In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.”Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.
The story above is world famous, and extremely controversial. It’s a story that always raises eye-brows and sniggers. A story that most of us embraced in complete innocence as children within our school Nativity plays–never questioning the events as we masqueraded as Joseph or Mary or the Donkey (or the Alien and the Giraffe, as portrayed in some modern versions).
But then we grew up. Our understandings of human reproduction developed, and we started sensing an uneasiness with the whole “immaculate conception” thing–A virgin, pregnant? Sounds like a story for Jeremy Kyle.
We’re totally right to question this–if Joseph did, so should we. It’s not natural. It’s very strange.
So strange, in fact, that even some Christians have moved away from the idea.
Now, I’m certainly not going to go into some defence of the virgin birth here–by talking about reptilian asexual reproduction (which doesn’t help the conversation anyway), or through explaining that the ancient world would have found this as suspicious and as bizarre as we do, or by examining the New Testament and extra-biblical evidence for suspecting something “odd” about Jesus’ conception.
Personally, I’m accepting of this very unique (only happened once) story, and I’m certainly not condemning of those fellow travellers who are investigating it’s claims, and seeking to move away from it.
My only question is, why are we moving away from it?
And if the answer to that question is to make the story sound more palatable and reasonable to those outside of the Christian community, then we’ve got a problem on our hands; because moving away from the virgin birth does little to redeem this story within a secular perspective.
It’s still a very bizarre, weird, strange and difficult-to-comprehend mystery, because it’s a story about the Incarnation.
You’d have to drop this take completely before this story would begin to become “reasonable”. But in so doing, the story loses it’s vibrancy; it becomes a rather average story about a man and a woman travelling a long distance whilst in the latter stages of her final trimester.
Now don’t misunderstand me here, but there exists more exiting birth stories out there that we could re-tell every year, if all this is about is celebrating just any birth (check out the TV show One Born Every Minute, for a few examples). However, it’s the identity of this child that really makes this story so compelling and controversial: the Son of God; Emmanuel–God with us.
God incarnate. God becoming human.
The Divine materialises. The transcendent becomes comprehensible. The abstract emerges concrete.
And the becoming is very important. To contemplate Advent, is to remember that this story is much longer than the momentary visit of an angel and a single Holy Night.
Actually, when reading the story and imagining the timings involved, it’s hardly a fast-paced Hollywood Action-Thriller. There’s a huge amount of waiting involved; many “uneventful” days sandwiched between the exiting moments we read. God becomes human to establish his kingdom on earth, and yet, it appears, God’s not in a rush to do so.
The narrative of John’s Gospel tells us, “In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God… So the Word became human and lived (dwelt) here on earth among us.” (John 1:1, 14)
But this dwelling and living among us isn’t about God just moving into the neighbourhood–in the same sense as someone moving onto our street, bringing all their stuff with them. It’s not as if God arrives fully formed, spectacular, and obviously divine.
The incarnation is the story of God growing and expanding obscurely among us; of God limiting himself and becoming vulnerable, tangible … opaque (for want of a better word).
Just take a moment to think on this:
God chooses to become a cell within a womb. God, the creator of the whole, vast, incomprehensible universe, conceals himself within a single human cell – a Zygote – which is so small that a microscope is required to see it. A cell that would then divide and multiply and develop into an Embryo, who’s growth and health would be entirely dependent on an uterine environment and the nutritional support of a placenta.
Do you see what I mean when I say that moving away from the “immaculate conception” doesn’t really begin to make this story more reasonable?
God resides inside a human body for approximately nine months of gestation, cumulating with the whole process of birth–God passing through a birth canal and into human society. Wailing, as his lungs open to take his first breath of air.
God, a baby, who would wee and poo and cry whenever he’s hungry. The Almighty, being weaned at a human breast. The Wonderful Counsellor, allowing himself to be cradled by human compassion and passed around relatives who would bless him and pull his cheeks whilst saying “Aww, isn’t he cute”–The Everlasting Father, being patronised by human sentiment.
God, in being born, becomes entirely dependant on human love and care.
But it’s not as if the birth signals that the wait is over; that the story is concluded and we can just close the book. The birth, although significant, is like all births, in that it signals the dawn of another era.
It would still be a further thirty years before Jesus would start his ministry.
If there’s any urgency at all to this Divine mission, wouldn’t God want to begin as soon as possible, shouldn’t he speed things up a bit? If he can do the miraculous with the immaculate conception, why not slip in some miraculous growth spurts and hit year the age of 30 within a year, or two? To be honest, as someone who deeply resents looking 15-20 years younger than I am, I would be more than tempted in this scenario.
But, once more, God takes his time, and allows himself to be bound to a normal life-process of growth and learning and becoming.
God, the Word, in choosing to become flesh is also accepting to become speechless and having to learn how to communicate.
