“Do you really believe in the virgin birth?” I was asked recently.
“Why yes I do,” I stated as matter-of-factly as was asked of me.
Perhaps you believe that the person asking me was not religious, but an unbeliever attempting to unmask my obvious ignorance. However the person asking me this was not a nonreligious person, but a believer. What does it mean to say that Jesus was born of a virgin? It is preposterous! Ludicrous! Ridiculous! It defies everything we can know, and helps to make those who do not believe as we do paint us as fools. I suppose some of us are tired of being foolish.
Some biblical scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew word that was translated as “virgin” in the ancient Greek translation of the prophet Isaiah actually means “young maiden.” Therefore, so the argument progresses, the gospel writers using the Septuagint (the name of the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) took a mistranslation of the Hebrew and used it in the New Testament. Some then say that Jesus was born, just like us with an earthly mother and father, but a mistranslation changed it all up.
If one is in need of looking less foolish in the eyes of the wise then I advise them to consider such an argument. Some, however, believe in the virgin birth and do so unashamedly. Eugene Peterson writing in the Advent devotional book “Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas: God With Us” claims,
The miracle of the virgin birth, maintained from the earliest times in the church and confessed in its creeds, is, in Karl Barth’s straightforward phrase, “a summons to reverence and worship….” Barth maintained that the one- sided views of those who questioned or denied that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary” are “in the last resort to be understood only as coming from dread of reverence and only as invitation to comfortable encounter with an all too near or all too far-off God.”
I had not read Barth’s description until I read Peterson quote it. I was struck, and still am, by the phrase, “invitation to comfortable encounter.” It might be true that to deny the mystery and miracle of this season is to seek a comfortable encounter with God. We do not have to revere and worship a God we can explain so easily, because in our explanations we cease allowing God to be God, and attempt to hold onto a God who cannot be held. Do we need to be able to explain God to accept God?
By keeping God from being God we seek that comfortable encounter, that one where we dictate the rules and know the outcome in advance. However, Scripture makes a different claim. It speaks of a God that cares little for our rules, who is dangerous at times, and will seek us out in the most uncomfortable of encounters.
We remember the story of Jacob who wrestles all night with God and leaves with a limp he would have until death came for him. It is a story that is easy to recall because of its certain truth. When we find the God who has found us we rarely leave the same as we arrived. Sometimes we are forever altered by our experience. Limping throughout life because God encountered us.
At Christmas we claim that God encountered us as a child. This is no normal child, this is one born without a father, from a virgin, therefore one that is due our reverence and our worship. To revere (which comes from the Latin which meant to stand in awe of and fear) him is to know that when we encounter him he will change us forever. To keep him at a safe distance, to seek an invitation to comfortable encounter, that is not what Christmas is about.
Christ has come into the world, is still coming, and will come again. This year pray that we meet him and are changed forever. In being changed by God perhaps we can be used by God to help change the world into a place where peace and justice flow under the reign of the Prince of peace. A lofty Christmas wish you think? Perhaps, but one that is possible through faith I am sure.
With faith that I am riding the wave of the Holy Spirit.