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‘Born of the Virgin Mary’: The Miracle of Christmas

 

I: — ‘Born of the virgin Mary’: we repeat the words every Sunday, whether in the Apostles’ Creed at Morning Prayer or in the Nicene Creed at Holy communion. Both creeds are normative for the church universal; both maintain that the virginal conception of our Lord is as essential to the substance of the faith as is the Easter Day resurrection of Jesus.

Yet many people tell me either they don’t see the point of ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ or they can’t affirm its historicity, its facticity.

Many people tell me virginal conception is such a stupendous miracle claim that believing it is ludicrous.

II: I happen to uphold ‘born of the virgin Mary’. And I agree with the worldwide church over the centuries that it is a crucial ingredient, a necessary ingredient, in what Christians believe.

[a] Let’s start by addressing the misgivings of the skeptics: “To uphold the virgin birth is to make a claim for a miracle.” This is correct. But to reject it on the grounds that it is a miracle is to reject all miracle, including the creation of the universe, the creation of the universe ex nihilo, from nothing.

Let’s think for a minute about the universe. The universe is vast. How vast? The Hubble telescope has found galaxies that are 14.5 billion light years away. (One light year, I should add for those of us who still think in terms of miles; one light year is approximately six trillion miles.) 14.5 billion times six trillion miles: that’s how vast the universe is in all directions.

On a cloudless night I like to look at the stars; I mean the stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. It’s only 100,000 light years away. If I look through my binoculars I can see the next galaxy behind ours, Andromeda. Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away. In other words, the light streaming into my binoculars from Andromeda has taken 2.5 million years to reach me.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a medium-sized galaxy. It has only 300 billion stars. Galaxies tend to occur in clusters. Our galaxy, with its 300 billion stars, is one item in a cluster of 11,000 galaxies – and that’s one cluster only. (There are two trillion galaxies, of approximately 300 billion stars each.)

Who made all this? God did. Out of what? Out of – nothing. Be sure to understand something crucial: the universe is made by God but it isn’t made from God. The being of the universe isn’t scooped out of the being of God. The cosmos is created by God but not out of God; it is created by God out of nothing. Why would anyone uphold the creation of the universe out of nothing and then stumble over of the historicity of the virgin birth?

[b] “Not so fast”, someone objects; “The virgin birth isn’t a core item in Christian doctrine, since it is mentioned by only two New Testament writers, Matthew and Luke. It can’t be important.”

To be sure, Matthew and Luke speak of it explicitly. Mark, John, and Paul, however, certainly speak of it implicitly. When Jesus begins his public ministry in his hometown, hearers are astounded, and they cry out, Mark tells us, “Where did he get his wisdom and power? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mk 6:3) In Jewish circles a man was named by his father, always by his father. Mark doesn’t mention Joseph at all. Mark traces Jesus to his mother: “Isn’t this man the son of Mary?” Mark is telling us, in so many words, that he agrees with Matthew and Luke concerning the virginal conception of our Lord.

John: in 1st John 1:18 John writes, “We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them.” You and I: we are “those who are born of God.” Jesus Christ alone is “the one who is born of God.” In speaking of these two categories John uses two different verb tenses. The verb tense he uses of Jesus highlights our Lord’s unique birth, a unique birth that is essential of our ‘new birth’.

What about Paul? Paul implicitly upholds the virgin birth in several places, only one of which I shall mention. In Galatians 4 Paul speaks three times of human generation, and every time he uses the normal Greek word ‘to be born’. When he speaks of Christ’s birth, however, he uses an entirely different word. The word he uses of Christ’s birth isn’t the word that speaks of normal human generation. It’s a word that speaks of the arrival of Jesus, the event of Jesus, the coming of Jesus –tacitly denying that Jesus was generated in the way that all other humans are procreated. Unquestionably Paul upholds the virginal conception of Jesus – as do Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

III: — Before we look into what ‘born of the virgin Mary’ is telling us, we should be sure to grasp what it isn’t telling us.

[a] It isn’t telling us that normal human procreation is tainted. The Hebrew mind rejoices in children and rejoices in how children are brought forth. The book of Proverbs insists that “the way of a man with a maid” is glorious. Scripture nowhere casts aspersion on human procreation.

[b] It isn’t telling us that Mary is a biological freak. Strictly speaking, the virgin birth isn’t about Mary at all: it’s about Jesus.

[c] It isn’t telling us that Jesus is half-human and half-divine. Someone half-human is useless to you and me who are wholly human. Someone half-divine can’t save you and me since it will take all God’s resources to save us.

[d] It isn’t telling us that the virgin birth proves our Lord’s divinity. The virgin birth doesn’t prove anything. But it does point to something; it’s a sign of something; it attests something. Then what does it point to? What’s it a sign of? What does it attest?

