Try to imagine not knowing who your father is. And then, imagine learning that your father is the one who condemned your life to bondage—not metaphorical servitude but real slavery. One need not read very deep into U.S. history before learning that Africans, brought to America as slaves, and their descendants were also sexually abused by their masters.
What happened to the children born of these illicit, abusive relations? According to the law of the time, any child born to a slave woman was a slave. But how could a man know that he had fathered a son or a daughter and leave that child in bondage? How could any man, even a master, look upon his own child as a slave?
When he was only 6 years old, Frederick Douglass watched as his 15-year-old Aunt Hestor was stripped naked and whipped by their master Aaron Anthony. The evil nature of the old wretch was self-evident. What did it do this young boy to learn, a few years later, that this man was, most likely, his own father?
It is time to look again at what the evangelists wanted, so desperately, for us to understand about the virgin birth.
In his acclaimed biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David W. Blight speculates:
If indeed his twenty-year-old mother, still full of flowering beauty, youthful charm, and intelligence, had been raped by the power-besotted, sexually deranged fifty-year-old Anthony, Douglass had to find some story or analysis, in which to comprehend it as he grew to adulthood. By retrieving his story from memory he also had to try to dissolve it as he also created it. If he understood that he had not been conceived in love, then he could never know a father’s love, although he would seek alternative fathers for much of his life. “A man who will enslave his own blood,” he insisted, “may not be safely relied on for magnanimity. Men do not love those who remind them of their sins—unless they have a mind to repent—and the mulatto child’s face is a standing accusation against him who is master and father to the child.”
For several centuries academics have tried to explain away the sheer significance of Christ’s birth from a virgin mother. They now recognize that the notion is not Hebraic nor can it be derived from sources in comparative religion. It is time to look again at what the evangelists wanted, so desperately, for us to understand about the virgin birth.
Scholars suspect that the infancy narratives were probably the last portions of the Gospels to be composed, but, from the very beginning, the birth of the child Jesus from a virgin mother is the core proclamation of both Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives.
One might say that the virgin birth is the resurrection, being read into human sexuality.
Matthew knows that his fellow Jews will find a virgin birth to be inconceivable, so he expends great effort in his genealogy of the patriarchs to suggest that the God of Israel has “drawn straight with crooked lines.” Among the forebears of the Messiah are Tamar, a woman who disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce Judah, her father-in-law; Rahab, the kind-hearted prostitute who helped the Israelites to conquer Canaan; Ruth, who seduced her kinsman Boaz by hiding in his bed; and Bathsheba, the roof-bathing beauty, whose husband David murdered and who then bore the king his son, Solomon.
Luke details the dialogue of his annunciation scene to make it clear that the paternity of this child does not lie within our world. Mary speaks for all of us, for every reasonable person, when she asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (1:34). She is told, and we along with her: “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (1:35). If, through its sin, humanity had made a stark mess of its own sexual impulse, then by an utterly new act, one only the creator could perform, a new beginning will be made, one ushering in an order of grace.
Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time
when she who is to give birth has borne,
and the rest of his kindred shall return
to the children of Israel (5:2).
Here revelation is being read back from the resurrection. If Christ died as all men and women do, yet Christ lives triumphantly by the will of the Father and work of the Holy Spirit, then clearly a new humanity has been brought to birth in this new “Adam.” One might even say that the virgin birth is the resurrection, being read into human sexuality.
So from the very beginning of his existence, the evangelists recognize Christ to be the completely new, completely wonderful and utterly unimaginable work of God. A real woman gives birth because Jesus is truly a man. A virgin gives birth because his deepest identity is as God’s gift, God’s new initiative, God’s new creation.
Christ will continually call the God of Israel “Abba” (father). This is not to raise one sex over another into the divine. No, the Son identifies himself as the new beginning, the truly unimaginable work of God. He calls God father because in him God, through the cooperation of the virgin, has recreated, has fathered a new humanity.
Mr. Blight wrote of Douglass:
In his abolitionist writings and his oratory, Douglass seldom missed an opportunity to convert his story into defining slavery itself to his uninformed audiences. The orphan’s anguished story of his roots in Tuckahoe, the parents unknown or vanished, provide the perfect chance to tear out his reader’s heart as he bared his own. “There is not beneath the sky an enemy to filial affection so destructive as slavery. It made my brothers and sisters strangers to me; it converted my mother who bore me into a myth; it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an intelligible beginning in the world.”
At the center of the Christmas story a loving, faithful God creates anew. It is as if the Father, who sees and holds all time within himself, sees the malign fruit of sin in the life of the young slave, Frederick Douglass—sees all of human history as one long procession of decadence, decay and death, of hatred, fear and selfishness—and says: “Enough. We will not abandon our creation. We shall create anew by entering our own creation as man.”
Jesus calls God father because in him God, through the cooperation of the virgin,has fathered a new humanity.
God takes the initiative in Jesus Christ. Yet this time, in God’s unconquerable grace, a humble, holy humanity responds.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy (Lk 1:42-44)