By Amy Peeler
“He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”
Some are disturbed when the public square replaces “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas,” but I wonder if reticence on the part of nonbelievers to celebrate the mass of Christ’s birth is on to something true. Christmas is a Christian claim. Christmas is controversial, scandalous even. It is an offense, a holy offense, to make the claim that the Son of God was born of a woman.
I’d like to consider the power of the affirmation in three steps. First, by focusing on the fact that he was conceived and born. Second, by drawing attention to the power of the Holy Spirit over the virgin. Third, by drawing attention to Mary herself.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.
Who is the “he” we are talking about? The creed that states that the one in whom we believe is God’s only Son. He is so intimately related to God that he is God, that he is Lord of all. As the firstborn son, as the heir, the Son represents the Father. God the Father and God the Son are in every way completely equal, in eternal glory and power. We don’t get the less valuable member of the Trinity in the Incarnation. The Son is God fully. God come to us.
He is the he. This week we learn that he is the one who was conceived and was born. Our Lord, the Lord of everything, experienced the human condition.
I’d love to share with you some of the beautiful poetry that relishes in this paradox, from Ephrem the Syrian, born in the early 300s. He composed numerous hymns, taught theology and music. He was ordained as a deacon, and died in 373 because he was ministering to sufferers of the plague.
Listen to just a few eloquent snippets of Ephraim’s poetry:
“God the Son dwelt in his mother’s womb, but in his womb dwells all creation” (4.154).
“Mary bore a mute babe, though in him were hidden all our tongues” (4.146).
“The Lofty One becomes a little child, yet hidden in Him was a treasure of Wisdom that suffices for all” (4.148).
“When He entered her womb, the Nourisher of all acquired hunger. He entered her womb, the One who gives drink to all acquired thirst. Stripped and laid bare, he emerged from her womb, the one who clothes all” (11.8).
We might stand in awe of God’s poignant experience of the human condition, but not all have reacted this way. The confession that God became human has proved an uncomfortable thought. I think believers continue to struggle with the heresy of Docetism, from the Greek dokew, that Jesus only seemed to be human, but was really just God in a mask. My students wrestle with the question: could Jesus have ever made a mistake in schoolwork? What did Jesus know at the age of 5? The questions are hard because it is hard to affirm that God relinquished his power in such a way that he was truly human. Such struggles aren’t new. Docetism is an ancient heresy, and it goes back all the way to the question of Jesus’ conception and birth.
You might be well aware that the Ancients, or at least elite males who tended to write ancient literature, viewed birth as disgusting.
Plutarch, a philosopher who lived around the time of the New Testament, says it this way
“For there is nothing so imperfect, so helpless, so naked, so shapeless, so foul, as man observed at birth. Nature has given not even a clean passage to the light; but, defiled with blood and covered with filth and resembling more one just slain than one just born, he is an object for none to touch or lift up or kiss or embrace except for someone who loves with a natural affection.”
In the late second century, Tertullian — a faithful Christian teacher — was dealing with a heretic named Marcion, who in addition to wanting to get rid of the Old Testament, wanted to protect God from human messiness.
Tertullian says to him:
Come now, beginning from the nativity itself, you Marcion proclaim against the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood, of the growth of the flesh for nine months long out of that very mire. You Describe the womb as it enlarges from day to day, heavy, troublesome, restless even in sleep, changeful in its feelings of dislike and desire. You inveigh against the shame itself of a woman in travail. Of course you are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb; you likewise, of course, loathe it even after it is washed, when it is dressed out in its swaddling-clothes, graced with repeated anointing, smiled on with nurse’s fawns. This reverend course of nature, you, O Marcion, (are pleased to) spit upon; Christ, at any rate, has loved even that man who was condensed in his mother’s womb amidst all its uncleannesses, even that man who was brought into life out of the said womb, even that man who was nursed amidst the nurse’s simpers.
Tertullian is saying to Marcion: God didn’t view this process as too unclean. God was willing to take on the shame from those who so view it, to be born for us so that from the moment of conception he shared our human nature.
This article of the creed affirms that God values and redeems humanity from the womb all the way to death, from conception to the grave and everything in between. All human life is valuable because God created it and even more wonderful because God became it. He was conceived and born.
He is fully human. The New Testament witness affirms he took on flesh and blood, experienced human thoughts and emotions, died a human death, but he became human not in the same way that we came to exist. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure how you approach this part of the creed. I came from a background where I never questioned this. The Bible says it, must have happened that way. I’ve come to realize that this stance of trust is not true for many.
