Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Mystery of the Virgin Birth

As we enter the season of Advent, I’d like to begin our Advent reflection by first looking at one of the earliest orthodox affirmations of our faith - the Apostle’s Creed.

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,  
creator of heaven and earth. 
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, 
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, 
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; 
he descended to the dead.  
On the third day he rose again; 
he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, 
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. 
I believe in the Holy Spirit,  
the holy catholic church,  
the communion of saints,  
the forgiveness of sins,  
the resurrection of the body,  
and the life everlasting. AMEN.”

One of the earliest orthodox declarations of our faith contains the affirmation of an ‘Advent mystery.’  “I believe in Jesus Christ… conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” 

Many theologians have wrestled with the affirmation of this ancient mystery of the virgin birth of Jesus.  I do believe it is both good and healthy to ask questions about anything and everything that we believe, including our thoughts on subjects, which at times, are perceived as sacred and untouchable.  Where I believe we begin to threaten that health is in our insatiable demand for absolute, quantitative, definable, categorical, systematized answers.

For example, our worldview often demands a mechanized explanation of ‘the historical facts.’  One common objection to the virgin birth of Jesus is its conflict with the current understanding of science.  Science currently states that while the process of virgin birth is possible its occurrences are exceedingly rare and require a set of extraordinary medical conditions to coincide.  Genetically, science appears to state that a virgin birth could only produce a female child, not a male child.  Both science and medical experience state that the female child produced from a virgin birth would be in very poor health and not survive long.  (As the last sentence implies, there have been a few cases in modern times of suspected virgin births, including some genetic testing to attempt to verify.)  The end conclusion that many draw from this type of demanded rigid explanation is that because science doesn’t believe it’s possible Jesus was not born of a virgin.

Providing further objections is the thought that the story of the virgin birth is stolen from other religious narratives and later superimposed upon Jesus.  Elements of the Jesus narrative are thus syncretistic in an attempt to further legitimize claims of deity.

Because of the dominance of these and other thoughts, some theologians choose to demystify the virgin birth.  Explanations for what really happened are offered.  The demystified explanations in one way or another reject the notion of the virgin birth of Jesus being an actual historical fact.  ‘It couldn’t be this so it must be that.’  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all discounting the validity or usefulness of either scientific or various method criticisms.  They can be necessary and helpful tools.  What I am suggesting is that maybe there is a ‘third option’ beyond what our other tools can offer. 

Maybe the scope of ‘reality’ is beyond something that we can currently see or measure.  Maybe there is more at play than we have capacity to either perceive or understand.  I certainly get a similar impression about my sense of ‘reality’ when I study what Jesus and scripture has to say about the Kingdom and how different God’s reality is from my own.  The last are first?  Illogical!  Heaven joining earth?  Incomprehensible!  Resurrection and creation renewed?  Seemingly impossible!  Yet this is reality from God’s point of view.

I love the term ‘mystery of the virgin birth.’  Mystery provides us a framework for embracing the event that neither does the carnage of squeezing it into our limited boxes of understanding nor does it blindly accept something out of obedience to religion.

Christian theology is no stranger to mystery.  The Trinity.  The incarnation.  The two natures of Christ.  The church spent centuries of its early years wrestling over those mysteries (and not always in friendly ways).   While we develop some pictures for imagining these realities, at their core, these realities still remain a mystery.  There is something about these things that surpass our ability to fully know, to fully understand.

Good theology embraces mystery.  This idea has been a core value for the Eastern Orthodox Church and I believe it is something that we could all benefit by learning from them.  The embrace of mystery in our theology humbly acknowledges our God as being ‘bigger’ (in so many senses of the word) and “other than” ourselves.  It also rightly acknowledges humanity as the work of the hands of the Creator who transcends our abilities.  Mystery draws us into worship.  We don’t worship God just for what we do know about him; we worship Him for what we don’t know about Him.

Reflecting on the mystery of the virgin birth of Jesus leaves us with many questions.  (God bless those who seek to answer them.)  Yet, it also leaves us with the opportunity to embrace the idea that a mysterious and unimaginably capable God was intimately involved in the advent of His Son, Jesus for the sake of you and me that we may know the life He destined for us since the beginning. In Jesus we have a clear revelation of this mysterious God, of whom Jesus declares,  “with God, all things are possible.”  (Matt 19:26)


  1. Nice reflection. One of the things about post-enlightenment Western thought is that we've lost some of our capacity to hold conflicting ideas in tension. We want to collapse mystery into certainty. I think it is almost an idol with us. At the very least it prevents us from having the wonder we need to fuel a healthy spirituality. This is a great season to reflect on that.