The Virgin Birth of Jesus is superfluous. It’s an extra. I mean that it is not necessary, for the work of salvation by the Lord Jesus, for him to have been born of a virgin. And even though the later traditions of the church figured his Virgin Birth as the proof of his divinity, the Bible itself did not report it for such.
The Virgin Mary did not take it so, for whatever she knew in her own body about his miraculous conception, she did not regard her son as divine, before his resurrection. All the apostles were moved to call Jesus “my Lord and my God,” by his resurrection, not his Virgin Birth.
No wonder two of the gospels do not even mention his birth, neither Mark nor John. Not that they did not know about it, as it was already reported by Matthew, the original gospel that both Mark and John depended on. Nor did they dispute it; it just did not rise to first importance.
When Matthew reported it, he told it from Joseph’s viewpoint, in terms of his dilemmas and his dreams. Matthew presented the miracle of the birth as fulfillment, as fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel,”—God with us.
Now, as many have pointed out, in that prophecy, the Hebrew word for “virgin” can simply mean young woman. Yes, likely unmarried, but a virgin only by implication of her being still untaken. So while it is not necessary for us to read virginity into Isaiah’s prophecy, neither is it untenable, but it too is a superfluity and an extra.
To call it a superfluity and an extra is not to take away from it. To say that it was not necessary is not to diminish it. No, because this God does not stop with what is necessary. With this God, the efficient is insufficient. God gives extras and superfluities.
This is especially true of God the Holy Spirit. Think of Pentecost, where in Jerusalem all the diaspora Jews could get along just fine in Greek or Aramaic, but the Holy Spirit rejoiced in the unnecessary extravagance of all their native languages. Think of Creation itself, in which the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, brought forth the superabundant riot of life upon this planet.
The Holy Spirit loves manifold multiplicity, especially of living things, and this Holy Spirit loves bodies, yes, physical bodies. This Holy Spirit delights in the superabundance of living creatures, the inefficient extravagance of peacocks and hummingbirds, the unnecessary beauty of flowers whose efficiency is just to gather bugs and birds. The Holy Spirit is that person of the Holy Trinity who is responsible for the superfluous generosity and abounding grace of God. And this Holy Spirit who loves physical bodies descends to rest upon the womb of the Virgin Mary, for a Christmas present.
St. Luke reports the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary specifically as the work of the Holy Spirit. Did you notice it’s not the work of God the Father? Why does everybody think so? It’s the work of the Holy Spirit. And just as the Spirit at creation brooded upon the waters of the deep, so now the Holy Spirit rests upon the waters of Mary’s womb, in order to bring about a new creation, a new humanity. Her son will be the first-born of that new creation. So not just a new Adam, but a whole new creation. O brave new world, that hath such people in it.
I am saying that while the Virgin Birth of Jesus is unnecessary for salvation, while it is extraneous to the necessities of God’s faithfulness, while it is superfluous to the covenant, from St. Luke’s point of view it is the new creation not required by the old. And I'm saying that it tells us something about Jesus’ humanity even more than his divinity.
I repeat that it’s not specifically the work of God the Father. This is important. In this case the Holy Trinity is working in Mary in the mode of the Spirit, not in the mode of the Father. In other words, this is not a case of some heavenly male privilege taking power over a woman and her body.
Indeed, that is the judgment implied by the Virgin Birth, the judgment of an absolute denial of male privilege. A judgment on masculine power. The elimination of the masculine contribution to the world’s solutions. Don’t you love it! Every year the problems of society help us see new things in this old, old story. God is saying, I’m just done with men here. Let’s leave it all with a woman. For this new creation, this new humanity, let’s start with Eve this time, and just leave Adam out of it.
There is the problem of her consent. Did Mary consent to this? And did it hang on her consent? The angel waited for her answer. Could she have answered No? The critics think she had no choice, that she was trapped into saying Yes. Well, St. Luke doesn’t picture it that way. He doesn’t picture Mary as submissive. Yes, she’s perplexed at the surprising greeting of the angel, and yes, she wonders how she could get pregnant without male seed, but she doesn’t say anything like, “I am not worthy,” or “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” What she says is, “Here am I.” What Abraham said. “Here am I.” What the prophets said. It’s a strong response.
I figure that the Lord God knew enough about Mary to expect her positive response, just like when I ask one of you to volunteer for some job in the church. It remains your free choice, but I can estimate your interests and capacities, and that you like to step up. I think God knew that Mary would step up. This is the woman who a couple months later sang her song of the Magnificat, a song of praise, a song of positive self-awareness, of empowered servanthood, and of revolution—social, economic, and political revolution. Mary was the woman God wanted to raise the Messiah.
I have told you before that in the biological understanding of Bible times, a virginal birth was even more impossible than it is today. They thought conception was all from the seed of the male, and the mother was but the earth in which the seed was planted, so that the woman contributed nothing but a waiting womb. So for Mary to conceive in her womb was even more of miracle back then than it would be now.
And the point of the miracle was not that he was thereby God, but that he was the first of a whole new humanity. As Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, without the seed of any father, so Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, without the seed of any father. This new Adam of Mary’s womb is a new model human, who is formed not just by the dwelling of the Spirit, but by the answer of his mother. When she said, “Here I am,” he was conceived.
So there is a negative judgment against male privilege and masculine power in the Virgin Birth. But there is also a positive judgment in favor of humble human privilege. You get to say “Yes” to the Holy Spirit and her coming into the world and even into your life. Your “Yes” is important, your “Here am I” is critical.
The Holy Spirit wants to make a new you inside you, right inside your old new. Not an enemy of your old you, but a lover of your old you, warts and all, with all your sins and miseries, your doubts and your fears, all that you feel guilty of. That old you is loved by your new you, your new you being born in you by the Holy Spirit, and it is your privilege to Yes to that.
I think the Christmas carol gets it wrong. “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” First, it’s the Holy Spirit who descends on you, just like on Mary’s womb. Second, the Spirit enters in first, before our sin is cast out. Third, what’s born in you is not the Holy Child of Bethlehem, but the holy child of You, your own new humanity, and it’s you who can say Here am I, and when you say Here am I, you yourself cast out your sin. It is your humble human privilege. And you conceive the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world, who is the leader of the new humanity, the humanity that will populate the new heaven and new earth.
There was no sex in the Virgin Birth, but there was love. Not romance, not that God loved Mary any more than anybody else, but God loved what Mary could do as a prophet and a matriarch. And the love that Mary had for her own child. As God entrusted Mary to love his Son, his only Son, and as Mary loved the firstborn of the new humanity, with her own body, so God loves you. As Mary carried Jesus in her womb, inside her body, so you are enveloped by the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.