We are now just a week away from Christmas. Next Saturday evening, Christmas Eve, we’ll be singing that carol so many of us love: Silent Night. Now, if you haven’t already guessed, I tend to be a cerebral person. I live in my head—my wife thinks too much so. So whenever I sing Silent Night, I always pause on verse 1: “round yon virgin mother and child.” That’s always a mind-stretcher for me. Many people, myself included, have found the Virgin Birth a difficult thing to get our heads around. What does it mean to say that Jesus was born of a virgin? Is there more than one way to understand the Virgin Birth? And what difference does it make in the end?
These are all really significant questions, and we shouldn’t be afraid of asking them. We need to subject the core of our faith to scrutiny so that what we believe is understandable and coherent—not just for ourselves but also for those around us who are curious or looking for ways to believe.
Let me state here at the outset that we open ourselves to a lot of confusion and frustration if we make the Virgin Birth all about Mary. Focusing too much on Mary leads us into the “how” question, namely, How is the Virgin Birth intellectually or even biologically credible? But Scripture does not answer that question for us, nor does science for that matter. What we’re told by Luke is that the Holy Spirit “came upon” Mary and the power of God “overshadowed” her. Matthew tells us that the child whom Mary conceived was “from” the Holy Spirit. That’s pretty much all we’re told about how the Virgin Birth happened, so things remain a bit vague. Even the biblical Hebrew and Greek terms for “virgin” are somewhat imprecise: they can simply mean a “young woman,” irrespective of sexual status. So we can hold, as some Christians do, that the Holy Spirit was the very agent that directly brought about Mary’s pregnancy. Or we might conclude that Jesus was conceived just like every one of us, with a biological father and mother, and that the Holy Spirit “came upon” Mary at the conception because this pregnancy would be unlike any other. In any case, all of this discussion keeps us distracted with the sexual status of Mary and obscures the real point of the Virgin Birth, which is fundamentally about the identity of Jesus Christ.
The identity of the infant that we will encounter next week in the manger is really the mystery of God presented to us in its fullness. Jesus is Immanuel—God with us. A fully realized human person, yet also fully God. That’s really the point of the Virgin Birth—that Jesus had a rather normal birth just like each one of us, but the circumstances of his conception and birth were “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit. The birth of Jesus was unique because it was the very being of God revealed in human flesh. Jesus is, as the late English Bishop John A. T. Robinson said, the “human face of God.”
This is the one whose birth we will soon celebrate, and it’s rather easy to lose sight of the profound significance of Jesus’ identity amid the songs and imagery of the helpless baby in the manger, amid the bustle of consumerism that distracts us from the ultimate Gift that we celebrate—God with us. That’s one reason why our Gospel this morning is intended to stop us in our tracks, to remind us that the coming of the Messiah, which we earnestly await, is a holy occasion, a unique moment, a celebration of the mystery of God in human flesh. It is the union of heaven and earth.
The celebration of the mystery of God can itself be a challenge. Did God really assume human flesh? Was Jesus really human? Or was he dropped into our world, disguised as human but in reality not fully human like you and me? A kind of Superman figure of extraterrestrial origin, able to work wonders and miracles, even rise from the dead because … well, maybe he wasn’t really human after all. What I’m asking here is not ridiculous in the least. In fact, in the 4th-century church, there were those led by a man named Apollinaris who denied that Jesus was actually human. The Apollinarians were convinced that Jesus only appeared to be human. He was God in the outer shell of what looked like human flesh. And consequently, Jesus only appeared to have human limitations, only appeared to suffer, only appeared to die. Why does any of this matter, you may be asking? Because if Jesus wasn’t fully human, just like you and me, then our God has not come to us in the depths of our humanity. Jesus’ full humanity shows us that God is not divorced from creation but is active in it, indeed part of its very fabric. So as we prepare to celebrate Emmanuel—God with us—remember that the infant lying in the manger is a human baby like all others: dependent on his parents for food, for care, for survival. The birth of Jesus reveals God’s ultimate vulnerability, not just to come to us in human flesh, but to come as a helpless infant whose parents could find no overnight shelter except in a barn where animals were kept.
But let’s also remember that the fully human Jesus is also fully God. This has been another challenge for many Christians, from the first century to the present. Does Jesus merely point us to God? Is he a great exemplar … or is he more than that? Can we say with confidence that he is God in his very flesh? If he is true to his name Immanuel—God with us—then our encounter with God happens in the ordinary. Not just in special places and events that we might mark out as holy, but in the everyday and mundane, in the life of a common Galilean carpenter, who as a newborn took his first nap in grungy feeding trough.
As a matter of fact, we encounter God in the ordinary, each Sunday. In the Eucharist, for instance, we receive ordinary things like bread and wine—yet they’re much more than that. They help us to re-enact that last meal Jesus ate with his closest followers, when he told them that the bread was his body and the cup his lifeblood. So the Eucharist is like its own kind of Christmas, creaturely entities united with divine reality, preparing us for Christmas next week when we will celebrate not just the mystery of Christ’s body in a meal of ordinary things like bread and wine, but the ultimate mystery of the birth of God incarnate, human flesh joined to divine being.
God here among us, light in the midst of us, bring us to light and life. Amen.