Immaculate Conception as Advent
Mary’s nine-month Advent was not without pain. Even if she was preserved from original sin so as to be able to give the complete assent that was necessary for God’s Word to become man, this does not mean that she was therefore spared the pains that from the very beginning have been laid on woman in childbirth: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen 3:16). What Mary has to suffer is expiation for Eve and her descendants. She stands in solidarity with the mother of the race precisely because she is free of sin; she stands more closely in solidarity with her people Israel, which as a whole is continually experiencing the birth-pangs of the Messiah. She belongs to the completion of the covenant with the people that represents mankind as a whole; and precisely because she already always belongs to the promised New Covenant (Jer 31:31), she is in the most profound way possible linked with God’s original covenant, which Paul on one single occasion calls the “old covenant” (2 Cor 3:14).
One does not need to begin by pointing to the embarrassment of increasingly obvious pregnancy: for “the handmaid of the Lord”, this was the least of her worries. But would she, a weak girl, be up to the enormous promise of being able to bring into the world the Son of the Most High, as the angel had called him? That in some way was also the worry of the most faithful in Israel: how out of this continually sinful and divided people should something so pure and indivisible as the Messiah of the final age be able to emerge? Even if imagination might think of him existing in advance hidden in heaven, Israel would nevertheless be involved in his arrival on earth.
What Mary underwent during her Advent were above all mental and spiritual sufferings: every pregnancy that is lived in a genuinely human way includes a certain intercession, a certain suffering on behalf of the child on the way that is given him at his birth as an invisible present of grace to take on the journey through life. It is a selfless hope, a commending to God or–if one does not know God–to the invisible powers that guide the fate of men and women. With what concern must Mary have prayed for the child growing within her and worried about it in advance! Did she have a premonition that the Messiah would haveto suffer? We do not know. But some overpowering fate must await him. Simeon in the temple would confirm this to her: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against.” For woman, pregnancy does not proceed without some element of fear: for Mary not without some presentiment of the Cross. From the outset she had a share in it that could not be defined.
We do not know to what extent physical hardships were liked with these mental and spiritual sufferings; but it is quite possible that they lasted until shortly before the birth, which in the end took place as a miracle, as the sudden beginning of what is final and definitive. At the birth every pain was dissolved in pure light. How her womb opened and closed again we do not know, and it is superfluous to speculate about an event which for God was a child’s game, something much less important than the original overshadowing by the Holy Spirit. Someone who accepts this first miracle as valid–and as a believer one has to, otherwise Jesus would have had two fathers–should not toss and turn over accepting the second miracle, the Virgin Birth. For Jews it is truly astonishing that they should have been able firmly to translate into Greek with the word “virgin” the old Hebrew prophecy “Behold, a young woman shall conceive” (Is 7:14, where the term could already mean “virgin”). And thus only is it fitting that from the virginal son onward virginal fruitfulness should become a specific “vocation” for men and women in the Church (1 Cor 7).
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary for Today, 23-26