Born or the Virgin Mary: Thoughts on what we believe when we say we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus.

Born of the Virgin Mary

My brother became a grandfather for the second time this week when Mason Andrew D’Adamo was born.

The story of his birth is circulating.

Many days late.

C-Section.

Wailing away as soon as he entered the world.

Beautiful, as all babies are.

It made me think that one of Karen’s and my favorite things to share with our children is their birth stories.

Most often we do that when we are with them on their birthdays.

We would tell the story of Karen’s three days of induction because AJ was two weeks late.

“We thought you would never come out!”

“But you did and we brought you home on our first anniversary!”

But the better story is about Julz.

Julz was early.

We went to a neighbor’s Christmas party, Karen had an eggnog then we went home early.

At around three in the morning, I woke up and saw Karen looking at her watch.

“What’s up?”, I asked.

“I’m timing my contractions.”

“Oh? How far apart are they?”

“Ninety seconds.”

“Oh? Shouldn’t we be at the hospital?”

“Maybe …”

I won’t go into the rest, it is a long story about a quick delivery, and it ends with my comment, “I think she has red hair!”

Every time we tell the stories, the kids are attentive.

They like to hear their birth stories.

They like knowing their roots.

Their origins.

Their identities.

We love to tell the stories, too.

And the details are important.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

It, too, is a story about a birth that is yet to come.

Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The 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. 36And 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary.”

This passage from Luke is the source of that creedal statement.

It is the story of the beginning of Mary’s pregnancy.

We have heard it over and over and over.

Every Christmas Eve during Lessons and Carols at least.

For as long as any of us have been able to comprehend this story, the focus has been centered on what follows Gabriel’s announcement that Mary is going to have a baby:

“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

And Gabriel’s response:

“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.

Our interpretation of those words is what we say in the Apostles’ Creed.

Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary.

The virgin birth.

And when we hear the story read to us, as soon as it starts, our minds jump to that point, and we don’t hear the rest.

But the story has a bit more complexity.

So, let’s listen to the story with fresh attention.

This story is our introduction to Mary in scripture.

Who is she?

We are burdened by theological hindsight.

One author describes our preconceived notions about Mary this way:

[W]e’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinaire — a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth.

Why pray to her?

She is “full of grace”.

According to Roman Catholic theology, and I am no expert, Mary has grace to give, and we all need it.

So, we ask her for it.

Why ignore her?

That’s kind of what we do in the reformed tradition.

Mary is just a vessel for the Messiah.

Some say she is the victim of divine coercion.

God forces Godself on a young girl for God’s own purposes.

Is Mary the “Mother of God”?

Well, she gave birth to one member of the triune God, right?

Is Mary the eternal virgin?

That s the Roman Catholic point of view, but the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.

Is Mary a prophet?

You bet!

Her call from Gabriel and their conversation looks like a pretty typical prophet call story.

And soon after we get the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic announcement.

Others simply read this passage with skepticism and believe Luke is using Old Testament like metaphor.

But we are not told any of that here by Luke.

And we certainly don’t hear any of that in the Apostles’ Creed.

Luke’s depiction of Mary is that she was mostly an ordinary young woman who reacts to this visitation in an extraordinary way.

We have before us a brief ordered, factual narrative that cites no source.

Mary herself maybe?

Kind of like a mother recounting her pregnancy.

Maybe this is how she talked about it with Jesus.

“Where do I come from Mom?”

“From God, son.”

So, let’s look at the story for the details that might tell us what we can believe about it.

When the story opens, we are given background by the narrator, Luke.

Mary is a teenaged girl of marriage age who lives in Nazareth and is engaged to a fellow named Joseph.

Her father has arranged for her to be married to Joseph.

The marriage will be consummated when she moves in with Joseph.

That has not happened yet.

Now the action begins.

Mary is occupied in her normal life.

Then enter Gabriel!

We know who he is.

He’s one of God’s Archangels.

Gabriel calls prophets and is the protector of Israel in the Old Testament.

Mary’s reaction to this unexpected and no doubt terrifying visit evolves over the course of the encounter.

At first Mary is afraid.

It is the rare exception in the Bible that on finding oneself in the presence of an angel one is not absolutely terrified!

I have an image that she is cowering behind whatever she can find to cower behind with wide eyes and gaping mouth.

And we know Mary was afraid because the angel tells her not to be.

Then she is mystified.

One writer describes her response this way:

Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Why does Mary get a visit from Gabriel?

Does God even know she exists?

I have an image of her dropping her chin to her chest, shaking her head – No, no, no …

“I think you have the wrong Mary, Gabriel.”

Then the big reveal!

She’s going to have a son.

Gabriel says the boy will be great, called the son of the Most High, will sit on the throne of David reigning over the hose of David forever!

Mary does not seem to have heard who the boy will be.

She is more concerned about how that is going to happen?

How is it she is going to have a baby?

Then the next big reveal.

This is going to be God’s doing.

Gabriel says this:

“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. Elizabeth, too?

There it is.

What exactly does that mean?

The translation might best be put, the Holy Spirit will make this happen!

Mary just needs to agree.

Which brings us to how Mary might have responded.

She is still skeptical!

So, Gabriel offers Elizabeth’s pregnancy as proof.

If Elizabeth can be pregnant, nothing is impossible with God.

Even a virgin birth.

If you want to get an image of what Mary’s reaction might look like, take a look at some annunciation artwork.

Depictions of what people thought it might have been like.

Particularly Sandro Botticelli’s painting, “The Cestello Annunciation”.

In it, Botticelli portrays Mary as withdrawing from Gabriel.

Creating distance between them as if she might flee.

Her hand is out in a “keep your distance from me” gesture.

Mary is looking down, averting her eyes.

Mary’s expression is not particularly joyful.

More ambivalent.

Is Mary telling Gabriel, “I need to think about his.”

Gabriel is on his knee, looking up into Mary’s face, as if trying to get her to look at him.

Is he afraid Mary is about to say no?

Is he begging her to say yes?

How long does this all go on?

Gabriel must be relieved when Mary utters her famous phrase:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

He departs.

Mary has said all the right words, but then does something interesting.

She runs off to see Elizabeth.

Why would she do that?

Maybe to see if Gabriel was telling the truth?

Is Elizabeth really pregnant?

Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth suggests a certain skepticism and pause before Mary believes it all.

Mary sees that Elizabeth is in fact pregnant and hears Elizabeth cry out that Mary is pregnant, too.

Mary then sings her famous song:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.

Mary believes.

Do we?

What does the story of Gabriel and Mary ask us to believe?

Something like this, I think.

Mary was called by God for a particular task.

She was the human being through whom God became incarnate.

She brought the Son into the world from her womb.

At God’s request.

By way of the Holy Spirit.

And Mary agreed to do it.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, this is what we claim to believe.

That God became one of us through Mary.

Like the Trinity, how exactly that happened is a mystery.

But there is a meaning beyond how Jesus was conceived.

For God nothing is impossible.

If, like Mary, we believe that nothing is impossible to God, we can believe that we, like her, are the human beings through whom God acts in the world.

We too can give birth to the holy!

Are we willing to let God intrude into our lives and, despite the cost and discomfort, emulate Mary’s “yes” to God with our own “yes”?

Can we as a church respond like Mary?

So here is my image of what that might look like:

Me: “Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.”

Congregation: “How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.”

Me: “Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Congregation: “Here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.”

So may it be.

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