Missio filii fecit
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
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
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
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
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,
Lecturer in the Pontifical Gregorian university
Via Montanara, 178 - 41100 Modena