You’re in good company if you struggle to believe in the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ. At first, Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, didn’t believe it either.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. – Matthew 1
We don’t know exactly how the conversation between Joseph and Mary went, but we can imagine that it was painful, disappointing, and disruptive. The same would be true, though perhaps even more so, in regard to Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy to her parents. Would you have believed her? Joseph was preparing to do the ‘right thing’, indeed the ‘righteous’ thing – treating Mary with compassion while also maintaining his own integrity. He is commended for this, not condemned. It took a divine intervention for Joseph to take a different course, one I’m sure few supported in its time. I doubt that anyone believed Joseph telling the story any more than they believed Mary.
Two thousand years later – and all along the course of those two thousand years – people of substantial intellect, power, and means, together with the common, weak, and needy, gather together and with one heart and voice confess ‘I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…’ While many mock such mysterious faith, and some within the Church – especially some of its most learned theologians – seek to ‘de-mythologize’ the Faith and sever it from what they regard to be nonsense and superstition, the vast majority of the faithful keep right on affirming what Joseph at first could not. I do so as well, and Gabriel never showed up in any of my dreams to tell me it was the right way to go. Why is this so?
At the end of the day, I do so because Scripture plainly teaches the virgin conception and birth of Jesus. There are a number of theological reasons and points to be made about the necessity for such an arrangement and, while helpful, they are all lead back to Gabriel’s central message to Joseph: name him ‘Jesus’ for he will save his people from their sins. That such a Savior must be both fully human and fully God is something John treats with great care in his Gospel, and is an underlying necessity for the mission of Jesus which Paul outlines in his numerous letters. I find it easy to believe in a virgin birth of a single person, holding as I do to the virgin birth of the entire cosmos. The stardust of which we are composed, the explosion that resulted in our composition, echoes in our souls taking us back – and back and back and back – to the One who would be only mystery… were it not for the obscure lady of Nazareth and her betrothed.
Coming back to the manger, we gather with Hebrew shepherds and Persian magi in an obscure village outside Jerusalem to do homage to the baby, offering him the adoration that only God is worthy to receive. Take away his humanity and his suffering is illusion; take away his divinity and his powerful mercy is limited. Jesus is the unlimited Savior because as the limitless God he submitted to the geography of love and the biology of grace, becoming one of us and arriving in our world to make us as he is and to bring us to his home.
Luci Shaw summarized this beautifully in her poem Mary’s Song –
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest …
you who have had so far
to come.) Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world.
Charmed by doves’ voices, the whisper of straw,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
“I’ll be home for Christmas” has then a deeper truth that snow, mistletoe, and presents under the tree. Because God made his home among us we may find our rest in him, and our everlasting comfort and home in his presence. While we are all ‘born to die’ no one but him was born with the specific mission to die, and to do for others, even those who hated him. That’s why every year a crown of thorns is hidden in our Christmas tree, the silent, barely visible witness to the wonder and the joy, the presence of a dark foreboding in the happy carols. The shadow of the cross fell over the manger because we needed deliverance from the shadow of death. In the face of ever-demanding technologies and omnicompetent explanations for why what has happened ‘cannot be so’, pause for a moment before the mystery of love and come to the feast of wonder. Worship at the manger. Is the virgin birth of Jesus ‘unbelievable’? It would be more appropriate to transform that word from denial to exclamation of wonder and joy: “Unbelievable!” Adding, “The incredible has happened!!” to our note of joy. Because that miracle is true, so also is the miracle of forgiveness. Whatever undeserved shame Mary must’ve endured as she quietly carried Jesus to birth was a foreshadowing of the shame of the cross her son would carry in order that we could be liberated from our own very deserved shame. Unbelievable.
Very soon now, the lights will be unplugged, boxed up, and put away. It’s what they tried to do with Jesus as well: they tried valiantly to be rid of him, to unplug him, box him up, and put him away. But Jesus the Light of the World didn’t remain in the tomb, and neither will he settle for our attics. He has come to us, born of the Virgin, to save his people, and the Light cannot be extinguished.
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