The Virgin’s Name was Mary
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
On a YouTube video, astronomer Dr. Peter Edwards explains the enormous size of the universe and how difficult it is for the human mind to comprehend its true immensity. Edwards states that “We pointed the Hubble telescope at what…appeared to be a very ordinary patch of the night sky. If you imagine holding up your finger with a grain of sand on it and looking at the patch of sky that grain of sand blocks out, that's the field that the (Hubble) telescope zoomed in to. The telescope reveals that there are 10,000 galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length. … The visible universe contains around 100 billion galaxies. Each one of those galaxies contains around about 100 billion stars. That means the visible universe contains something like 10,000 million million million stars. That means there are more stars in the visible universe than there are grains of sand on the earth.”
1. So, you may be wondering, what does the size of the universe have to do with Christmas? I want to reflect with you today on the miracle of Christmas; we confess it each time we say the Apostles’ Creed—“born of the virgin Mary.” Many people find it hard to make this assertion. They can’t affirm its historicity, its facticity. Skeptics reject it on the ground that it is a miracle. And that is correct—it is miracle. But to reject it on the grounds that it is a miracle is to reject all miracles, including the creation of the universe, the creation of the universe ex nihilo, from nothing.
And that is why I began with inviting you to think about the size of the universe. When you think of the vastness of the universe, who made all of this? God did. Out of what? Out of—nothing. Why would anyone uphold the creation of the vast universe out of nothing and then stumble over of the historicity of the virgin birth?
2. But some say that the virgin birth isn’t a core item in Christian doctrine because only Matthew and Luke mention it in their birth stories. It isn’t like Jesus death on the cross that all gospel writers speak about explicitly. The theologian N.T. Wright in essence says that if we didn’t have the birth stories of Jesus we would still have the gospel, but if we didn’t have the death and resurrection stories we would have no gospel.
With all due respect to N.T. Wright I would note with you that the other New Testament writers hold implicitly what Matthew and Luke tell us explicitly. Mark for example, doesn’t mention Joseph at all and yet refers to Jesus as “the son of Mary.” Mark is telling us, in so many words, the he agrees with Matthew and Luke concerning the virginal conception of our Lord. In Galatians 4 the Apostle Paul speaks three times of human generation, and every time he uses the normal Greek word ‘to be born’. When he speaks of Christ’s birth, however, he uses an entirely different word. The word he uses of Christ’s birth isn’t the word that speaks of normal human generation. It’s a word that speaks of the arrival of Jesus, the event of Jesus, the coming of Jesus—tacitly denying that Jesus was generated in the way that all other humans are procreated.
The Apostles’ Creed dates back to around 150 AD. The driving force behind its articulation was to map out essentials of faith; an attempt to articulate the gospel claims on which all the Apostles would agree. We repeat the words, ‘Born of the virgin Mary’, every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed as do churches that confess the Nicene Creed. Both creeds are normative for the church universal; both maintain that the virginal conception of our Lord is as essential to the substance of the faith as is the bodily resurrection of our Lord.
I happen to uphold ‘born of the virgin Mary’. And I agree with the worldwide church over the centuries that it is a crucial ingredient, a necessary ingredient, in what Christians believe. I invite you to reflect with me on what “born of the virgin Mary” is telling us. In probing this Christmas miracle it is important to note that it does not prove that Jesus is divine. The virgin birth doesn’t prove anything. But it does point to something; it’s a sign of something; it attests something. Then what does it point to? What’s it a sign of? What does it attest?
3. “Born of the virgin Mary” is a sign that Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world, has to be given to us. Humankind cannot produce its own saviour. History cannot produce history’s redeemer. We sinners all need a fresh start, what scripture calls, in various places, “new birth” or “new creature” or “heart of flesh” (rather than “heart of stone”) or “renewed mind”. The point is, human history cannot generate its rescuer. Its rescuer has to be given to it. We have been probing this theme throughout Advent; the hope and peace and joy, and today the theme of love, has to be given to us. We can’t generate it from within ourselves. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.” God gives us this by giving us himself.
Humanity is loath to admit this. Max Tegmark is a physicist and cosmologist, an MIT professor and co-founder of The Future of Life Institute. In his 2017 book Life 3.0, he looks forward to what he sees as a third stage of human development: The merging of the human body with artificial intelligence, with the potential for almost unimaginable power. Tegmark writes, “Yet despite the most powerful technologies we have today, all life forms we know of remain fundamentally limited by their biological hardware. None can live for a million years, memorize all of Wikipedia, understand all known science, or enjoy spaceflight without a spacecraft. … All this requires life to undergo a final upgrade to Life 3.0, which can design not only its software but also its hardware. In other words, Life 3.0 is the master of its own destiny, finally fully free from its evolutionary shackles.”
