When Did God Become Man?

I had a new (for me, at least) thought about Christmas this year. We hear all the time that Christmas marks the day when God became man through the birth of Jesus. Is this correct? Actually it's a little more complicated.

We who are pro-life believe that human life begins not at birth, but at conception. That's when a unique human being comes into existence, and when a new eternal soul is created. To be consistent, then, we should really say that Christ became man not on Christmas, but nine months earlier when the Holy Spirit caused Mary to conceive the baby Jesus. We are told of this in Luke 1: 26-38, just before the more familiar Christmas story.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

This is called the Annunciation and was an important date in the Christian calendar beginning in the fifth century, at least. To this day it is celebrated by the Catholic, Orthodox and some mainstream Protestant churches on or about March 25 - nine months before Christmas. This is also about the same time as Easter, depending on how the moon phases fall in any given year. Indeed, many early Christians believed Christ died on the anniversary of His conception, which they also thought to be the same day the world was created. This genealogy lives on today in the Proclamation of Christmas, which is sung at the beginning of Midnight Mass.

The two holy days, Annunciation and Nativity, are each important in their own ways. Christmas has obviously grown to be a bigger occasion. Maybe this is because it marks the day Christ became visible in human form to His mother as well as the shepherds, Magi and the entire world. Yet He had been fully human for nine months at that point. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but one that matters.

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