Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How Do We Handle The Virgin?

One of the parent volunteers who is helping with this year's Christmas pageant pulled me aside to ask me a question. "Um, what do we do if the kids want to know what a virgin is?" And the way she asked the question let me know that the "if" was more of a "when." Perhaps some of the looks and giggles among the older children have already tipped off the volunteers that they will have a sex-ed opportunity thrust upon them in the days ahead.

What do we do with the virgin? In several ways, the church is defined as the place where the immodesty of society is held at the door. Even adults blush when we speak of Mary's' virginity. How will we ever explain to the four-year-old sheep what their nine-year-old shepherds have encouraged them to ask? Thinking that anxiety and discomfort will only add to the drama, I encouraged her to relax. "I'm not worried," I said. "Just do your best. In the biblical sense, a virgin is another name for a young woman because it was assumed that all young women or 'maidens' were virgins. Maybe the best thing to say to the kids is that she was a young girl who had not been married yet and had not had the opportunity to make a baby with her husband." The volunteer pretended to be encouraged.

I don't think the pulpit is the place to debate Mary's virginity, but the lessons for Sunday almost beg us to do so. In this short lesson, Matthew finds six different ways to stress her virginal conception. She was engaged, but not married. Before they lived together, she was with child from the Holy Spirit. Matthew then quotes Isaiah 7 before reminding us one more time that Joseph had no marital relations with Mary until after the birth. Ok, Matthew, we get it. She was really, really a virgin.

This flies in the face of logic, biology, and modern sensibilities. I can hear the hypothetical agnostic objector: "You expect me to believe that?" I've heard seminary classes debate the necessity of the doctrine of the virginal conception. I've even said to Sunday school classes that, although I believe that Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, that's not how I begin a conversation with a seeker about the Christian faith. In that NT Wright sort of way, let's start with the empty tomb. If we can accept the literal, bodily resurrection, we can get past any objections about walking on water, turning water into wine, feeding the multitudes, and even the virginal conception.

(Perhaps it's worth stopping for a moment to mention that many Christians believe not only in the virginal conception of Jesus but also in his virginal birth and the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is to say that, through God's intervention, the baby passed through Mary's hymen without breaking it and that Joseph lived as the faithful husband of one with whom he never had sexual relations. Seriously, I'm not making this up. You can read about it here. So, when I use the term "virginal conception," I'm drawing a line--albeit a faint one--in the sand there.)

What brought this to my mind, however, wasn't Matthews exhaustive insistence on Mary's virginity. It was Isaiah's use of the word, or, more precisely, the NRSV's refusal to translate the word as "virgin" despite using the word "virgin" in Matthew's quotation of Isaiah. This is baffling to me! As I mentioned above, the word "virgin" and the word "young woman" are interchangeable in the biblical sense. Yes, presumptions about the integrity of young women is what gets mothers and fathers bent out of shape when their teenage daughters bring them news of an unexpected pregnancy, but, in the biblical sense, they are the same thing. But notice how the NRSV renders Isaiah 7:14: "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." The KJV, NIV, CEV, ASV, ESV, and even the TLB all give us a "virgin." Of the dozen or so translations I checked, the NRSV, the RSV, and the CEB give us a "young woman." Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but I worry that our reasonable concern about making too clear a connection between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment causes us to ignore what, for Matthew, was an important resonance between them. Isaiah spoke of a virgin conceiving a son. That's what we believe about Mary. No, the former isn't exclusively fulfilled in the latter, but, starting from the position of the latter, it's important to see where those roots come from.

I'm not arguing that we should retranslate Isaiah 7:14 in our worship. Thankfully, the NRSV leaves Matthew's quotation as "virgin." But, as I prepare to preach, I'm trying to hear the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism. What did this mean to them? Surely I cannot get there unless I see the miraculous nature not only of Mary's conception of Jesus but also the virgin named by the prophet, who conceived and bore a son. I don't need to bind Isaiah in the cords of Christianity in order to appreciate the connection. Our hope is Israel's hope. God is renewing the earth through the miraculous birth of a child. That's true in every age.

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