I know that there are many conspiracy theories about the extra-canonical gospels, but despite what Dan Brown has told you, there is no there there. Rather than being a font of SECRET WISDOM OMG, much of the extra texts are basically fanfiction that early Christian groups wrote, in order to either combat a nasty rumor (Jesus was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier!) or to further fill in unfortunate gaps in the narrative (what DID happen in those missing 18 years between 12-30 years old?) So, yes. All those hours you’ve spent pouring over Tumblr is now paying off.
Here’s what I said about that:
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 18, 2016
Advent 4, Year A
Matthew 1:18-25, also Isaiah though
If you, like I did as a teenager, spend your time reading the extra canonical gospels and infancy narratives, not only will you have a thriving social life, but you will learn lots of odd rumors about who Jesus’ parents were and where he came from.
Contrary to popular conspiracy theories, the extra canonical gospels weren’t kept out of the Bible by some vast churchy-cabal, determined to silence minority voices. They were kept out because they were written later than the 4 that wound up in there, they are mostly incomplete, and also, they are straight up weird.
There’s the one where child Jesus strikes the neighborhood bullies dead because they bother him. There’s another where he keeps getting into fights with his teachers as a 5 year old and knocking them unconscious, til Joseph tells Mary just not to let him out of the house. (SEE WHY THAT ONE DIDN’T END UP IN THE BIBLE!?)
Then there are the stories about Mary. And there are a LOT. There is an entire fragmentary gospel about Mary’s childhood–saying that she was raised in a shrine in the Temple, that angels fed her, and that the young women of Israel danced for her amusement. And that Joseph is assigned to be her husband because he won a game of lots. (This is less icky than it sounds, but still sort of eye-brow raising to 21st century sensibilities.)
Why all the focus on Mary?
Partially, it’s because of how important Jesus was. Common thought in the first century was that if you turned out to be important, then your birth must have been extraordinary too. And so, since Jesus said and did such miraculous things, surely his mother must have been incredible too. Caesar Augustus, for example, claimed to have been the result of a virgin birth. Because he was so awesome and emperor-like and all. It helped solidify his claim to the throne.
Conversely, in some of the anti-Christian writings we have, there are some pretty nasty allegations about Mary having an affair with a Roman soldier–as a way to delegitimize Jesus. So, early Christians were united in their opinion that Jesus’ birth had to have been extraordinary in some way, because he was extraordinary.
The virgin birth, as it appears in the gospels, is less about Mary being pure, and sex being bad, and more about foreshadowing how incredible these people were–how important this baby was. So incredible that even his birth was amazing!
Like the rest of the miracles in the gospels, the writers don’t get caught up in how it happened or laying out details–what they care about is why. In the Bible, saying “virgin birth” is tantamount to holding a giant flashing neon sign above whatever is about to happen, signalling that GOD CARES ABOUT THESE PEOPLE. GOD IS GOING TO BE INVOLVED IN THEIR LIVES.
Now, a weird thing has happened, in that in modern times, when we hear these stories, we sometimes get distracted and think about the supposed purity of it all. We dwell on the mechanics– Entire theologies have been built around the idea that what made Mary special was her purity. Her virgin-ness. Her super-human-meekness.
Here’s the thing–what makes Mary special is not her superhuman purity. Regardless of whether she was a virgin or not, the miracle of Jesus’ birth was that new, divine life, sprang out of humanity. And God was with us. Mary facilitated that just by being human, and being there.
It starts with Isaiah, after all.
Isaiah, who we meet in the first reading today, trying to talk the King of Judea off a ledge. See, here’s what had happened: the same as had happened every 5 years or so, someone was threatening to invade. In this case, it was the joint threats of Israel to the north, and the Assyrian Empire, who had just taken Israel as a client state. (Sort of like Russia, and whatever client-state they are currently controlling.)
In any case, the king of Judea is worried for several reasons. He doesn’t have a good army, he doesn’t have many resources, and he is located on any sort of path Assyria would want to use should they expand. It’s the classic Luxembourg problem. So he suggests to Isaiah that the smart thing to do is go ahead and surrender now.
Isaiah is not on board. “Look,” he says to the king, “why don’t you ask God for help?” The king protests that he couldn’t do that, for Reasons.
Isaiah is having none of this, and announces that a woman in the court will have a child. She will be the sign. She will bear a son, and before her child is old enough to make decisions, the enemies will be gone.
That’s pretty much what happens–before two years are out, Assyria is conquered, and Judah survives a while longer.
To be clear, Isaiah isn’t saying that this unnamed woman is going to conceive miraculously. The miracle is That God will be with them, they all will survive, and this new life is the proof of that.
However it comes about, bringing new life and new hope into broken situations is the miracle God excels at. This is what God does–God takes our human messes and brings new life out of them. God comes into our screwed up situations and transforms them.
What we are required to do, to be a part of that, is not to be magic. Not to be purer-than-pure or have secret talents or to have been fed exclusively by angels. What we are required to do is be human. To show up. To bring our whole, vulnerable selves into a relationship with God. And to say yes to God’s dreams for us. However crazy or outlandish they may seem.
Because God is always with us, in times of danger and in times of uncertainty. In times of triumph and plenty too. Our job is to make space for that presence, to make room in our human lives and await the miracle.