IV: It’s a sign that Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world, has to be given to us. Humankind cannot produce its own saviour. History cannot produce history’s redeemer. We sinners all need a fresh start, what scripture calls, in various places, “new birth” or “new creature” or “heart of flesh” (rather than “heart of stone”) or “renewed mind”. The point is, human history cannot generate its rescuer. Its rescuer has to be given to it.

Make no mistake: people are slow, very slow, to admit this. The world staggers from one ‘sure fix’ to another ‘sure fix’, the first ‘sure fix’ having failed miserably. In the preceding century there were two attempts at remaking humankind, one from the political left (communism), and one from the right (fascism). Not only did they fail to inaugurate a ‘new day’ for humankind; they brought with them unparalleled savagery and suffering.

We should distinguish here between the human situation and the human condition. The human situation can always be improved humanly. We can always assist the needy neighbour, share our abundance with those who lack, address glaring inequities and reduce criminality. We can always correct deficits and deficiencies in education and health care and social assistance.

The human condition, our condition before God, is different: only the direct intervention of God himself can affect it. Because Christians are the result of such intervention we know, have long known, that the innermost twist to the human heart; the human perverseness beyond anyone’s understanding; the profoundest self-contradiction we know ourselves unable to remedy: we know the remedy has to be given to us, since we cannot generate it ourselves.

In all of this I am not slighting at all those cultural riches that do eversomuch concerning the human situation. Pharmacology can reduce pain. Surgery can relieve distress. Psychotherapy can untie emotional knots. Above all, literature can provide a diagnostic, penetrative tool for understanding human complexity. (Here we might as well admit that the skilled playwright and novelist wield a much finer instrument than the social sciences.) Even so, we have to admit that the root human condition is oceans deeper than the human situation, and the cure for the root human condition only God can provide.

As I mentioned a minute earlier, the world never lacks people who think they can provide it. Marx said a new human being, the new birth, arises at the point of revolution. And what did Marxism provide except wretchedness and cruelty for 70 years in the USSR? Mao Tse Tung said he could remake humankind, and he took down 90 million of his own people. Pot Pol claimed as much, and he slew 25% of his fellow-Cambodians.

Then is the human condition hopeless? Not at all: we’ve been given the saviour we’ll never give ourselves. We’ve been provided the rescuer we long for yet know we can’t generate. We’ve been given the One who has guaranteed our reconciliation to God and our restoration with God and our new life in God.

Born of the virgin Mary’ is constant reminder that only the intervention of God can save us.

V: — It’s also constant reminder that faith in the saviour; faith has to be given to us as well. We can’t generate faith out of our innermost resources. Paul speaks of the condition before God of sinners as “dead and trespasses and sins”. Dead. Then the faith that recognizes, rejoices in, and clings to the saviour; the faith that trusts him in fair weather and foul; the faith that loves him because he first loved us when others tell us we are silly; the faith that obeys him when politically correct people tell us we are utterly out-of-step with our social environment: such faith has to be given to us.

To be sure, when I say faith has to be given to us I had better say in the next breath that such a gift has to be exercised. The gift we have received we have to affirm. The One who is now embracing us, we have to embrace in return. Of course. But it all begins with the gift of faith in that saviour who has himself been given to us.

Sometimes we hear it said that it’s much more difficult for people to have faith today than it was years ago or centuries ago. I disagree. I think the spiritual condition of people is the same in any era, any century. Was faith easier when our Anglican foreparents (Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer) were being burnt at the stake? Was faith easier when, in the 14th Century, bubonic plague killed one-third of Europe? Martin Luther used to say, “Cover your eyes and open your ears.” Luther meant this: when we look out upon the world, what we see contradicts the goodness of God and the love of God and the mercy of God. For this reason, we have to “open our ears” and hear the gospel, hear it with the ‘ears’ of the heart, for only then will faith thrive in the midst of the world’s contradiction of it.

My children, Catherine and Mary, were raised in a clergyman’s home. This means they overheard suppertime telephone conversations. (People tend to phone their clergyman at suppertime since they think that’s when they are most likely to find him home.) To be sure, my daughters could overhear only half the conversation, my half. Nevertheless, when the conversation had ended and I sat down again to my chicken soup, my daughters were white: they had heard enough to know that devastation had overtaken someone whom they had seen the previous Sunday at worship.

Make no mistake: it is nothing less than a miracle that anyone believes. Faith has to be given to us for two reasons: one, you and I cannot generate faith out of our own resources; two, even if we could, the ceaseless negativities in world-occurrence would overwhelm it and suffocate it.