God would have to crawl on his hands and knees, eventually learning to walk through consistent attempts of rising and falling. God would learn to develop the motor skills of his hands and co-ordinate this with his peripheral vision. God, the one who dwells outside of all space-time dimensions, learning to navigate in a 3D environment.
God would become a child–a normal child.
It may be tempting to think of Jesus being something of a child-star in his home-town growing up; a kind of supernatural mix-up between David Blaine and Doogie Howser, M.D. And maybe even imagine his friends just doing the “normal” things that kids do, like making mud-pies and pulling legs off spiders, while boy-Jesus forms people from dust and causes those same spiders to grow new legs (whilst the legs grow spiders)… but no!
His neighbourhood considered God to be an ordinary child. So ordinary in fact, that when, at thirty-years of age, Jesus begins to teach at his home-town synagogue in Nazareth, people are shocked-–”Isn’t this Joseph’s son…don’t we know his brothers and sisters, where has all this wisdom and power to do miracles come from?”. In other words, “we watched this lad grow up, there was nothing exceptional about him” (Mark 6:2-3, Luke 4:22).
Again, God chooses to have a normal and natural cycle of growth. God went through growing pains, and tooth-aches, and bruised knees and puberty, and splinters in his fingers as he helped and trained as a carpenter under Joseph’s tuition. Think of that, God as an apprentice, allowing himself to be taught by someone.
And only then, after a thirty year wait, does Jesus finally begin his ministry.
In the same manner as his birth and growth stories, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t barge forcefully onto the world scene; his announcement and enactment of God’s Kingdom finally arriving is very much marked by servant-hood, humility, peace, grace, love, and meekness. God, instead of “Lording it over” people, lays his life down; spending time with the weak, the broken, the hurt, the marginalised and the lost of this world.
God the King has arrived, but it’s not some big, propaganda filled, forceful media event. It’s still obscure.
Obscure, and short-ranged, and short-lived.
After three decades of waiting, after only lasting for three years, this ministry appears to come to an abrupt end with Jesus’ coronation as a King. Except, it’s not a crown of jewels that is placed on his head, but a crown of thorns; it’s not some grand, high ornate chair that he is sat upon, but his throne is a crucifix and his sceptre and orb are nails.
When God finally becomes King, he does so by pouring out his life for the world. God allows himself to suffer for mankind, and at the hands of mankind, as he surrenders his life to death in an act of self-emptying love.
He chooses to pass through and experience real death–just like he did real birth. But somehow, through this act of fragility and sacrifice, God unleashes his power of salvation. Jesus crushes the power of death through his Resurrection; birthing a new creation into the world, establishing a kingdom that is both incorruptible and eternal.
What a bizarre story, this incarnation is.
What a strange way for God to arrive among us.
I’m guessing that there are many who struggle with the idea of a virgin birth. But if God was to come among us–virgin birth or not–would we have thought it would have looked like this? Is this what we would have imagined, or looked out for?
And yet, it’s the way God chose to approach us.
As one poet expressed it, many years before the events of the Nativity story:
” Just watch my servant blossom!
Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn’t begin that way.
At first everyone was appalled.
He didn’t even look human—a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback, kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they’ll see with their own eyes, what was unthinkable they’ll have right before them.
Who believes what we’ve heard and seen?
Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?
The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.
He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true.
Still, it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him.
Out of that terrible travail of soul, he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant, will make many “righteous ones,” as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly—the best of everything, the highest honors—Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many, he took up the cause of all the black sheep. ”
ISAIAH’S “SERVANT SONG”, ISAIAH 52:13-53:12 (The MESSAGE)
Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?
During this period of advent, I’ve found myself thinking of the way God decided to go about things. And the more I think on it, the more I love God’s approach.
It’s beautiful and shocking.
He doesn’t charge into human history, all bling and all guns blazing. God comes slowly, softly, indiscreetly, humbly, vulnerably, in obscurity. God doesn’t “move” or barge his way into human society; when he comes to live with us, when he comes to establish his Kingdom. It’s almost as if God slips in, largely unnoticed.
It’s not a forceful entrance at all; Incarnation is invitational in it’s nature. God dwells with us, as one of us, but will we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear it?
This is how God chooses to act when he sets out to save the world. This is how God sets into motion his plan to redeem, restore and resurrect humanity and the creation he so loves; He embodies it, and calls us to enter into his embodiment.
This is how God chooses to write the never ending story of his Kingdom.
And it all starts with God condescending to become a single cell; a cell so small, that you can’t see it with unaided human vision. But within this cell–this smallest component of life–is concealed the power to crush death and raise the dead to life eternal.
Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
The Header image for this post is entitled “Zygote”, by Body-Without-Organs (via deviantart.com)
Tristan Sherwin is the Author of Love: Expressed – Available now.