This isn’t to say that artificial intelligence has no value. We should be careful to distinguish between the human situation and the human condition. The human situation can always be improved humanly. Indeed machines have improved the human situation; the forced air furnace in the middle of winter comes to mind as the air-conditioned in the heat of summer.
The human condition, as distinct from the human situation, is our condition before God: this we can’t correct. Only the direct intervention of God himself can affect it. Because Christians are the beneficiaries of such intervention we now know, have long known, that the innermost twist to the human heart; the human perverseness beyond anyone’s understanding; the profoundest self-contradiction—all of this we know we cannot remedy ourselves; we know the remedy has to be given to us, since we cannot generate it ourselves.
We have to admit that the root human condition is oceans deeper than the human situation, and the cure for the root human condition only God can provide. As noted on other occasions, the world never lacks people who think they can provide it. Karl Marx said a new human being, the new birth, arises at the point of revolution. And what did Marxism provide except wretchedness and cruelty for 70 years in the USSR? Mao Tse Tung said he could remake humankind, and he took down 90 million of his own people. Pot Pol claimed as much, and he slew 25% of his fellow-Cambodians.
Then is the human condition hopeless? Not at all: we’ve been given the saviour we’ll never give ourselves. We’ve been provided the rescuer we long for yet know we can’t generate. “By the will of God”, writer the author of Hebrews, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” ‘Born of the virgin Mary’ is constant reminder that only the intervention of God himself can save us.
4. It is also constant reminder that faith in the saviour; faith has to be given to us as well. We can’t generate faith out of our innermost resources. Paul speaks of the condition of sinners before God as “dead in trespasses and sins”. Dead. And what can a corpse give itself?—nothing. Then the faith that recognizes, rejoices in, and clings to the saviour; the faith that trusts him in fair weather and foul; the faith that loves him because he first loved us (when others tell us we are silly); the faith that obeys him (when politically correct people tell us we are utterly out-of-step with our society): such faith has to be given to us.
To be sure, when I say faith has to be given to us I had better say in the next breath that such a gift has to be exercised. The gift we have received we have to affirm. The One who is now embracing us, we have to embrace in return. Of course. But it all begins with the gift of faith in that saviour who has himself been given to us.
Make no mistake: it is nothing less than a miracle that anyone believes. Faith has to be given to us for two reasons: one, you and I cannot generate faith out of our own resources; two, even if we could, the ceaseless negativities in world-occurrence would overwhelm it and suffocate it. As a pastor I meet people with radiant faith whose lives have unfolded with such difficulty that there’s no earthly reason why they should believe, and every earthly reason why they shouldn’t. And yet their faith sings: the miraculous intervention of God that has given us the saviour we need continues to give us faith in the saviour as only he can give.
5. The virgin birth, arising from the direct intervention of God, attests yet another miracle: the final, full manifestation of the gift of love, a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells. The author of Hebrews maintains that already, right now, we have been given a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And so we have. Because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and his resurrection can never be undone; because the king triumphant has to bring his kingdom with him or else he’s no king at all; because of this the kingdom of God is here, in our midst, operative, right now, as surely as Christ the King himself is in our midst. We have been given a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
Christ’s kingdom, however, is not yet fully manifest. It is here, but only by faith do we discern it and affirm it. It is in our midst, but it remains disputable. The day has been appointed, however, when the kingdom, real but disputable, will be rendered manifest so as to render it beyond dispute. On this day, the day of Christ’s indisputable self-manifestation, we who suffer and groan now are going to appear resplendent, holy and whole alike.
“Born of the virgin Mary.” In our reflection on the miracle of Christmas I noted with you that it was a pointer to the gift of Jesus Christ. It’s a sign of the reality that he is. But it is it sign only? Or is the sign of the event so closely related to the logic of the event that the sign of the event is part of the event itself, so that to believe in Jesus Christ, the saviour given to us, is simultaneously to believe ‘born of the virgin Mary’?
Today I rejoice that the saviour human history cannot generate has been given us. Faith in him, impossible for us to work up, is constantly given us. And the final, full manifestation of Christ’s kingdom will be given us as surely as our Lord has been raised from the dead.
I believe without hesitation or qualification or reservation, “born of the virgin Mary.”