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The Annunciation and the virginal conception
From the beginning of the era of spiritual kinship, the phase of peace of each new cycle is subdivided into three phases: the phase of apparition, the phase of arrival of the Holy Spirit and the phase of growth. These phases are as typical as the known ones and allow very revealing conclusions, notably on the Holy Virgin and her apparitions.
As we have seen in The life of Jesus Christ, the first cycle of the fourth era consisted of the mission, the Passion and the resurrection of Jesus. This cycle began with the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the angel Gabriel, the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38). Because of the celestial origin of Gabriel, his encounter with St. Mary has to be qualified as an apparition. Another important point is that, according to Gabriel, the conception of Jesus had not to be natural but spiritual: “The Holy Spirit will come open you, and the power of the Most-High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy child to be born will be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:34-35).
There is some evidence that the moment of this conception happened when Mary pronounced the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55): Gabriel also announced to Mary the pregnancy of Elizabeth (Lk 1:36-37). This is why Mary’s first thought after the Annunciation was to visit her relative. So when Mary arrived, Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and said to her: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:39-45). Mary replied:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
Since Elizabeth was already “filled with the Holy Spirit”, all the more Mary must have spoken under God’s Spirit, just as Zechariah (Lk 1:67-79) and Simeon (Lk 2:25-32), even though it is not mentioned explicitly. However, it may be exactly through this omission that Luke states that the Magnificat is different from the other spiritual speeches through the overshadowing of the Most-High (Lk 1:35). Various expressions of the Magnificat confirm this, as for example: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed...”. She is blessed because she is the Mother of Jesus. So since she is blessed “henceforth”, it is evident that in the same instant she became Jesus’ Mother. This means that the Holy Spirit came upon her, provoking the conception of Jesus, when she spoke these words.
The place where this happened supports this thesis: Mary “went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah” to visit Elizabeth (Lk 1:39). This city was therefore close to Jerusalem. Indeed, it was always in Jerusalem or in its proximity that God came into this world or left it: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which is also found in the mountainous region of Judah (Lk 2:4). He ascended into Heaven on the Mount of Olives, distanced from Jerusalem only “a Sabbath day’s walk” (Ac 1:12), to return one day in the same manner (Ac 1:11-12). In the same city, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles (Ac 2:1-6). So we can suppose that the conception of the Son of God did not happen in the city where Mary lived, that is, in Nazareth (Lk 1:26), which is far from Jerusalem, and at a moment we would ignore. On the contrary, Jesus’ conception must be a known and testified event. This is why the Visitation was certainly more than a simple visit.
Consequently, a certain time passed between the Annunciation and Jesus’ conception, which allows us to distinguish the phase of apparition from the phase of arrival of the Spirit. Then Jesus is born. This is yet another phase, to which belongs also the time until his public mission, approximately thirty years after. This phase is characterized by the growth of what has been sown by the Spirit. Then follow the other phases of Jesus’ life cycle: crucifixion, judgment and resurrection.
The apparitions of Jesus during forty days (Ac 1:2) form part of the following cycle as the phase of apparition, which ended with the Ascension. During these apparitions, Jesus announced the arrival of the Spirit to his disciples (Lk 24:49; Ac 1:8), the Counselor, who replaced the presence of Jesus on earth after his departure to Heaven (Jn 16:7). This was realized with Pentecost (Ac 2:1-21), which of course equals the phase of arrival of the Spirit.
It is often said that the Church was born at this moment. Yet this is vague, for it was only conceived, the birth belonging to the phase of growth. We can compare this with the birth of a human being, whose conception up to the age of full maturity, which varies according to biological and psychological criteria, belongs to a coherent period of constant growth. Nevertheless, the birth inaugurates a step that distinguishes itself from the stay in the mother’s womb because at this moment a baby emerges from the dark and what was invisible becomes visible.
The same is true for the primitive Church of Jerusalem, which only became visible and exteriorized with the first Council, uniting St. Paul, the Apostles and a lot of other people to examine the question whether Christians should be circumcised and observe the Mosaic Law (Ac 15:1-6). The decision was the liberation of this Law except for some details, which were formulated in writing (Ac 15:7-30). Only through such measures was the Church, the mystical body of Christ, born to increasingly become a sacramental and visible institution.
As summarized by figure 24, the analogy between the first and second cycles is emphasized by the two new phases such that the question quite naturally arises whether the third and fourth cycle also include the two phases of apparition and arrival of the Spirit. As for the third cycle, it is difficult to reply because the historical record of the life of the Christians during the Roman empire is fragmentary. Though, some sources acknowledge that the apparitions of the Virgin go back to the first centuries of our era. Concerning the fourth cycle, there are many apparitions of St. Mary. More of their role in salvation history is discussed in the sections below.
Salvation consists of rebirth through the Spirit, who does not, however, come unexpectedly. His reception requires preparation. This explains the purpose of the Annunciation: the angel Gabriel prepared the Virgin to receive the Holy Spirit. Without this preparation, she would not have visited Elizabeth and felt the anticipated joy necessary for Jesus’ conception. This joy comes from the faith in the announced words. As we have seen, St. Mary perfectly believed in what Gabriel predicted for her and thus distinguishes herself from Eve, who did not believe in God’s word but let herself be seduced by the lies of the snake, that is to say, of Satan, who appeared to Eve. In this sense, the Annunciation is the counter-part of this devilish manifestation. So in order to receive the Spirit it is necessary to have faith.
The apparitions of the Lord during forty days served to establish faith as well. Although Jesus healed blind people, paraplegics, mutes, lepers, possessed people, and even resuscitated Lazarus before the eyes of his disciples, they hesitated to believe what Jesus told and retold them. For example, they did not place faith in his numerous announcements that he would die and be resuscitated on the third day (Mt 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19), for if they had believed him, they would not have left him at his Passion (Mt 26:31-35). Even when the women told them that they had found the tomb empty and seen two angels reproaching them: “Why do you seek the Living among the dead?”, they refused to believe, qualifying their purposes as “nonsense” (Lk 24:1-11).
Only Jesus’ apparitions gave faith to his disciples, although they were still hesitant, as the example of Thomas illustrates (Jn 20:19-29). Thus, their sadness was changed into joy and their joy became “complete” getting to the point to “ask and receive” (Jn 16:20-26). This happened after the Ascension when they were “constantly in the temple to bless God” (Lk 24:51-53; Ac 1:1-14). This is why the Spirit, whom they had to receive, did not delay and came upon them at Pentecost completing their joy (Ac 2:1-21).
The sense of the apparitions consequently resides in obtaining faith as preparation for the reception of the Spirit. So two persons are necessary in order to be born from above, namely the one who appears and God who sends his Spirit. This allows an important comparison: the spiritual birth is indeed the second birth and is prefigured by the first one, which we owe to our natural mother and father. Since God the Father sending his Spirit holds the paternal role at this second birth, the appearing person accordingly assumes the maternal role.
 This was the distance Jews were allowed to walk on a Sabbath, that is, less than a mile.
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