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The Incarnation begins when the Son of God assumes human nature at its earliest and most helpless stage — Richard Doerfinger

A depiction of St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus at the Jordan River is seen in a stained-glass window at St. Paul Church in Wilmington, Del. John the Baptist is considered a model for Christians during the Advent weeks preceding Christmas. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

Preparing to write my final column for Catholic News Service, I wondered: Should I write about Christmas or a pro-life issue? Aware that Dec. 25 is only the beginning of the Christmas season, I thought, Why not both?

The Gospel readings from Matthew and Luke for the days before Christmas remind us of the intertwined prenatal histories of Jesus and John the Baptist. After inviting Mary to be the mother of the Savior, the angel says that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is already miraculously in her sixth month of pregnancy.

Mary freely accepts her weighty responsibility, saying she is “the handmaid of the Lord” (a phrase I will return to) — and she hastens to Elizabeth’s side to help her.

Her arrival prompts reactions by both Elizabeth and her unborn child. Mary’s cousin exclaims, “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And she reports that the child in her womb “leaped for joy” at Mary’s greeting.

John’s vocation as the last and greatest of the prophets, the immediate herald of the Messiah, begins here.

Richard Doerflinger, who worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, writes the “A More Human Society” column for Catholic News Service. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

And his action echoes a dramatic event in the history of Israel. After King David first decides to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the royal city of Jerusalem, he thinks better of that decision when an attendant who touches the ark (to keep it from tipping off the cart carrying it) falls dead. David exclaims, in fear of God’s power, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sm 6:9).

But he takes courage when the ark brings blessings to the home where it is stored. He ends up leaping and dancing before the Lord as the divine presence enters Jerusalem.

What David said in fear, Elizabeth says in joyful amazement. And like David, John leaps and dances before the Lord. Yes, the fetal John the Baptist greets the embryonic Jesus as the new presence of God among us. And because she bears Jesus, Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, the mother of God.

Some Scripture scholars have said that only John’s Gospel clearly recognizes Jesus as divine. Don’t believe them.

Equally amazing is Mary’s response. In her wonderful prayer the Magnificat, she “proclaims the greatness of the Lord” and shows a healthy disdain for the mighty and arrogant who will be deposed in favor of the poor and lowly.

Being the “handmaid of the Lord” means not being afraid of any merely human power, when one is humble before God.

The U.S. senators who interrogated Amy Coney Barrett years ago, implying that she might be too Catholic to serve as a federal judge, apparently forgot that such a “religious test” for public office is unconstitutional.

Some commentators were especially indignant that she and her husband had belonged to a Christian community where women called themselves “handmaids.” Perhaps they had read Margaret Atwood’s novel “A Handmaid’s Tale,” about a very un-Christian society where fertile women are enslaved by men wanting children. They failed to read or understand what the word means in the Bible itself.

Christmas is a very great feast, the appearance of the incarnate Lord to the world. But the Incarnation begins when the Son of God assumes — and thereby gives his blessing to — human nature at its earliest and most helpless stage.

A purely secular case against abortion begins with the biological fact that each human life begins at that stage. For Catholics, called to love what God has blessed, abortion should be unthinkable.

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Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.