Monday, April 8, 2013

Eventually Believing the Virgin Birth

Well, it’s about time. Poor Mary has been waiting and waiting for the angel Gabriel to come and tell her that she’s going to be the mother of Jesus, but she’s had to wait a few extra weeks. March 25 fell in Holy Week, so the Annunciation was transferred to the first open day in the calendar, which isn’t until today. Happy conception day, Mary!

The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:35-37)

There’s a window in our church that shows an image I haven’t seen (or at least noticed) in any other setting. I’m sure it’s out there in other churches or in artwork, and I’m curious if others have seen it. It’s a depiction of the scene from the Annunciation when the Holy Spirit actually comes upon Mary and, we assume, impregnates her with the child to be Jesus. In the window, you can see Mary kneeling down. The angel Gabriel is standing next to her, having finished his announcement. And from the sky is a ray of light that beams down from a dove and hits Mary on the head. (I wish it were hitting her in her midsection, but the artist didn’t ask my opinion.) The whole thing is frozen in time for all of us to see.

When I first saw it (several years before coming to this church as rector), I noticed it and found it remarkable. I even gave it an inappropriate title with  connotations unfit for public consumption (let the reader understand!). But, as remarkable as the overtones are, what really startles me is the factual, literal, concrete, tangible depiction of the conception. We’re not talking metaphor, here. This is the real thing. If Joseph had been a jealous fiancée, this would have been the incrimination photograph. For all of us who see the window, there can be no doubt: this is how Jesus was conceived.

The Virgin Birth is a remarkable doctrine of the church. It’s important—I think essential—but it hasn’t gotten high billing in recent years. Maybe that’s because we’re a little squeamish when it comes to talking about sex. Or maybe it’s because we’ve learned that in the 21st century it’s hard to attract someone to the faith by asking them to believe in a virgin birth narrative. For whatever reason, I think we’ve buried the story. It gets mentioned in the creeds. We Christians know it’s a part of the faith whether we believe it or not. But, for the most part, no one stops and asks us to believe the virgin birth in the same way we are asked to believe that “Jesus died for our sins” or that “He is risen!”

As a minister who is interested in making the good news relevant to a seeking, skeptical audience, I don’t think we need to lead with the doctrine of Mary’s virginity (perpetual or not). I think as an evangelistic, pedagogical method, we should start with the bigger truth that the Virgin Birth points us to and then work our way backwards. We should tell people that God loved the world so much that he wanted to take on its nature. God wanted to show us who he really is and could only do that by becoming one of us—not just in appearance or by adoption but by total, full-on birth. How is that possible? Well, when we get to that point, the answer is shown in the window. But let’s start somewhere else.

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