Like the Virgin?

Based on Luke 1:26-38

When I first enrolled at university – nearly 40 years ago – I made a last minute subject change. I had pre-enrolled in political science, English literature, and history, but while enrolling I decided to drop history – even though it had been my best subject in the 7th form – and take religious studies instead.

My parents were a little concerned about this. Partly because I think they saw history as being a more useful subject. But also because one of my lecturers and tutors would be Professor Lloyd Geering. Mum and Dad had formerly been Anglicans, but they now were Presbyterians, and they vividly remembered Geering being tried by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church for what was popularly referred to as heresy. Although the charges faced by Geering were actually "doctrinal error" and "disturbing the peace and unity of the church". And they were dismissed without a great deal of fuss.

I found Geering to be a very sincere, respectful, and deeply spiritual man. And I never heard him say anything that alarmed me. Until we had finished with Judaism and were now moving onto Jesus and the origins of Christianity. And Geering dropped a bombshell by suggesting that Mary was likely to have become pregnant through being raped by a Roman soldier.

It would be fair to say my jaw nearly fell off. I had never heard anything so outrageous. While I had stopped going to church and stopped identifying with Christianity in my late teens after being exposed to toxic fundamentalism, this didn’t happen overnight, and I was still in the later stages of this transition. But Geering’s suggestion really rattled me. At first anyway. Because it challenged a belief that I had previously accepted without really thinking about it.

By now, you may have guessed that my sermon is primarily about the circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy. And you would be right.

The virgin birth may be a deeply held belief that you treasure greatly, and you may now be expecting me to pick it apart. Let me assure you is not my intention today. I am mindful that this is a delicate topic and I am not here to shatter anyone’s faith.

 

But I am going to look at what the Bible says about the subject, and in doing so take into account the cultural and historical context.

Despite the emphasis that is often placed on the nature of Jesus’ conception, there is actually very little about it in our scriptures.

 

The earliest documents that were included in the Newer Testament were letters written by St Paul, and there is absolutely nothing in any of his writings suggesting there was anything unusual about Jesus’ conception or birth. Not even a hint. And the same applies to every other book in the Newer Testament, apart from two of the four canonical gospels.

 

The earliest gospel, the Gospel according to St Mark, does not say anything about Jesus’ birth. And neither does the latest, the Gospel according to St John.

 

The only places in the Newer Testament where there are any explicit suggestions of a virgin birth are found in the opening chapters of the Gospels according to St Matthew and St Luke respectively.

Matthew describes how Joseph is betrothed to Mary, but upon founding out she is pregnant – and not to him – he decides to dismiss her quietly without scandal. (Betrothal in Jesus’ day was much stronger commitment than a modern engagement, and dismissal was akin to divorce.) But then an angel appears to Joseph and tells him the child to be born is of the Holy Spirit, and that he will fulfil a prophecy made by the prophet Isaiah:

 

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’, [1]

 

However, while parthenos, the Greek word used for virgin in Matthew, is an accurately translated, almah, the word used for virgin in the original Hebrew text of Isaiah, is best translated as a young woman, not necessarily a virgin:

 

14 Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. [2]

 

And this is not the only occasion when a gospel writer takes some artistic liberties with an Older Testament text.

 

The text we have just heard from Luke makes two references to Mary’s virginity. She is described as a virgin again, the word parthenos is used engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. [3]

 

And after Gabriel announces that she will be the mother of Jesus, she responds, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ [4] (Although the text would be more literally translated as, ‘How can this be, for I have not known a man?’)

And that is the sum total of references to Mary’s virginity in the entire Bible: one verse in Matthew, and two in Luke.

 

It was not until about the year 200 in the Common Era that the phrase ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ started to appear in Christian writing, and this had become part of our creeds when they were finalised in the 3rd and 4th Centuries.

 

We need to understand that the people of ancient Palestine did not have our understanding of biology and genetics. They did not know that a Y chromosome, which needed to come from a biological male parent, was necessary to produce biological male offspring.

 

And neither would they have understood Gabriel’s message that, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ [5] to mean conception as we understand it today. There is a text in the Mishnah, a compilation of rabbinical teachings, which states, and please excuse the non-inclusive language in this quote, : “there are three partners in the production of a man: The Holy One, blessed be He, the father and the mother”. [6] So God has a part in every birth, whether it be the birth of Jesus, or of any mere mortal like us.

 

So what does this all mean for us? Should we as followers of Jesus accept or reject the virgin birth? I say it doesn’t really matter.

 

There are many non-core issues that Christians do not agree on. Such as biblical literacy, evolution, the theology of human sexuality, and the nature of the Eucharist, to name but a few. And the virgin birth can be included among them. What matters is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Everything else is secondary.

 

An objection that many would raise to those who would reject the doctrine of the virgin birth is that it would somehow sully Mary’s reputation. Especially if you take the view – as some do – that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived, but remained one for the rest of her earthly life. The mere suggestion that she could be tainted in any way would be seen as blasphemous by some.

 

But I fear that we have made her chastity into an idol.

 

For far too long, society has had an unhealthy obsession with women being kept pure. Which in reality means women being kept under control. In Older Testament times, women were viewed as chattels, and unmarried women were the property of their fathers. And when it came to bride bartering, virgins were worth more. Prohibitions against premarital sex in practice tended to apply to women rather than men, because they were more about economics than anything else.

Such attitudes still flourish today in places, such as in the ‘purity culture’ of North American evangelicalism. A very laudable aim, you might say. But in practice, young people do engage in sexual activity.

 

They always have, and they always will.

 

And it is always the young women who are seen as fallen, and therefore impure and undesirable. Never the young men.

 

I know I would have had a far less messed up young adulthood  had it not been for the cognitive dissonance that resulted from the obvious knowledge that people were sexual creatures, and having been taught that sex was dirty and that women (and only women) who had participated were contaminated.

 

By idolising purity, we are condemning those who have been seen to fall short. Who are often the most vulnerable in our midst.

 

Remember that when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, there was no suggestion among her kin that her pregnancy was anything out of the ordinary. Other than murmurings that Joseph was not involved, meaning that therefore someone else had been.

 

Mary would have been about 13 or 14 at the time. A pregnant teenager with a reputation, at a time when a woman accused of misbehaviour risked being stoned to death, so gossip would have been the least of her worries. She may have been fulfilling a sacred mission for God, but the people would not have known that. So when we celebrate her acceptance of her calling, it could be easy to forget that to become the mother of Jesus was a tremendously risky undertaking.

 

And we don’t have to look very far to find people like Mary today. Every time we encounter a pregnant young teenager, we see a young woman who is facing something frightening and new, who may have little or no support, and who is probably facing moral condemnation and judgment from people who don’t know her story. And probably don’t care.

So, regardless of what your views may be on how Mary came to be pregnant, let’s stop making an idol out of the purity that is traditionally ascribed to her.

 

If we want to truly honour Mary, and the tremendous task she undertook, we can do so by stopping condemning and judging those young women among us who are in the same position, and give them the same respect and support we would give to her.

 

 

Darryl Ward
20 December 2020

 

 

1 Matthew 1:23

 

2 Isaiah 7:14

 

3 Luke 1: 27

 

4 Luke 1:34

 

5 Luke 1:35a

 

5 Mishnah

 

 

All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Versions (NRSV) unless otherwise stated.