What are we to make of the Virgin Birth? What does it make of us?

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.

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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?

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Derrick Weiller
1 year 4 months ago
Father Klein: Yours is a terrific commentary. I will be saving it. This said this, however, I must respond. You write: "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. " I would edit this to read: "Something that happens once, and not again, something that is not at all “regular” would be truly novel. You can not say that such things do not exist; yet you can summon compelling scientific evidence to argue that such happenings are inconsistent with all known laws of physics and biology. This casts them not as scientifically mute, but rather as scientifically discredited.
J Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago
Virgin births are common. It is called artificial insemination and happens in the animal world quite frequently. I guess animals can be virgins or is the term only appropriate for humans. There are probably cases of human virgins getting pregnant because they have been exposed to semen.(for example an attempted rape without penetration.) Certainly not common but possible. As far as events in the world that are not the result of matter on matter interactions (due to the laws of physics) there are probably over 700 billion + occurrences every day on earth. Anytime an intelligence makes a decision it contravenes the laws of nature. As I write this comment I am executing an event that is not due to regular interactions of the four natural laws of physics. So non conforming events are the rule on Earth. Maybe not in any other place in the universe but certainly on Earth. As far as the virgin birth of Christ, a person who can create the universe and life could certainly produce a zygote in the womb of Mary. So let's rejoice in the outcome and not the method which is less than a mere wave of the hand from God. No mystery!!!
Bruce Snowden
1 year 4 months ago
I learned years ago that it’s possible for a woman to conceive through natural impregnation and remain physically, or however you say it, a virgin. Virginity ceases during subsequent intercourses and a virgin birth is absolutely impossible. There is only one woman who conceived a child, remaining a Virgin before, during and after childbirth, and that Virgin’s name is Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus. There is a medical term describing temporary virginity after conception, but I cannot remember its name. An internet search didn’t help probably because incorrect questions were asked. Many decades ago my Mom told me I was conceived and she remained a virgin her hymen not broken by penetration. That part of her atomy was non-yielding but somewhat porous, permitting some sperm to seep through fertilizing an egg, resulting in me. You might say I “snuck in!” I also “snuck in” at birth, weighing only fifty ounces (3lbs/2oz) full term I was told, but I doubt it. Back in 1931 a baby that little didn’t have a good survival rate, but somehow I made it to my 85th birthday so far. Regarding Fr. Klein’s “A Virgin Birth?" an excellent presentation of the one and only of its kind impregnation, gestation and birth of Jesus. Blessed Mother Mary remained a Virgin before, during and after, following the “coming upon her” by the Holy Spirit. Exactly what does that mean? Does it mean that the Holy Spirit sexually impregnated her with specially prepared sperm of God? I’ve always believed that Mary was actually sexually impregnated by the Holy Spirit, another example of Jesus being like us in all way, except sin. Or was it a spiritual impregnation, nothing at all physical about it? Since with God all things are possible, nothing hard, or impossible, I also wonder if God miraculously mixed some of David’s DNA with the heaven-prepared sperm, making Jesus physically “Son of David” as well as spiritual Son of David? Physical relations, including sexual are creations of God and by His admission we know that He call all His creations, “Good.” Or were the genetics of David already ancestorially present in Mary, sufficient to make Jesus truly physically related to David, and not simply spiritually? These questions come to mind meditating on the mystery of the Virgin Birth, focusing on Christmas a few days away. What a wonder is Christmas! Baby God squirming and crying loudly as newborns do, Jesus resting in an animal feeder, in an animal shelter, in Baby Talk saying pleadingly to his Mom, “Mother, I’m wet! Change me!” A Holy Night? Yes. A Silent Night? Don’t think so. Oh, the Virgin Birth – Fabulous!
Lisa Weber
1 year 4 months ago
I have never thought the idea of virgin birth was very interesting. We cannot explain it any more than we can explain the resurrection from the dead, so there is not much reason to think about it. The church fascination with virginity gets old. "The glory of her virginity" is a line that could be expunged from every prayer book written and it would improve them. I am sure that virginity has meaning to those who choose lifelong virginity, but it is certainly no guarantee of holiness nor is it of much interest to others.
Ryder Charles
1 year 4 months ago
What prayers contain the phrase "The glory of her virginity"?

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