Listen to this quote: “No one will dispute the fact that in the minds of thoughtful men there is a very serious disquietude about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Ask any doctor, any student of natural science, any man who interests himself in scientific enquiries, and you will discover that there is a real unsettlement in their minds in regard to a matter which hardly occurred to their fathers as a subject of enquiry.”
This statement was written in 1903. And while many important theologians did a great deal to champion the historical reality and theological fittingness of the virginal conception, it remains in certain circles a highly questioned element. I found myself at a theology conference in 2004 where a discussion was going on about the Incarnation. Someone raised his hand and said: “This conversation is proceeding as if we believed in the Virgin Birth, but surely that is not the case?” The questioner was incredulous that anyone still believed such a myth. You too might have wondered if this is really true. Given what science has discovered about genetics, is the Virgin Birth really possible?
Science may be more advanced now, but the evangelists weren’t completely ignorant on the question of where babies came from. They also knew it had something to do with a man and a woman.
In fact, even closer to their account, Greco-Roman authors had many stories in which a woman was impregnated by a god. Matthew and Luke weren’t living in a vacuum. They would have known about these stories, and they would have known the danger of their readers assuming that something similar was going on with Jesus. But they choose to tell this story and risk the association with the pagan myths at every turn.
Matthew 1:18 says it this way: “Mary was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.”
At verse 20, the angel says to Joseph: “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
The angel says to Joseph: “You know this child is not yours, but you also need to know it is not the child of any other man. It is the child of the Holy Spirit.”
But would Matthew’s readers assume that this was an encounter between a god and a woman similar to that of which they’d heard? Not Jewish readers. They would know that God’s Holy Spirit could only be holy, could never interact with humanity in an inappropriate way, could never take advantage of a man’s betrothed. God wouldn’t do this. When I ask my students why this isn’t an example of the forceful conception of a demigod, they respond similarly, as would early Jews. That is a dumb question because such would not be the character of God.
Luke, maybe because he is writing more prominently to Gentiles, has to say more. Gabriel tells Mary of the blessings that will come to her by being chosen as the mother of the Messiah. He hears the hesitancy of her questions and answers them with this powerful affirmation: “The Holy Spirit will come over you, not in you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” This is not a sexual encounter. This is the glory of the Lord resting upon her as it rested upon the ark, the most holy site in the temple.
And Gabriel waits for her answer. Mary assents to the project, and Gabriel only leaves to report this decision to God after Mary has spoken.
I’m sorry to introduce this uncomfortable idea if you’ve never questioned the Virgin Birth, but I do so to make two points.
Jesus is not a demigod like the heroes of the Greco-Roman myths. He is not the 50/50 result of the meeting between a god and a human woman. He is fully God. He is the Lord, and he is fully human. He is the Son of Mary. We cannot fully comprehend the majesty of this reality, but we confess that it is true.
Second, I reveal the dark questions that arise about this text, in the past and in the present, to appreciate the boldness of the evangelists. Matthew and Luke did not have to tell this story. They, like John and Mark, could have focused only on the adult life of Jesus. Why would they take the risk of the likely associations with illegitimacy or demigods unless it was true? They took the risk because they heard the life of the Lord unfolded in this way and because telling the story revealed truths about Jesus, about God, that could not be communicated in any other way.
I’d like to focus on some of those truths by focusing on Mary. Who is this woman whom God chose? I would imagine that God would choose a woman of virtue to raise the Son, but we have no attestation in the text of Luke that her merit excelled anyone else’s. She is chosen, as we all are chosen, by grace.
We know that she is Jewish. I follow the Church Fathers in believing that she, along with her betrothed, is from the tribe of Judah. She is young. Women were betrothed at the age of 13 or 14. Finally, she and Joseph are poor. When they go to offer a sacrifice for her purification from childbirth in Luke 2, they cannot bring a lamb. They have to take the cheaper option and bring a dove. Of what we know of her, we are confident that she was not part of the elite. She was not Roman; instead, she was among the oppressed. She did not travel in the circles of the wealthy Jews. She was neither a Sadducee nor a priest, not even a Pharisee. For her class, for her race, and for her sex, she was less than. Not valued. Easy to ignore.
That might be the way of the world, but such is not the way of our God.
Her song, the Magnificat, is a scripturally informed exultation of praise that proclaims who God is. Anglicans you know say it every day. It is one of the gems of Evening Prayer.
