Texts: Luke 1:39-45, 67-79, 2:1-20
Note. I am changing the format for this time. Like it or not, this is one of the occasions when the Christian faith comes under attack most stridently, within and without the Church. The "elephant in the room" is, of course, the apparent belief in the birth of a male child to a virgin mother. What can people of faith say about that in the 21st century? That's the question I'm pondering in these Notes.
Introduction. Luke is at some pains to separate his Annunciation story from his birth narrative, and so we can have gospel readings on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day without any reference to the miraculous conception of Jesus. Indeed, on two of those occasions we seem to be invited to give top billing to John the Baptist, himself the product of an "assisted" but not quite so miraculous conception. Quite why we are to focus on Zechariah's Song at the Christmas Vigil baffles me. Over all, the emphasis is on God's initiative. Whatever else is going on with Elizabeth and Mary, God is working his purposes out. So perhaps the first thing we can say as people of faith in the 21st century is that the texts we have are intended to make theological statements rather than biological ones.
What do we believe? Let's start with what we say we believe. The most specific statement is in the Apostles' Creed (page 461 of the Prayer Book): Here each of us affirms:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit , born of the Virgin Mary...
Here there is no real reference to the "pre-existent Christ": we might describe the Creed as pre-Johannine. But is does draw a sharp distinction between Jesus' conception (the work of the Holy Spirit) and his birth (the labour of Mary). And notice our preference for a capital "V" for Virgin; perhaps an attempt to name or identify Mary, rather than to describe her as a woman who has not had sexual intercourse. The references to "Son of God" and "Lord" hint, perhaps, at divine status, but seem little more than honorific titles. It may be worth noting that this Creed is not used by the churches of the East.
A much more nuanced statement is found in the Nicene Creed (page 410):
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became fully human.
Here there can be no doubt that theology trumps biology. And given the Trinitarian emphasis, the clear understanding of Christ's divinity, his eternal existence with the Father, his "coming down from heaven", and being "incarnate" in Mary and becoming "fully human, we can surely see the folly of arguing one way or the other on the biological details of how exactly Mary became pregnant. [Far better, surely, to follow Luke's wonderful example of discretion and delicacy – the "conception" is described only in prospect, but when does it actually take place? Between verses 38 and 39? Is Mary already pregnant when she visits Elizabeth and sings her wonderful song? Luke does not say. Indeed, 2:5-7 does not link the birth of Mary's child to the Annunciation.]
What is asserted clearly in this Creed is Christ's humanity. Whereas we tend to waste our breath arguing about Jesus' paternity, it may be worth noting that in the early church there was strong debate between those who believed Jesus was human but not divine, and those who believed that Jesus was divine but not human. The vital point to stress at this Christmas time especially is that, in Christ, the two natures, divine and human, come together in their fullness.
For the sake of completeness only, I should make a brief reference to the so-called Affirmation of Faith on page 481 of the Prayer Book, if only to urge that it should not be used at Christmas. While it has some wonderful things to say about "God" it is open to question which god it is referring to. It only narrowly misses, if it misses at all, the heresy of unitariansism, by brief references to the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity. It has no reference to the Incarnation.
Our Catechism is no real help on this subject. Question 12 (page 928 0f the Prayer Book) summarises what the Church teaches about Jesus in 4 terse sentences, the first of which, concerning the Incarnation, follows the wording of the Apostles' Creed.
What do our Gospels say? A brief overview of all four show a growing interest in, and development of theology around, the question of Jesus' conception and birth. Mark, the first gospel to be written, shows no interest in these questions at all. As far as Mark is concerned, the story of Jesus starts with his baptism. If he thought about such matters as the dual nature of Christ at all, his view would seem to be that the Holy Spirit joined with Jesus the human being at baptism. Presumably, human curiosity being what it is, it was not long before someone asked what Jesus was doing before that, and the teachers of the Church started to re-think this matter. The result was to push the union of the divine and the human back to the start of his life on earth. Hence the "birth narratives" we have in Matthew and Luke. Finally, the mystical John saw through all this petty obsession with the facts of life and gave us instead the Facts of Life.
