n. 12
dicembre 2008


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«Born from a woman»
Christmas in the perspective of Paul



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Missio filii fecit
tempus plenitudinis

«But when the completion of the time came, God sent his Son born of a woman…» (Gal 4,4). What is Christmas for Paul? Whose feast is it and of what? What is the perspective that emerges from the famous passage of the letter to the Galatians?

It is emphatically introduced by an adversative "But when the fullness came" and the sentence has a solemn tone fit for a relevant theme: this is the unique way in which Paul lingers on the sending of Christ. The lexicon also is singular. The verb that describes the divine action (exapèsteilen, "sent") appears only twice in the Pauline epistolary, but we do not need to go far, in order to find out the second recurrence: just the two following verses describe the sending of the Spirit, "God has sent (exapèsteilen) into our heart the Spirit of His Son crying "Abba, Father!" (Gal 4,6).

Therefore, Paul, with identical language presents the double sending of the Son and of the Spirit from the unique sender: God the Father. The Trinitarian action appears limpid. In the sending of the Son a double movement also appears –descendent and ascendant- that sees the involvement of the Woman and the Law in a symbolic entwining. We need to keep into consideration the various aspects and I would like to do it in an agile way.

The time that reaches its fullness: the pregnancy of time?

«When the completion of the time came…». What does this metaphor say, which idea of time and its measurements does it give? Old people calculated the chrónos in the way they calculated the space, through the filling of special amphora with very fine sand or by using a clessidra, which measures the passing of time through the constant flowing of water.

This measurement, however, is inadequate to understand the sense of the Pauline formulation, which measures the time in a different way, in the key of promise and fulfilment. 1 In the picture of the Biblical concept the chrónos reaches its fullness in the dynamic of waiting, a kind of pregnancy, of germination, of interior leavening. It is the waiting that makes time pregnant and the bowels of the old chróno to quivers, the waiting for him who has to come.

It is the Messiah that causes the fullness of time! Luther egregiously comments: Non enim tempus fecit Filium mitti, sed e contra missio Filii fecit tempus plenitudinis "In fact, it was not the time that caused the sending of the Son, but on the contrary the sending of the Son caused the fullness of time" 2

According to the Evangelist Mark, Jesus starts his preaching with an explicit reference to time that is made full: pepléro¯tai hó kairós (Mark 1,15). Similarly in the formulation of Paul. 3 But here the Apostle does not speak of an opportune time because of human decision, such as the Biblical kairós. He uses the term chrónos, which is more common, the time that scans the chronicle and makes us think of the Chronometer. According to Paul it is the chrónos that reaches its pléroma, its "fullness". Obviously, this is not according to our parameters. God, too, has his own chronometer and it is He that establishes the time.

Born of a woman

He who, like Wisdom, was with God from the very beginning (See Wisdom 9, 10.18; John 1,1-18), enters the world as "born from a woman». Before having a Mariological meaning, the expression has a very concrete anthropological and Christological value: it says that the Son of God has become fully human, like us. Therefore, he is frail, limited, mortal. To be born from a woman is an obligatory passage, a common way of entering the world. There is no more entry, not even for the Son of God.

However, it is not any abstract woman that signs the entrance in the world, but the unique, very concrete woman with the countenance of a mother. In this case it is a specific Hebrew woman: Mary of Nazareth. It is to Mary that God turns in the fullness of time. Rather, in order to become "full" the time waits for her YES. She is the woman who gives her consent to the new creation inaugurated by the Son of God in her womb. "Rejoice, daughter of Sion, be happy daughter of Jerusalem (….) the Lord your God in your womb is a powerful saviour" (Sof 3,14-17).

Mary is the house of the Word, His welcoming womb, «The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of Go» (Luke 1,35). Mary does not oppose barriers against the dreams of God…The admirable interchange takes place in her womb between the human progeny and the divine one,«God sent his Son, born of a woman (…) so that we might receive the adoption as children of God».

Born under the Law ….

Let us note the (meaningful) repetition of the participle: "born form a woman / born under the Law". To be born «under the Law» has no positive value for Paul; it expresses a situation of slavery from which only the Son of God is capable of setting us free: «born under the Law to ransom those who were under the Law» (Gal 4,4).

Let us notice the descending movement of the Son who accepts and shares as well the situation of being subjected "under the Law", because only he who shares can ransom. Therefore, Christmas is the feast of our liberation from the subjection to the law and, consequently from all forms of legalism!

In the previous verses, the Apostle presents a juridical example: it is the case of a minor that, despite his being the heir, cannot enjoy his patrimony as yet. According to the norms of civil rights, he is subjected to "tutors and administrators up to the time established by his father" (Gal 4,2). The tutor, generally chosen from among the relatives, was deputed to the care of the person, while the bursar or administrator minded the management of goods. This is what we wre, St. Paul seems to say, namely minor heirs subjected to the Law. However, whom does he speak of? To be born under the Law practically means to be a "Jew", to belong to a people who recognises the Law as the main privilege of election (See Rom. 9, 4). Thus, the freeing action realised by the Christ is, first of all, destined to Israel. Later, the horizon gets amplified in a universal perspective, so that "we might receive the adoption as children" (Gal 4,5).

The greatest heritage: children of God!

Paul speaks of divine progeny (hyiothesia) with his characteristic depth of thought. 4 In the great dream of God, before the creation of the world (Eph. 1, 5), there was the universal call to be his children, a thing that was realised in the "fullness of time" through the double strictly connected sending of the Son and the Spirit, "As you are sons, God has sent into our heart the Spirit of His Son crying: Abba, Father!" (Gal 4,6). The Spirit appears like a reality extremely flexible: on one side He is "sent" by God, on the other side He is "of the Son", but He lives "in our hearts", 5 working in them a new creation: He transforms our I from human into divine. Paul himself testifies it saying, "It is no longer I, but Christ living in me" (Gal 2,20).

Therefore, which Christmas?

Not only that of Christ "born from a woman", but that of Christ who "lives in me", who lives in every man and woman that welcome Him in faith.

A Christmas of liberation from every fearful subjection to the Law; Christmas in the freedom of the children of God who are grateful and happy to turn to Him with the same filial cry of Jesus and the Spirit raises from our hearts: "Abba, Father!"

1. See, for instance, the conclusion of the book of Tobit: the deported will re-build the temple, which will not be like the first one, "up to the fullness of time" (Tobit 14, 5)

2. M. LUTHER , Vorlesung über den Galaterbrief 1516-1517, 18.

3. «Il tempo sembra giungere riempendosi e si riempie giungendo!»: A. PITTA, Lettera ai Galati, EDB, Bologna 2000, 237.

4. The term hyiothesia, «progeny, adoption as children is characteristic in Paul (Gal 4,5; Rom 8,15.23; 9,5; Ef 1,5); it is found nowhere else in the NT, not even in the LXX.

5. Never before Paul we find a similar "approach between the Spirit and a Son of God, indeed an attribution of the one to the other": R. PENNA, Lo Spirito di Cristo. Cristologia e pneumatologia secondo un'originale formulazione paolina, Paideia, Brescia 1976, 227.


Elena Bosetti
Lecturer in the Pontifical Gregorian university
Via Montanara, 178 - 41100 Modena


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