‘Born of a Woman, Born under the Law’: Christmas according to Saint Paul
The earliest passage in the New Testament concerning the birth of Jesus is found in the Letter to the Galatians: “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal 4:4-5).
It is probably the highest moment of the letter, in which Paul announces the fulfillment of salvation. God the Father intervenes in the course of history with an extraordinary event, since the fullness (in Greek: “the filling”) of time has arrived: the messianic time. The ages that preceded this turning point are not only a previous period, but a time of preparation and waiting for the realization of the promises of the Old Testament. These have now become reality because the time of the Messiah has begun, and it is the new, definitive time, the time of salvation: God has sent his own Son, Jesus, “born of a woman, born under the Law” (Gal 4:4). The Greek has properly “become of a woman,” but the Vulgate, which translated this phase with filium, factum ex muliere, also has several manuscripts that offer natum ex muliere, perhaps to attenuate the scandal of the human reality of the birth of Jesus.
In an extraordinary synthesis, the Apostle presents the mystery of the Incarnation: first of all there is the divine pre-existence of Jesus, who is God and Son of God; then his human nature: the Son is at the same time son of man, since he was conceived by a woman. “Born of a woman” indicates that Jesus was truly born a man, from the first moment of his conception and his entry into the world: his humanity like ours, in need of care, attention, tenderness and love. However, it is immediately made clear that it is not a glorious humanity. On the contrary, the announcement reveals Jesus’ humiliation from the moment of his birth. In the Letter to the Romans, a little later than the Letter to the Galatians, Paul specifies: God sent “his Son in a flesh like that of sin” (Rom 8:3), that is, to share a flesh of sin, because he enters a world and a history that are marked by evil, by pain, by human miseries.
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The first expression that underlines the humiliation of Jesus is precisely his “being born of a woman.” In the Bible, the formula indicates the human condition, the frailty and corruptibility of the flesh, the precariousness of existence and the uncertainty of the present. Job states it clearly: “Mortals, born of woman, are creatures of few days and full of trouble. They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure” (Job 14:1-2). In the Hymns of Qumran “born of woman” means “formed of dust,” “creature of clay” (1 QS 11,215; cf. F. García Martínez, Testi di Qumran, Brescia, Paideia, 1996, 95).
Karl Rahner meditates on the meaning of “becoming flesh”: “Eternity has become time, the Son has become man, the Ideality, the Logos that embraces and permeates all reality, has become flesh, and time and human life have been transformed, for God himself has taken on human flesh. […] Now that he has truly become man, this world with its destiny is close to his heart. Now it is not only His work, but a part of Himself. […] Now He too is on our earth, where He enjoys no better existence than ours, where no privilege was assured Him, but every part of our destiny: hunger, weariness, hostility, anguish at having to perish, and miserable death. The most improbable truth is this: the infinity of God has penetrated human anguish, beatitude has assumed the mortal sadness of the earth, life has received death in itself” (L’anno liturgico. Meditazioni, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1962, 15f).
The second expression that accentuates the humiliation is being “born under a law” (in Greek there is no article). Jesus is not only a man among men, but also a Jew: he is subject to the Mosaic legislation. Therefore he came in the condition of a slave, the situation of man before the messianic coming, due precisely to the Law (cf. Gal 4:5), that is, an external norm, to which one must submit, obey, and which even entails the death penalty. The Lord, perfectly free before the Law, submitted to it, in order to be in everything, except sin, on our level.
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However, what might seem only humiliation, paradoxically opens up to a positive dimension of freedom and fraternity. Jesus was born under the Law to redeem those who were slaves of the Law. He took on the flesh that bears the consequences of sin in order to transform the reality of sin into a logic of love. He was born of woman so that all those born of woman could welcome his closeness and solidarity.
This is how the mystery of the incarnation, which gives us Jesus, is fulfilled, but it also demands irreplaceable collaboration: God needs humans. “Born of a woman” presupposes a mother in order to be born; “born under the Law” implies a “legal” father, who allows him to enter the messianic dynasty. The child who was born without a father in the Jewish world of the time had no right of citizenship or even the right to speak in public. Without an earthly father, Jesus could not proclaim the Gospel. Around the end of the first century a rabbi found in Jerusalem a sort of register with a list of illegitimate children of married women (H. L. Strack – P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, I, München, Beck, 1956, 42). God needs Mary and Joseph for our salvation; and he will ask the apostles to continue his saving mission in history.
