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12/13/2017

Christmas and the personhood of the unborn

One of the most interesting details of the account of Jesus’ birth in the gospels is what happened when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth. Luke tells us in the first chapter of his gospel that Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were infertile and beyond their childbearing years. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him that he and his wife were going to have a son who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Elizabeth did indeed become pregnant and when she was in her sixth month the same angel appeared to Mary and told her that she was going to conceive a son, Jesus, who would be the Son of God. Immediately after this, Mary went to stay with Elizabeth. When she greeted Elizabeth her fetus, who was later known as John the Baptist, leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

This account raises some interesting thoughts about the personhood of the unborn. Luke is clearly saying that John, who was at this time a 6-month fetus, had the spiritual insight to recognize Mary as the mother of Jesus. That would indicate the Holy Spirit was already working in the life of John before he was born and it would be hard to say that he was not a person when this occurred. He was already beginning to fulfill his role as the one who would announce the Messiah when he was 3 months from being born.

Less clear, but even more interesting, is the unstated possibility that what John was responding to was the presence of Jesus himself. If Jesus was conceived shortly after the angel appeared to Mary, and she went immediately to stay with Elizabeth, Jesus would have been an embryo at the time of John’s leaping for joy. If John as a fetus was responding to the presence of Jesus as an embryo, we have reason to confirm the personhood of a human embryo.

Whether John was responding to the presence of Mary or the presence of Jesus, it is the incarnation of Jesus that provides one of the strongest reasons for us to understand that every human being has great worth. Every human being has great value because each one is made in the image of God, but the incarnation tells even more. That fact that Jesus became a human being elevates human beings to a value above other created beings. Since we have been told that he was conceived in Mary’s womb, he grew as an embryo and fetus before being born in Bethlehem and has elevated the value of the unborn as well as those who have been born.

God bless us every one, including those who are not yet born.

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