Year A is not my favorite, because Matthew doesn’t talk about Mary enough. Instead, he detours into talking about Joseph, and his several dreams (and as Amy-Jill Levine points out, this should remind you of Genesis’ Joseph and HIS dreams. Because Matthew is all about re-enacting the Tanakh in a pretty on-the-nose way, once you know to look for it.)
However, I decided that even if Matthew wasn’t going to talk about Mary, gosh darn it, I was. I like Mary, I have a fondness for mariology, and we don’t talk about her enough.
So, behold, I decided to unpack the doctrine of the virgin birth. It took me years and years to come around on it, but I did, and so here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 22, 2019
Advent 4, Year A
I had a professor in college who said that really, you only need to recall a handful of dates, and with those, you can put almost everything else into context. One of those dates is 1848. In that year, several major things were happening: Charles Darwin’s first book on evolution had come out, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the first new translation of the Bible since the Reformation had also emerged. So, lots was changing, very quickly.
In response to all this, a group of conservative minded Protestant leaders met in Seneca Falls, New York to figure out a way forward. They felt under attack, from all these new ideas swirling around. And they came up with what they called the 5 Fundamentals of the Christian faith: 5 statements that they felt were bedrock to Protestantism. Those who could sign onto them were called fundamentalists—and so began the modern fundamentalist movement.
The statements were things like : a belief in the absolute inerrancy of scripture, something called penal substitutionary atonement, the divinity of Jesus, the literal bodily resurrection, and….the virgin birth of Jesus, which gets a lot of play in our readings today.
Now, it’s worth noting that the Episcopal Church has never been a fundamentalist church—we have never endorsed the five fundamentals for various reasons, which would take a much longer sermon than you want to listen to.
But my point here is that the idea of the virgin birth gets people VERY INVESTED. Even people who generally don’t have a lot invested in Mary, Mother of Jesus, like fundamentalists. It tends to carry the weight of many projections having to do with sexual morality, and purity, and the role of women, and all that baggage can be really off-putting for many of us.
So what is going on in Isaiah and Matthew today? And since Matthew is quoting Isaiah we probably should start there.
Well, first of all, this is first Isaiah talking. (Isaiah actually has three different prophets combined into one book. The Title of “Isaiah” was like Dread Pirate Roberts—first one guy did it, then another guy inherited it. Basically whenever Israel was in a pinch, an Isaiah turned up and started writing.) The kingdom of Israel (so all the northern bits) is about to be invaded by the Assyrian Empire, and the king is very scared. Isaiah, in his role as Court Prophet, tells him to calm down, but the king is not hearing it. “Look,” says Isaiah—“God won’t let anything bad happen to you. See that young woman over there? She’s going to get pregnant and have a son, and he will grow up and live long enough to eat solid food. That’s how you know that God is with you.”
Assyria is threatening a siege, and Isaiah is promising that they will survive it. So the sign of a woman giving birth is less about a miraculous birth, and more about the passage of time. They will all live long enough for these things to happen. And sure enough, Assyria withdrew its armies, and the kingdom of Israel survives for a few more years.
Fast forward to Matthew’s gospel. The writer of Matthew knows the Isaiah prophecy and figures it fits pretty well with Jesus’s birth. Again, God comes to be with his people. Here, the writer is intending to stretch the prophecy a bit—now the miracle is no longer the passage of time; now the miracle is how the baby arrives.
Matthew’s audience, after all, knows all about miraculous births. There were stories and legends of special stars appearing when Caesar Augustus was born, and they knew all the stories of gods springing magically from the foreheads of other gods in Roman lore. This wouldn’t have fazed them.
What would have stood out is two things: that Mary does so much on her own, and that the child that results is so vulnerable.
In the ancient world, not much was understood about the birds and the bees. Besides being lesser members of society, women were not credited with any contribution in childbearing: they were literally empty vessels that were filled by what the ancient Greeks and Romans envisioned as teeny tiny people, contributed by men.
So when we look at it in this way, the story of the virgin birth is pretty remarkable. Mary somehow bears God into the world, we are told. This young girl from Nowheresville, Galilee. Who has nothing, and has done nothing and is in no way remarkable. She gives flesh to God Incarnate, because that’s how willing God is to be with us.
That’s an incredibly powerful and affirming assertion to make. Mary does something incredible, through the power of God, but also by herself. Leave science aside—the insistence in the gospels about the virgin birth is about the worth of a normal girl who can hold God.
And this is the second thing that would have struck them. Unlike the miraculous birth stories they were used to hearing, where gods are carving themselves out of other god’s legs, or springing forth from suns, the end result here isn’t a tiny invincible superhero, but a normal-seeming baby. Right from the start, Joseph has to act to protect his family, because they’re vulnerable—something unthinkable if we were telling this story about the legendary Caesar, or Zeus.
But the story of the Incarnation is all about God becoming vulnerable to be one of us. Not—mind—that God ceases to be omnipotent, but that God willingly forgoes power in order to accompany us in this way. The baby Jesus is small and fragile, because that’s how we are. Our lives at the start are full of risk, and anxious nights, and frantic new parents, and so that’s how Jesus entered the world.
The miracle of the virgin birth is so much bigger and transformative than a trick of science or a morality lesson. It’s God radically affirming the value and worth of a human girl. It’s God becoming as breakable as we are, so that we might never be alone again.
The miracle of the Incarnation shines through all of human existence, blessing all that is human with the divine touch. Isaiah promised that God would come and be with us to save us, and in Jesus, God has. God has become one of us to transform humanity into the image of God. Our vulnerabilities, our pain, our fragility, Jesus takes into himself, in order that we might be able to find ourselves in God.
That’s the real miracle of the virgin birth. That we, in all our weird humanity, are caught up forever in the divine life of God though Jesus.
That, I can get behind.