In saving us, Jesus makes himself our brother and makes us children of God. Paul uses a technical juridical term: “That we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal 4:5b). The new reality is therefore to be adopted children, family members of God: it establishes a singular, intimate, totally personal relationship with the Father, but with a further consequence: being “children” involves the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus and of the Father. Baptism, that is, immersion in the Son, re-proposes the personal relationship with God in our heart and allows us to cry out: “Abba, Father” (v. 6).
What follows is a Christology that is at the same time a soteriology: “The Son is entirely Son for us!” (F. Mussner, La lettera ai Galati, Brescia, Paideia, 1987, 422). He is born in history for us: an event that transforms the world and indelibly marks history. It is not by chance that his birth has become a watershed between a before and an after; it is an absolute novelty because of which the flow of human events is distinguished between a “before Christ” and an “after Christ.”
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This is Christmas according to Paul. The Apostle does not speak of cave, manger, stable, angels, shepherds; he does not mention the name of Mary and does not even mention Joseph. There is no Bethlehem, there is no mention of the inn where there was no room; Herod, the doctors of the Law and the Magi are missing. Yet there is the essential: the birth of the Savior in the flesh for our salvation.
The coming of Jesus put an end to the “nothing new under the sun” of the wise Qohelet (Qo 1:9) and destroyed the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, for whom everything was repeated cyclically with an eternal return. Now there is the greatest novelty ever revealed in the past, the only novelty that counts in history: it is the novelty of God taking upon Himself in the Son, the Emmanuel, the “God with us” (Matt 1:22), our history, a history that is a set of miseries and failures, steeped in selfishness and sin; yet the Lord Jesus takes it upon himself, assumes it, makes it his own, loves it and, loving it, saves it, because only what is truly loved is redeemed. Thus the night and the darkness of history and of man become light, and they become Holy Night.
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In the Letter to Titus, a faithful disciple of Paul’s, Christmas is presented in a different light: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12): an important text to give direction to the life of the Christian. The passage continues: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6a). In the Church, from the earliest times, this last passage is proclaimed in the liturgy of Christmas, at the Dawn Mass.
God’s grace, his goodness, his love (in Greek it is philanthr?pia) have snatched us, through baptism, “from the slavery of all sorts of passions and pleasures,” and from living “in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). The text affirms that this takes place with the outpouring of the Spirit: a verb is used – “to pour out” – which elsewhere in the New Testament is used in connection with the blood of Christ, which is “poured out for the remission of sins” (Matt 26:28; cf. Heb 9:21-26).
In this way there is a definitive turning point not only in history, but also in the life of the Christian: the Letter to Titus affirms that “these things are excellent and profitable for everyone” (Titus 3:8). This is the beauty of the Christian life: “From the time when hatred of one another was the premise taken for granted, considered even necessary, in order to assume commitments to public order in the civil and political spheres: therefore, from that will to death which is intrinsic in the exercise of power, we have passed to a new situation, in which the prospect of a death out of love has been illuminated for us, that is, of politics as the emptying of power! […] We are spectators of the ‘epiphany’ of ‘philanthropy,’ that is, of the true and only friendship for men which is ‘the goodness of God, our Savior.’ […] Therefore, there where the Holy Spirit was poured out, we were sealed in a relationship of communion with that way of his dying for love, which defeated hatred and inaugurated the politics of beauty, as public responsibility par excellence” (P. Stancari, Il mistero della pietà, Rende [Cs], R-Accogliere, 2019, 124f).
The way in which the Vulgate renders in Latin the philanthr?pia of the Greek text (cf. Titus 3:4) is also illuminating. To celebrate the divinity of God, it converts – with a stroke of genius – philanthr?pia into “humanity” (humanitas), almost as if to indicate that in our regard the divine goodness and love are humanitas. Our God is “human,” and humanity is the celebration of his divinity. The Apostle concludes, “This word is worthy of faith, and therefore I want you to insist on these things, so that those who believe in God may strive to distinguish themselves in doing good” (v. 8). The vocation of Christians is for them to make their own contribution to the common good, distinguishing themselves by that charity, which is participation in the life of all, therefore also in the life of the social and political community at all its levels.
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We celebrate Christmas with lights, songs and festivities that move us intimately, but we should not forget that the beauty of the Christmas celebration for the Christian is the testimony of the baptismal life. It is the perseverance in grace, in the new life in Christ, in the gift of self, made to the brothers and sisters, in the humanity that is to be shared with others and that the Lord Jesus, Son of God, has revealed to us in becoming man for us. That birth affirms the value of our human dimension, because Christmas is a word of blessing on all our “flesh.”