The Song of Mary
My soul doth magnify the Lord,*
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded*
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth*
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me,*
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him*
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm;*
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,*
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,*
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,*
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:*
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
I hear the sounds of numerous choral renditions echoing in my head. But the Magnificat is not just pretty, it is also true. Our God will make sure that the meek — and when we are poor and hungry, we find that virtue less difficult than when we are rich and full — God will make sure that the meek will be exalted. He takes a poor young ethnic minority who becomes a refugee woman and magnifies her so that every generation henceforth will rise to call her blessed.
You might have noticed that each week when we say the creed, I have trouble containing my exuberance when we get to this article of the creed: Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Born of the Virgin Mary. One of my children, when he gets really excited, will start to do fist pumps — that is precisely how I feel. Students have told me that when I get excited, I rise on my toes. I’m pretty sure I do that each week. I am overwhelmed with such joy for just the reasons I’ve mentioned. The God of the universe cares deeply about the outsiders. The God of the universe has become fully human. But let me add one more reason I can hardly contain my joy at these words:
Because he became human, the God of the universe gets me.
That might be harder for some of us to accept than others. Have you noticed that many of the quotes I’ve used today have employed exclusive language? Plutarch Tertullian, the article from 1903, all use man to refer to all of humanity. Two weeks ago, we heard a great quote from C.S. Lewis. I deeply appreciate Lewis and his immense contribution to the Christian tradition.
That being said, like the ones I’ve used, this quote struck me: “How we men can be drawn into salvation?” We men. I don’t fault these authors for speaking exclusively. Everyone did in those times, and many still do today. But if you have lived in places where exclusive language no longer makes sense, you have to do a little bit of mental gymnastics. You have to pause for a moment and say to yourself: Lewis didn’t mean only men are saved, he meant to include me, and once I’ve made that correction in my head I can move on with the quote.
Some women feel they have to make those mental adjustments all the time when hearing the Christian story. In the 1970s, Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther posed a question: “How can a male Savior save women?” I’m tempted to dismiss this as a ridiculous question from a radical thinker, but my students haven’t allowed me to do so.
Every single week, and sometimes every single day, a young woman, faithful, who has grown up in the church, asks me some version of this question: Where do I fit? We talk about God as Father, Jesus was a man, some traditions say women can’t be ministers. Is this faith for me? A senior Bible and theology major — she’d thought long and hard about text and tradition for four years— said it this way: “No matter what they say, no matter how they explain it, it is hard to feel fully included in and equally honored by a God who is so pervasively described as a male, in a God who became male.”
God became human, but God did not become generalized humanity. He was a particular human. He lived in the first century, he was Jewish, he was male. How can one particular person save everyone? How can a Jew save Gentiles? That is a fascinating and beautiful question for another day.
But on this day, I’d like to contemplate how a male can save females.
The affirmation that he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, that scandalous story, is worth the risk because the mode of his Incarnation shows the inclusion of all. Jesus was male, no question about it; it made sense of the time, it made sense of the messianic promises, it made sense of the power that he willingly gave up. If God came as a woman, he wouldn’t have had as much power to give up to show God’s nature as a servant.
But because he was a male who took his flesh only from a woman, there is an inclusion of both in him. Joseph was not involved, only Mary. God the Holy Spirit hovered over her flesh and miraculously drew from it to conceive the Incarnate Son.
He is the image of God — and remember the image of God, as stated in the first chapter of Genesis includes both male and female. So too does he. Paul says in Gal 3:28 that in Christ there is no longer division between men and women, no exclusion of either men or women, both are included in Christ. The virginal conception of the Son shows that to be true, not just spiritually, but in an embodied way. Our bodies, male and female, are caught up in him. That is affirmed by the fact that his flesh came only from her.
We are about to ask the Holy Spirit to descend upon this bread so that by God’s grace it might become for us the Body of God’s Son, holy food of new and unending life in him. In the mystical affirmation that this, by God’s grace, becomes his body, it becomes the body that has come from her. Men and women are included in this body. It is broken and given for us all.
I was not asked to preach today so that we could maintain balance. It wasn’t time to meet the standards of political correctness or gender parity, and so we needed a sermon on “Woman’s issues.” The issues are right here in the creed, because the issues are at the foundation of the Christian confession. I know that Christianity has in many times and places been interpreted to look like God prefers men, but the Incarnation flatly denies it. God equally values and redeems all.
Women, that is good news for us, but men, it is good news for you too. There is no pressure for you to play the role of God. Jesus has got that and he’s pretty good at it.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.
If anyone here has ever felt excluded, as a woman, as poor, as an outcast, as a fallen sinner, know that when God took on flesh, God the Son embraced us all. That is scandalous, that is controversial, and it is worth celebrating all year long.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and associate rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Geneva, Ill.