I recently finished reading a book called Beyond Belief: How we find meaning, with or without religion (Macmillan, 2016). In it, author and social researcher Hugh Mackay reflects the way that many Australians look for meaning and spiritual growth in their lives outside of mainstream Christian churches. One thing he says in the book is that it is unreasonable for people to believe in the claims of traditional Christianity that Jesus was born of a virgin and was raised from the dead. He writes, ‘for me, the whole edifice of Christianity would crumble if the idea of a literal virgin birth were to be regarded as its crucial foundation’ (p223).
As we approach Christmas, it becomes important for us to think through the claim of the virgin birth and whether it actually makes any difference. If the claim of the virgin birth is not to be taken literally, then we are left with a Jesus who was like many others who taught how we are to live our lives. He might teach us how to live, but is not able to help us when we are unable to live the way we are supposed.
If, however, we take literally this story of the angel’s assurance to Joseph that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, then everything changes. Jesus is no longer a moral teacher who tells me how to live but is unable to help me in my need. Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to state that Jesus’ biological father was actually God. If we understand the virgin birth literally, then Jesus is the embodied, flesh and blood presence of God with humanity. God enters into our existence through the person of Jesus to share with our joys and struggles, our successes and our failures. He brings with him the blessings that come with the full goodness of God in a human body. That is what ‘Incarnate’ means: Jesus is God who comes to us as a real, flesh and blood person to enter into our reality and bring God’s life-giving presence to us in all of life’s circumstances.
We can think of it like this: During my years serving as a school pastor I taught Christian Studies. When students were struggling to complete a task, if I stood at the front of the classroom and told them what to do, they still found it difficult to solve the problem. However, if I got out from behind the desk, went to where they were and got alongside them, we were able to solve the problem together. In the person of Jesus, God doesn’t stay in heaven and tell us what we need to do to live in ways that are good for us and for each other. Instead, God moves to where we are, joins us in our lives, embraces us in our humanity, walks with us through the ups and downs of life, and gives us what we need to live in the peace, joy, hope and love that we celebrate at Christmas.
Because Jesus is God, he is not limited by time and space. That is why we don’t just celebrate the coming of Jesus two thousand years ago, but that he continues to come to us as a real, flesh and blood person to embrace us in our lives, no matter what might be happening in our lives. We are never alone because Jesus is God with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gives himself to us and becomes one with us as he takes away our guilt, shame and brokenness and gives us forgiveness, healing and new life as his people. It may not feel like it sometimes, but the promise of the angel to Joseph is also God’s promise to us: in Jesus, God is with us in all the circumstances of life, and he will never let us go.
One final aspect of the idea of the Incarnation is that God continues to enter into the world to bring his peace, joy, hope and love to the world in real, flesh and blood ways. When the Apostle Paul describes believers in Jesus as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), he isn’t just using a nice metaphor or image. Because Jesus comes to us as a real, flesh and blood person, and makes himself one with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus takes on our flesh and blood and enters the world through us. As the living and breathing, flesh and blood body of Jesus in the world, God enters the world through us as we live as Jesus’ followers in faith and in love. Growing as Jesus’ disciples and following him in all we say and do becomes so critically important because as we grow as children of God and followers of Jesus, Jesus enters the world to continue his work of redeeming and renewing the world through us. In a way, we become little Marys as Christ enters the world to bring grace, love and hope through our words and actions, through our relationships and callings in life.
I can understand Hugh Mackay’s difficulty in accepting the claims of Jesus’ virgin birth. From a human point of view, it doesn’t make sense. However, if decide that we can’t take it literally, then Jesus just becomes another moral teacher who can tell me what I should be doing but who can’t help me when I need it. When we embrace the mystery of the virgin birth and enter into it through faith, then God is with us in a real, flesh and blood way through Jesus. God embraces us and gives us what we need to live in hope, peace, joy and love with a life that is even stronger than death. When we embrace this mystery through faith, then we find that Jesus isn’t just ‘God with us’ in the stories of the past. Instead, God is with us right here and now to give us hope, peace, joy and love in all the circumstances of life, and God is with others through us.
More to think about:
- Do you find it easy or difficult to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Can you explain why you think that way?
- Do you tend to think of Jesus more as a moral teacher or as someone who came to save those who couldn’t live up to his moral teachings? Do you think it is possible to someone to live up to Jesus’ ethical & moral standards? (If you’re not sure what Jesus standards were, read Matthew chapters 5 to 7 – his Sermon on the Mount)
- When we look at a baby, we can see a person who is helpless, dependent on others, and who has no control, either of things around them or even their own bodies. How might this be good news for us – that when we are helpless, dependent or out of control, God is with us in the infant Jesus?
- If we take the incarnation (God embracing humanity as a real, flesh & blood person) literally, how might that shape the way you think of your relationship God? With others? With your congregation’s relationship with the community around you?
- What are some ways in which God can enter into the lives of the people you will see this Christmas to give them his hope, peace, joy and love through your words and actions?