The Virgin Birth is no fairy tale

The Virgin Birth is no fairy tale

Roderick Strange

Published at 5:40PM, December 16 2011

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


Male and female brains are planets apart in their wiring

Male and female brains are planets apart in their wiring

Brain networks showing significantly increased within hemispheres in males (upper) and between hemispheres in females (lower)
National Academy of Sciences/PA
  • Brain networks showing significantly increased within hemispheres in males (upper) and between hemispheres in females (lower)
    Brain networks showing significantly increased within hemispheres in males (upper) and between hemispheres in females (lower) National Academy of Sciences/PA
Tom Whipple Science Correspondent
Last updated at 12:01AM, December 3 2013

A new study has confirmed that men and women’s brains are wired in completely different ways, as if they were species from different planets.

Men generally have more connections within each hemisphere of the brain, while in women the two halves of the brain are much more interlinked. Men’s brains also contain more nerve fibres and those of women a greater proportion of “grey matter” consisting of the cell bodies of neurons.

The different patterns in brain structure are likely to explain differences in behaviour and skills seen in men and women, say the American scientists led by Ragini Verma, of the University of Pennsylvania. Men’s brains appear mainly configured to co-ordinate perception and action. Women’s are more geared up to integrate “heart and mind” thought processes, linking analytical and intuitive reasoning.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are from a study of almost 1,000 children and young people aged eight to 22. Tests revealed “pronounced sex differences”, said the researchers. Women outperformed men on “attention, word and face memory, and social cognition tests”, while men were better when tested for “spatial processing and motor and sensorimotor speed”.

Few differences between the sexes were seen in children younger than 13, the scientists found. However, they became pronounced in adolescents aged 14 to 17 and older young adults.

One particular brain area, the cerebellum, displayed an opposite wiring pattern, with more connectivity between hemispheres in men and more within hemispheres in women. Part of the so-called “reptilian” hind-brain, the cerebellum is the most ancient brain region and controls muscle movement, co-ordination, and balance.


‘Secret’ labyrinth of tunnels under Rome mapped

‘Secret’ labyrinth of tunnels under Rome mapped

  • Collapsed_cave_roof

    A collapsed quarry beneath Rome, caused by erosion and human activity above. These holes open suddenly over Rome’s quarry network. (SOTTERRANEI DI ROMA)

Deep under the streets and buildings of Rome is a maze of tunnels and quarries that dates back to the very beginning of this ancient city. Now, geologists are venturing beneath Rome to map these underground passageways, hoping to prevent modern structures from crumbling into the voids below.

In 2011, there were 44 incidents of streets or portions of structures collapsing into the quarries, a number that rose to 77 in 2012 and 83 to date in 2013. To predict and prevent such collapses, George Mason University geoscientists Giuseppina Kysar Mattietti and scientists from the Center for Speleoarchaeological Research (Sotterranei di Roma) are mapping high-risk areas of the quarry system.

The mapping is important, Kysar Mattietti told LiveScience, because through the years, Roman citizens have taken the patching of the quarry systems into their own hands. [Photos: The Secret Passageways of Hadrian’s Villa]

“The most common way is to take some big plastic bags and fill them with cement and stick them in the holes,” she said.

Lucky geology
Volcanism created the land Rome was built upon. These volcanic rocks, or tuff, were a boon to Rome’s earliest architects, who soon learned the tuff was strong and easy to carve into building blocks. Lighter, less compacted volcanic ash was used as a main ingredient in mortar.

The first Romans were savvy, Kysar Mattietti said. The geoscientists quarried outside the city, and found that even when the suburbs began to encroach over the quarries, the ancient Romans knew to keep the tunnels narrow enough so that the ground above was still supported.

But two things worked against the long-term stability of the tunnels.

The first was Mother Nature. As soon as the rock is exposed to air, it starts to weather, Kysar Mattietti said. The second problem was human. Later generations kept building, using the same quarries for rock and widening the tunnels beyond their original size to create new structures above them.

Secret passageways
The tunnels are something of an open secret in Rome. Over the years, once quarrying ended, people repurposed the underground labyrinth as catacombs, for mushroom farming and as an unofficial sewer system. During World War II, people used the tunnels as bomb shelters.

But younger Romans are less aware of the geological hazard under the city, Kysar Mattietti said. And few realize the quarries’ extent.

“Since they weren’t serving any use, people tend to forget what can be a problem,” Kysar Mattietti said.

Now, Kysar Mattietti and other geoscientists are using laser 3D scanning to search for hidden weaknesses in the tunnels. The researchers also enter the tunnels through manholes and map the labyrinth by hand once they’re sure the area is safe.

“There might be cracks, so they will be showing as veins almost, or openings, so we map the openings and map any kind of detachment,” she said. In some spots, the ceiling of the tunnel sloughs off like cracking plaster. In others, there are total collapses sometimes not reaching quite to street level, but leaving very little ground between the surface and the void.

“It’s interesting, because at times when you are down there, you can hear people on top,” Kysar Mattietti said.

To fix critical points, city officials seal off the unstable point and pour mortar into the tunnel, filling the entire void instead of simply patching over the top.

“What the municipality wants to do is to basically have a map of the risk so at that point they can on their side decide what kind of intervention needs to be done,” Kysar Mattietti said.

The geoscientist presented her mapping work this October at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver.

Most of the quarrying is under the southeastern area of the city. Kysar Mattietti and her team are currently mapping three sites considered at particularly high risk of collapse. The need will likely only increase as natural erosion works its destructive magic in the quarries.

“A crack never stops on its own,” Kysar Mattietti said. “It always gets bigger.”