The Virgin Birth is no fairy tale
The conception of Jesus is about God taking the initiative to be with mankind
The young woman is going to have a baby. She is engaged, but her fiancé is not the father of the child. He is a kindly, gentle man and he loves her. He is dumbfounded by what has happened. Yet he has no wish to shame her. He plans to break off their engagement discreetly. Then one night, shortly before he does so, he has a dream. He dreams that this pregnancy is unique, not evidence of infidelity, but rather of God’s action. He reconsiders and takes her home as his wife.
The woman’s experience has been far more remarkable. One day, she has had a sudden, startling, overwhelming sense of divine presence and an invitation to motherhood: the child she will bear will be the Son of the Most High. She is alarmed, utterly bewildered. She is still a virgin. How could she become a mother? She learns that she will conceive, not by sexual intercourse, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. She believes and bows to the divine will: “Let it be to me according to Your word.”
The couple, of course, are Joseph and Mary. This is the start of the Christmas story. It is a story of faith. Joseph believes his dream and Mary has faith in her mystical experience, the vision of the angel Gabriel, God’s messenger, inviting her to be the virgin mother of the Messiah. But can we believe it? A. S. Byatt has described Christianity as “much less true than a lot of fairy stories”. The Nativity narratives in particular may seem to illustrate that view. But is it really so? It helps to start at the end.
The child Jesus who came to be born ended His life being crucified. The authorities feared that He would stir the people to revolt so they arrested Him and put Him to death. He, however, had been teaching a message of healing, forgiveness and love. And after He had died, some of those who still believed Him claimed that they had seen Him again, risen from the dead. The tomb where He had been buried hastily was found to be empty. And then they had encountered Him.
That empty tomb is a kind of sacrament of the Resurrection. There is much more to the Resurrection of Jesus than an empty tomb. It is not essential for the Resurrection; after all, had Jesus been burnt at the stake or eaten by lions, there would have been no body to bury, and so no tomb; but there would still have been the Resurrection. All the same, the fact of the empty tomb, acknowledged even by those who have no faith in the Resurrection, is a sign for those who do believe that points to and strengthens their conviction. Here was something extraordinary: God’s initiative, raising Jesus from the dead.
And what had ended in so extraordinary a way had begun uniquely as well: a virgin had conceived through the power of God’s Spirit.
Christian faith, articulated classically in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, professes that Jesus is both truly divine and truly human. Divinity and humanity are perfectly united in him without being compromised or separated. He is as truly divine as he is human, as truly human as He is divine. That teaching about His humanity could accommodate his being conceived in the usual sexual manner; that could even be said to be more in tune with the Christian understanding of the Incarnation: the divine Son as human was an ordinary human being. The virginal conception of Jesus is no more essential for the identity of Jesus as the Son of God than the empty tomb is essential for His resurrection.
Nevertheless, Christian faith has affirmed from the earliest times that the virgin conceived and gave birth. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in 107, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, affirms Jesus’s real humanity and refers to His virgin birth in the same breath as His baptism by John and His Crucifixion. He speaks of these events as being of a piece. His testimony could scarcely be more telling. And it would be foolish to patronise the past.
Here is no fairytale, but like the empty tomb a sign of God’s initiative that speaks to faith.
Monsignor Roderick Strange is the Rector of the Pontifical Beda College, Rome