What are we to make of the virgin birth? The better question might just be, what does the virgin birth make of us? But setting aside the first question to embrace the second takes some pondering.
That is what the church desires of us, this fourth Sunday of Advent. Normally, only the first reading and the Gospel are chosen to dialogue with each other. The second reading is typically independent and runs in-course, linking passages from last week and next. This weekend, all three readings dwell on the mystery of the virgin birth.
Here is a little rule for life: Without education, you have no idea what the questions are. With some education, you think you have the answers. With a lot of education, answering any one question only leads to another. And if your education has granted you some wisdom, you realize that the deepest questions in life are put to you, not by you.
You do not have much, when a Scripture scholar tells you that the prophet Isaiah was probably only speaking of a previously unwed young woman when he prophesied that
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel (Is 7:14).
It is a nice nugget of biblical criticism, but the apostolic church knew that it was interpreting the prophets in a radically new way, one that the prophets themselves could not have understood. That was the point of reading the Hebrew Scriptures on the other side of the death and resurrection of Jesus: Everything in the world, even in the world of faith, had suddenly taken on a new hue, a novel level of meaning.
A course in religious studies might tell you that ancient myths often spoke of gods and goddesses entering the world of humans, even sexually. This is true, but, I think, it weighs in as evidence on the side of the virgin birth.
Why? Because Greco-Roman religion essentially made the divine little more than a higher sphere of the human. The gods and goddesses of this pantheon were just like us. Zeus, Hera and Heracles were to the Greeks what Marvel’s Avengers are to us: humanity writ large. The gods and goddesses sometimes dated humans because they, like us, grew bored.
Greco-Roman religion did not so much encounter the mystery of God as it domesticated that mystery into something that could be controlled by humans. That is the perennial temptation of religion. But whatever else the virgin birth may be, it does not represent the domestication of the divine.
The virgin birth does not say that God needed Mary because God lacked divine pursuits. The myths focus upon the enjoyment of the god in the act of union. This story is about the woman giving birth. It suggests an intrusion by the divine into the human. A god having sport with a human is ultimately a projection of human fantasy onto to the divine. A human giving birth to God, without any shade of sexuality, is the proclamation that the divine, the utterly creative, has come into our world, that God’s presence makes demands upon us.
Every “ism” begins life as a newborn insight before becoming systematized into a clutch of clichés. The great acumen of feminism is the recognition that the world of women is not the world of men, and that men would learn that, if they bothered to listen to women. But to suggest that the virgin birth represents a repudiation of human sexuality, and, in particular, woman’s earthy role in it, is a cliché without a clang. This one cannot be blamed on old male celibates. There were none around in Mary’s time.
And note that it is the man who has been eliminated in this mystery, set aside as unnecessary, not the woman. Also, it is the coupling, not the childbirth, that has been expunged. This again suggests that the divine transfigures the human, makes of it something that it has never been, that is quite foreign to our nature, our history.
Clever, you say, turning the evidence of the biblical scholar, the scholar of religions and the feminist back upon themselves. But note that we are not dismissing these insights, only pondering them so as to draw more deeply from them.
Let’s end this foray into fantasy, you say, by summoning the scientists. They can assure us that virgins do not give birth. But that, they cannot do! Science studies, and explains, perceived regularities. The adjective and the noun both matter. We can only study what we perceive, and we can only perceive something, collectively, when it is a regular feature of our world. Something that happens once, and not again, something that is not at all “regular” would be truly novel. You can say that such things do not exist, but you cannot use science to back you up. Science cannot go beyond perceived regularities. About the utterly novel, it cannot speak. It certainly cannot deny.
St. Paul is the first written source we have in the Christian faith. He does not directly speak of a virgin birth, though he does insist that the birth of Jesus is a divine, not a human, work. Paul writes to the Romans that he has been called and set apart for
the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh,
but established as Son of God in power
according to the Spirit of holiness
through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (1:3-4).
Notice that Paul links the birth of Christ to his resurrection. And the connection predates the apostle, as he is clearly quoting an adage, which can be recognized by its pattern: Jesus—Son of David—flesh / Jesus—Son of God—Spirit. Evidently, very early in the life of the church, the birth, the beginning of the story, is being perceived in the light of its ending, the resurrection. Contemporary journalists trod the same, proven route. They open with “breaking news” and within days, sometimes only hours, have the biographical background, which explains the headline, ready to follow.
The Gospels intend, as Luke puts it, to put everything down into “an orderly sequence,” so that it can be better understood (1:3). To start at the very beginning is a very good place to start. And so Mark begins with the baptism, the public entrance of Jesus. Matthew and Luke explore his nativity. John goes all the way back into the depths of his divinity, pondering the Word that was with God in the beginning.
Grant them this: The Gospels are “in-your-face” aggressive. Hard to believe in the novelty that a man should rise from the dead? Then try believing that a virgin should give birth. Both assertions, if true, say that our world has been invaded by God. They suggest that, if we don’t know what to make of the virgin birth and the resurrection, we had better begin to ask what the virgin birth and the resurrection want of us.
We can avoid the question. We can say that such things just don’t happen and that lots of intelligent people can explain why we want them to happen and thus befuddle ourselves. But what if they did happen? What do we do when our human experts fail to explain away this mystery? What can we do but fall silent as well, adore and, trembling, await the address of God?