Christmas (and you do know that it still is Christmas?) is the time of the year when we sing about the virgin birth.
“‘Round yon Virgin, mother and child…”
“Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
“Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
when half-spent was the night.”
We sing without getting too worked up about whether or not it is “true”, We sing without getting too worried about if we must believe in it. That singing is fine and good. Singing lets us practice talking about Mary as the virgin mother without being overly embarrassed. For some of us this is the only time of year we think about the virgin birth.
Some of us say these words every week when we recite the Creed,
“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come 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.”
We may these words without thinking about them. They are simply something we say. Perhaps we are silent and skip over these words because we aren’t sure, or they make us uncomfortable, or we simply can’t believe them. Perhaps we relegate the virgin birth to Christmas mythology alongside the talking animals and the little drummer boy.
But the virgin birth is a very old idea for Christians.The early church didn’t claim the virgin birth because they were confused and didn’t know where babies come from and how pregnancy occurs. They knew. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand biology. It is that they weren’t talking about biology. They were talking about something much more profound.
The virgin birth is another example of the Christian practice of believing in paradox and the proclamation of the impossible.
The whole idea of the incarnation is, well, nuts. God becoming human, dwelling among us, moving into the neighborhood?
The whole idea of the resurrection of the dead is crazy. Dead people, truly dead people do not live again, not as real flesh and blood people.
The whole idea of salvation, that there is something more, something better, something beyond this is perhaps, at best, wishful thinking.
We Christians are all about the impossible and the paradoxical. We are not talking about little “t” truth. Where truth is something we prove.
We are talking about big “T” Truth. Truth that is knowable. Truth that we encounter. That sort of Truth defies words.
Which brings us back to the virgin birth.
What we are trying to do with that odd, impossible language is to say something important about Jesus. We are trying to say something about who Jesus is, and who Jesus is not. It’s difficult because Jesus is unique. We have nothing and no one else to compare him too. Every time we say something about Jesus, what we say is insufficient.
We don’t want to say that Jesus was just another great guy, a wonderful teacher, a good example, an excellent philosopher. We also don’t want to say that Jesus is God pretending to be human. God in disguise. God playacting among the gullible mortals.We certainly don’t want to say that Jesus was the result of mating between God and a human. Some sort of divine hybrid.
Jesus, being Jesus, the only Jesus, one of a kind, stands just beyond what our minds can grasp and what our words can describe. We might as well try to prove the morning light, a spring breeze, or love.
So trying to talk about Jesus we come up with words and phrases like the virgin birth, Emanuel-God with us, the Second person of the Trinity, truly God and truly human.
How can Spirit become flesh?
How can the dead rise and live again?
How can a virgin give birth?
It is the language of paradox, of impossibility, of mystery. We enter in. We experience Truth with a capital “T”. What our hearts’ know, our mouths can’t explain. We can only grasp at small, insufficient words.
What our hearts’ know, our minds can barely grasp. Dancing just at the edge of our mind’s eye, a shadow, a flash. We wait for Jesus to come and be made known to us. Waiting for the mystery and promise of Christmas.