To bracket Matthew and Luke together in this way is more misleading than helpful. A brief read of their respective "birth narratives" will show the very different concerns that drove each of them in his composition. Matthew seems already concerned with what people were saying: he tries to deal with real queries that people, perhaps within the believing community as well as outside it, were already raising (remembering that he is writing at least 60 years after Jesus' birth). If Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, how did Joseph feel about that? Surely any man would not take kindly to discovering that his fiancée was pregnant when he had not had sex with her? So we get the passage in 1:18-24 which is all about Joseph and Mary is only referred to in relation to him. Matthew is also concerned about prophecies, and goes to some trouble to explain why it is that Jesus is known to be from Nazareth, yet was born in Bethlehem. For similar reasons he has a story about the Holy Family taking refuge in Egypt.
For Luke a major pre-occupation is the vexed question of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, which bubbles just beneath the surface in all four gospels. Clearly, this caused tensions in the early Church for many decades. So Luke needs to give considerable prominence to John's conception and birth as well as those of Jesus; and of course his charming story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth is a barely disguised excuse to tell us that even en ventre sa mere the embryonic John hailed the Mother of God and (by inference) the even more embryonic Jesus.
A New Approach for the 21st Century?
As I pondered all these things I found myself thinking about the origin of life. Even the most dedicated Darwinian stumbles a bit when considering the first life to evolve. How did we get from non-living stuff to living stuff? And if life is guided by DNA, and DNA is found only in living things, which came first, DNA or living things? Granted that once life got going it "evolved", how could it evolve before it began? Somewhere in all that there is mystery, and can we not see common ground here between at least open-minded scientists and open-minded people of faith? Out of the mystery of its beginning came life: out of the mystery of the Incarnation came the One who is the Life. Which is the greater miracle? With God all is miracle, for he calls into existence things that are not.
So what might we say as people of faith in the 21st century at this special time of the year? That at the heart of our Christmas belief and practice is God as the source of all things, including human life. Just as our story of Adam and Eve recognises the fundamental creative power of God uniting his spirit (breath) with inanimate material (the dust of the earth) and thereby "explains" how the leap was made between the inanimate and the animate, so our story of the Incarnation recognises how our creaturely being is impregnated with the Spirit of God, and recognises how the leap was made from the divine to the human. Christmas is a Festival of Life in all its fullness: that is why we celebrate it with great joy.
Some Reflections on these readings from Luke.
1:39-45. The passage is notable more for what it doesn't say than what it does. I have already noted the careful way Luke does not refer to the actual "overshadowing" of Mary by the Holy Spirit. So we do not know for certain if Mary was already pregnant when she visited Elizabeth. Was Mary aware of Elizabeth's pregnancy before Gabriel told her?
1:46-56. Mary's song is surely the creative work of Luke rather than Mary herself. The same comment applies to Zechariah's song in 1:67-79. Notice that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy (1:36), and Mary stays with her for about 3 months (1:56). She leaves when the birth is due? Luke may have a point in mind but I'm not sure what it is.
2:1-7. Luke's careful attention to historical detail is significant, as I have mentioned in previous Notes. The Incarnation is an actual historical event. It is about the eternal invading the temporal, the heavenly coming to earth. Throughout these readings there is a tension between Transcendence and Immanence, God in heaven and God with us.
2:8-20. Nowhere is this tension more obvious (and handled more beautifully) than in this passage. The shepherds were the lowest of the low in their society, and yet it is to them that the glory of the Lord is shown, the angelic messenger speaks and the heavenly choirs sing. And notice the emphasis in the song – God is in heaven, but "his favour" rests on those on earth. The passage finishes on a very matter-of-fact level, straight reportage. The angels had "left them and gone into heaven". There's a hint of, "We've told and shown you all you need to know, now it's up to you to make whatever you will of it." Being practical men they check it out for themselves first, before witnessing to others and worshipping God.
Taking It Personally.
· What are you most looking forward to this Christmas? Make a list. Now check the list – is there anything religious/spiritual on it?
· Who or what are you most thankful for at this time? Give thanks.
· If the Spirit and body are joined at birth, what is the point of baptism?
· What would it mean for you for Christ to be born in you anew this Christmas?
· Notice the importance of names in these readings. Reflect on your own name. Why was it chosen for you? Has it had any obvious effect on your life? Has it shaped the person you are?
· If you have had and named children, why did you chosoe the names you did? Were you guided by your faith in choosing those names?
· What would you say to a friend who asks you to "explain" our belief in the "Virgin Birth"?
· Pray especially for those who are in the final stages of pregnancy at this time. Pray, too, for our neonatal units, and their staff during the holiday period.