There is a popular meme making the rounds on social media that attempts to make a clever point about the importance of being open to life. Showing an image of the Nativity, the meme states, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” The problem is that not only is the meme untrue, but it reduces a sublime and divine event to a common and mundane situation.
The fact of the matter is that the Incarnation was the most “planned” pregnancy in all of human history, and NOT just from God’s perspective. After writing a post on facebook about this meme, explaining that the plan for the Incarnation was established at the very beginning, a lot of discussion ensued, most particularly focused on whether Mary had planned on having a baby or not.
Prophecy throughout the Old Testament established the plan for the Virgin Birth. In Genesis, God cursed the serpent saying, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” Because a woman, properly speaking, does not have “seed,” this prophecy has long been held by Church Fathers to prefigure the Virgin Birth.
The seventh chapter of Isaiah makes this even more clear, hundreds of years before the Incarnation:
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
Clearly, the Incarnation was established by God as a plan from the very beginning. So, from the perspective of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that this was very much a planned event. But the plan wasn’t just limited to God. Mary participated in this plan as well, which is to say that it cannot be said that the Incarnation was an “unplanned pregnancy.”
In Luke 1, we can see the exchange between the archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin. What this exchange does is establish a timeline showing that not only was the plan presented to Mary, but it was presented PRIOR to our Lord’s conception. Furthermore, we must understand that this was not something that was imposed upon Mary against her will, but a plan she agreed to, consenting to become the mother of God.
First, Gabriel greets Mary saying, “Hail, thou who art full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women.”
Then, Scripture says that “She was much perplexed at hearing him speak so, and cast about in her mind, what she was to make of such a greeting.”
Many well-intentioned people commenting on the facebook conversation have mistakenly applied this confusion to mean that our Lady was caught off guard by the pregnancy and therefore was not a part of the planning of the Incarnation. However, in the order of things, this confusion came about NOT because of the plan proposed by Gabriel, but by his greeting her as “full of grace” and “blessed among women.” The plan was presented by Gabriel AFTER her initial confusion. In fact, Scripture further confirms this by the very next line as Gabriel says, “Mary, do not be afraid; thou hast found favor in the sight of God.” In other words, Gabriel confirms that Mary’s concern was over the greeting, and THEN he proceeds to propose the plan of the Incarnation to Mary.
This may seem like nit-picking, but when examining Scripture it is very important to be precise and exacting in the direct meaning and order of the things said. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into certain errors.
But the question continues to be raised as to whether or not Mary’s surprise at Gabriel’s greeting and subsequent explanation of the Incarnation constitutes an “unplanned” pregnancy.
“thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call him Jesus. He shall be great, and men will know him for the Son of the most High; the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob eternally; his kingdom shall never have an end.”
To this, our Lady has only one question: “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?”
Consider the question in light of what the angel said to Mary. Gabriel said nothing about a virginal conception, but only that Mary would conceive. Mary’s statement, “since I have no knowledge of man,” is not a mere statement of her current situation, but a declaration of her vow of perpetual virginity. In other words, this was very likely a test of the angel, not a question of confusion from the Blessed Virgin. Again, Gabriel’s prophetic statement that she will conceive is said in the future-tense, and since the Blessed Virgin was married at that time to Joseph, Mary’s question makes no sense unless she had no intention of EVER knowing man. So, what she is asking Gabriel is how she will conceive without breaking her vow of virginity. If Gabriel had answered that God had released her from the vow, that her vow was not important, or something along those lines, Mary would have known that the angel was a demon, and she could then rebuke it. However, rather than suggest she should or could break her vow of virginity, Gabriel responded:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the most High will overshadow thee. Thus this holy offspring of thine shall be known for the Son of God. See, moreover, how it fares with thy cousin Elizabeth; she is old, yet she too has conceived a son; she who was reproached with barrenness is now in her sixth month, to prove that nothing can be impossible with God.”
Gabriel’s response explains how God will fulfill the prophecy without breaking her vow of perpetual virginity. In light of this conversation, it’s clear that Mary’s question wasn’t so much one of confusion or fear, but a test to ensure that the angel was indeed providing a message from God. Having passed the test, Mary says to Gabriel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.”
Back to the suggestion that Mary’s pregnancy was “unplanned,” it’s clear that there was nothing “unplanned” about it. From the beginning of time, and confirmed in prophecy, the Virgin Birth was most certainly “planned” by God. Once the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she was chosen by God to conceive and bear the Son of God, she held a discussion about how this would take place. In other words, she discussed the plan with the angel prior to the conception taking place. Having been told the plan, she accepted the proposal and the plan which was God’s then became her plan as well.
Here’s another way to consider it. When a man proposes marriage to a woman, the subsequent wedding is rightly said to be a “planned” wedding. And even if the future bride had not anticipated the proposal prior to its occurrence, the wedding is still, nonetheless an event planned upon by both parties.
With regard to the Annunciation, it can’t be said that Mary was completely caught off guard by the proposal. Having been a Virgin of the Temple since the age of 3 (according to Sacred Tradition), Mary knew that there was at least a possibility that she would be the Virgin spoken of in prophecy.
And what about Joseph? Some have suggested that the meme at the center of this article had more to do with Mary’s status as an “unwed mother,” or that since Joseph was not a part of the planning process, at least from his perspective this is an “unplanned” pregnancy.
To begin with, Mary was most definitely married to Joseph. The marriage had not been consummated, and it was never intended for consummation because of Mary’s perpetual vow of virginity. Scripture is very clear:
“Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:18-19
Not only does Scripture declare that Joseph was her husband, but states his intention to divorce her. One cannot commit to a divorce if one is not already married. Pope St. John Paul II affirms this in his apostolic exhortation, Redemptoris Custos, wherein he says:
“While clearly affirming that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that virginity remained intact in the marriage (cf. Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-38), the evangelists refer to Joseph as Mary’s husband and to Mary as his wife (cf. Mt 1:16, 18-20, 24; Lk 1:27; 2:5). And while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary’s marriage to Joseph, because juridically Joseph’s fatherhood depends on it” (No. 7)
In a general audience seven years later, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that Mary and Joseph were indeed truly married:
“Mary and Joseph’s communion of virginal love, although a special case linked with the concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation, was nevertheless a true marriage.”
So, not only can we not say that the Incarnation was an “unplanned pregnancy,” we likewise cannot say that Mary was an “unwed mother.” She was married to Joseph prior to the Incarnation of our Lord, which she agreed to as a plan proposed to her by God. And while St. Joseph had no say in the matter, his knowledge or understanding has no bearing on whether or not the Incarnation was “planned” or “unplanned.”
What remains is that it is improper and untrue in every sense to suggest that the Incarnation was an “unplanned” pregnancy carried to term by an “unwed mother.” It is understandable that it is helpful to women in difficult circumstances to find some way to relate to our Lady in order to guide them away from the horrors of abortion. But let’s not debase the Incarnation to suit this concern. Rather, why not focus on the fact that our Lady’s fiat … her “Yes” to God … is what was necessary to undo Eve’s “yes” to the serpent. If one were to draw a comparison, should a child be conceived by sinful means, the initial act would be the “yes” to the serpent. However, should the pregnant, frightened, and uncertain woman considering an abortion change her mind and say “yes” to life, she would, in that moment, be able to claim our Lady as her model and True mother.
Our Lady of the Incarnation, pray for us.