Every day I thank God for the gift of faith, to me, of course, but not to me only. For every day as a pastor I look upon people with radiant faith whose lives have unfolded with such difficulty that there’s no earthly reason why they should believe, and every earthly reason why they shouldn’t. And yet their faith sings: the miraculous intervention of God that has given us the saviour we need continues to give us faith in the saviour as only he can give.

VI: — The virgin birth, arising from the direct intervention of God, attests one more miracle: the final, full manifestation of the gift of shalom, a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells. The author of Hebrews maintains that already, right now, we have been given a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And so we have. Because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and his resurrection can never be undone; because the king triumphant has to be bring his kingdom with him or else he’s no king at all, the kingdom of God is here, in our midst, right now, as surely as Christ the King himself is in our midst. We have been given a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Christ’s kingdom, however, is not yet fully manifest. It is here, but only by faith do we discern it and affirm it. It is in our midst, but it remains disputable. The day has been appointed, however, when the kingdom, real but disputable, will be rendered manifest so as to render it beyond dispute. On this day, the day of Christ’s self-manifestation, we who suffer and groan now are going to appear resplendent, holy and whole alike.

To say we are going to be rendered holy, definitively, is to say that the arrears of sin in us, all of which we have repented and aspired to put behind us, will finally be dealt with. To say we shall be rendered holy definitively is to say we shall be beyond the reach of sin and its capacity to distort us.

In addition, we are going to be rendered whole definitively. Which is to say, we shall be beyond the reach of evil and its capacity to disfigure us.

Right now every last human being is distorted by sin and disfigured by wounds. We victimize ourselves through our sin, and we are victimized by our wounds. Now while everyone is sinner equally, not everyone is wounded equally. Through sheer misfortune, some people have been wounded far more severely than others. The criminal courts recognize this. We read that someone has been deemed unfit to stand trial, for instance, on account of derangement. While he is neither more nor less sinner than the rest of us, undoubtedly he is more wounded and warped than most.

Back in my seminary days I took a course from Dr James Wilkes, a psychiatrist at the old Clark Institute, now CAMH. Each student was assigned a book to read for class presentation. The book assigned me was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote had written up an incident where two young men decided to break into and plunder a farmhouse in Kansas. When they broke in they found the house occupied. They panicked. Matters went from bad to worse to worse still. By night’s end the men had brutally murdered the three occupants of the house. One miscreant was subsequently imprisoned; his accomplice was hanged.

Both these criminals had grown up with what Dr Wilkes, psychiatrist, called “poor provision.” That is, these young men had had wretched upbringings. They had been provided none of the parental guidance and emotional support we take for granted. In addition, they had suffered horrific physical injuries, were in chronic pain, and for many reasons had remained abandoned. When I had finished my class presentation Dr Wilkes remarked soberly, “The behaviour of those young men: that’s what society can expect when children and adolescents live under terrific stress with poor provision.” Some people, unfortunately, are terribly wounded.

I learned something that day I’ve never forgotten. Whenever I am clobbered in church life I ask myself one question: “The clobbering I’ve just taken from Mrs. X – did it arise from her sin, her depravity? Or did it arise from her woundedness, her pain?” I don’t know, since I don’t have access to anyone’s heart. “Did she clobber me because she’s wicked, or because she’s in pain herself?” I have survived in church life by reminding myself, every day, that I am going to relate to people in terms of their suffering, and leave it to God to relate to them in terms of their sin.

And then I’m going to look to that glorious day when Mrs X – and you and I and all God’s people – are finally beyond the distortion of sin and the disfigurement of evil, that day when we shall be both holy and whole, our depravity remedied and our wounds healed. I’m going to continue looking ahead to that day which has to be given to us, that day when the Kingdom of God appears in its final, full manifestation, and no one is left victimizing himself through his sin and victimizing others on account of his suffering. On that day we shall be holy and whole definitively.

VII: — “Born of the virgin Mary”. At the beginning of the sermon I said it was a pointer to the gift of Jesus Christ. It’s a sign of the reality that he is. But it is it sign only? Or is the sign of the event so closely related to the logic of the event that the sign of the event is part of the event itself? In other words, is the church universal correct in maintaining that the virginal conception of the Incarnate One, the Christmas gift, is an aspect of the gift itself, so that to believe in Jesus Christ is simultaneously to believe ‘born of the virgin Mary’?

Today I rejoice that the saviour human history can’t generate has been given to us. Faith in him, impossible for us to work up, is given to us. And the final, full manifestation of Christ’s kingdom will be given us as surely as our Lord has been raised from the dead.

I believe without hesitation or qualification, “born of the virgin Mary”.

Victor Shepherd Christmas 2016