself in an increased desire to learn of the Lord, to be led by Him, and to do His will.
It is only in this way that there can be any real progress either in individual or in national life. Mere natural learning with its development of the arts and sciences, though it contributes to more comfortable living, does not reach the hidden fountains of human life, nor can it even discover the soul or God.
We are living in a time when new spiritual knowledge has been revealed. In the era preceding the first Coming of the Lord, spiritual knowledge had been all but lost. Because of this men lived in fear, doubt, and enmity. War was a constant and accepted feature of human life. The coming of the Lord wrought a change. He taught that love to Him and to the neighbor were the fundamental Divine laws of life. From these laws follows the principle that true life is found in service to others, not in being served.
The Lord did not seek to establish His kingdom by force. No kingdom founded on force can possibly endure. Of the Lord's kingdom it is written, "Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end" (Isaiah 9:7). It is because His kingdom is founded on unselfish love, which seeks not to rule but to serve, that it will not come to an end.
The Lord has been called a visionary, and His principles beautiful and idealistic but impracticable. Yet His life was the only thoroughly practical life ever lived. He came into contact with and overcame the internal and elemental forces of evil that cause all the misery and unhappiness in the world. When men forget the Lord and look to themselves for wisdom, they rush headlong into selfishness and evil.
The prophecy, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever," is being fulfilled. He did establish His kingdom on earth and by His life and words He made known to the world the laws under which the peoples of all the world can live together in happiness, prosperity, and peace. Some people today look to the future in fear, and even say that they are glad that they may not live to see the disaster which they think will overtake the world. But we should know that the future holds ever brighter promise. This is the testimony of the Scriptures and of history. We should be able to read some of its lessons. One is that the nation that takes up the sword shall perish by the sword, and another is that nothing is settled until it is settled fairly and justly.
All Christians should know that the teachings of the Word are true; and if Christianity means anything, it means the power of the Lord in the human heart to remove evil and to implant new motives. We should not be afraid of the future, Fear is a liar and a false counselor always. Through faith the Lord's kingdom comes to us as individuals and through individuals to the world. The Lord said:
"Take no thought for your life what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment...But rather seek ye the kingdom of God: and all these things shall be added unto you. Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:22-32).