Why the virgin birth matters
"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).
It sounds like a plot right out of a soap opera, or something that you would read in the tabloid headlines while waiting to pay for your groceries: "Virgin Woman Gives Birth to Baby Boy… Claims God is the Father.”
What a fantastic and crazy thing to believe. In defiance of the laws of nature and every rational bone in our bodies, we say that our God not only became a human being, but that his mother was a virgin when she gave birth to him.
So, what’s up with the virgin birth of Jesus? Is this belief simply a vestige of a long bygone era or something that is still relevant for us today? Can we believe it? Should we believe it?
Religious scholars tell us that despite the seemingly preposterous nature of this claim, virgin births are reported in nearly every religious tradition. The common nature of the virgin birth motif makes the virgin birth even less believable than it would be if it were unique.
The truth is that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth raises more questions for us than answers. That shouldn’t be all that surprising, because it seemed to raise a lot of questions for the Virgin Mary herself. Look at the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel when he announced that she was to be the Mother of God (with a few editorial comments added).
Gabriel: "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).
Mary’s response: But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be (1:29).
(Inner monologue: "Favored one? What’s this guy trying to sell me? Encyclopedias? Knives? A ticket to the Boy Scout’s pancake breakfast?")
Gabriel: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (1:31-33).
Mary: "How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34).
(Inner monologue: "Do we need to have a conversation about where babies come from?")
Gabriel: "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 holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35).
(Inner monologue: "Is it just me, or does that sound a little creepy?")
I may have embellished the conversation a bit, but it’s clear that just like us Mary is a little skeptical about this whole virgin birth business. But then the conversation takes an interesting turn.
Gabriel: "And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (1:36-37).
Mary: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38).
That seems like a pretty abrupt transition to me. Mary goes from skepticism to acceptance in a heartbeat. I’d imagine the actual conversation included a lot more back and forth. I certainly know I’d need a little more convincing than what Gabriel offers to Mary but, then again, Mary lived in a time when miraculous events were more readily accepted.
But I’d guess that most of us who live in an age of reason and science remain stuck somewhere between "nothing is impossible with God” and "here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
And yet despite the fact that we live in a world where it is much harder to believe in things like virgin births, we’re really not that different from Mary. Like her we have questions that demand answers, which, unfortunately, seem to be in short supply. And so we are left in the same place where Mary finds herself, with the words of Gabriel lingering in our ears, "For nothing will be impossible with God.”
You mean like the idea that God loved us enough to become a helpless human child?
That the long-awaited messiah isn’t a great king but rather a suffering servant?
That this servant king defeated the powers of sin, death and evil not through a military victory but rather by dying on a cross?
That after three days he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven?
That the 12 ordinary people he chose to be his disciples carried on his work, and this movement became one with the most impact in human history?
Is that the kind of "nothing” that is possible with God?
Martin Luther often said that God tends to show up where we least expect: in suffering, among the poor and outcast, in weakness, in doubt and struggle -- and perhaps even in the womb of a teenage virgin from a distant corner of the world.
As we hear the story of this miraculous birth once again this Christmas season, our doubts are not what keep us from receiving Jesus. It is, rather, our ability to simultaneously be doubtful and embrace the mystery that is God.
I don’t think Mary’s doubts about Gabriel’s message were ever fully resolved, nor do I expect that ours will be. But I do expect that if we follow Jesus we will see even more impossible things than a virgin birth.
Brian A.F. Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.