Conceived by the Holy Spirit . . . A Reflection

The Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent is Matthew 1:18-25. Here we read of the angel's appearance to Joseph, letting him know that the child Mary, his betrothed, is carrying, is of the Holy Spirit. This fulfills the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,    and they shall name him Emmanuel." The promise fulfilled by this child comes from Isaiah 7:14. If you read Isaiah 7 in the NRSV or the CEB, you will see "young woman." Why the discrepancy? Because Matthew was reading Isaiah in the Greek, which used the word for virgin, even if the Hebrew in Isaiah 7 is better translated simply as young woman.  That's an issue of biblical interpretation. But what about theological confession?

While my denominational tradition is non-creedal, and we don't recite the Apostles Creed, the majority of the Christian world does recite the creeds, and thus affirm in one form or another the statement about Jesus:  " I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary," For at least some modern Christians this is simply nonsense. It must be a myth, so why say the words? It's just a relic of a distant past, when people still believed in a three-storied world. That may be true, in a fashion, and yet is there something of value to be heard in this confession?

Karl Barth is one who believes this to be true. Since I like Barth, and find him intriguing, I appreciate his words of wisdom. He answers the question of whether we should believe this statement with a firm and joyful yes. He writes in the Dogmatics in Outline:

If we wish to understand the meaning of "conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary," above all we must try to see that these two remarkable pronouncements assert that God of free grace became man, a real man. The eternal Word became flesh. This is the miracle of Jesus Christ's existence, this descent of God, from above downwards---the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary. This is the mystery of Christmas, of the Incarnation. At this part of the Confession that the Catholic Church makes the sing of the Cross. And in most various settings composers have attempted to reproduce this et incarnatus est. This miracle we celebrate annually, when we celebrate Christmas.

If I to grasp this miracle should will,
So stands my spirit reverently still.

Such in nuce is God's revelation; we can only grasp it, only hear it as the beginning of all things.  [Dogmatics in Outline, p. 96]
 It is something of a mystery, and it requires of us to let go of some of our scientific rigor. It doesn't mean entering an irrational world, but it does involve recognizing that there are somethings that science simply can't explain, nor can reason. We must instead respond in faith, recognizing that the confession invites us to affirm that God is with us in Christ. This is the message of Christmas. Remember that the Creed also invites us to affirm the premise that Christ is fully God and fully human. Thus the mystery of faith! 


John said…
" I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary," Is not problematic for me. It affirms the unique connection between the Creator God and Jesus of Nazareth and it affirms several aspects about th relationship between the very human Mary and the divine nature of Jesus. I doubt most people consider these matters in any depth, but those who embrace the credal formula grasp these connections on an instinctive level.

We cannot comprehend the nature of the Creator, nor can we comprehend the details of the connection between Jesus and the Creator - but we know it is unique, and we know it is intimate, and we know Jesus called the Creator "Father." And in calling out to the Creator in this fashion Jesus claimed a special kind of uniqueness, and signaled that received a special kind of affirmation, the kind of affirmation which, in human experience at least, we know only a parent can communicate to a child. So while on an experiential level the 'father/son' relationship is too mystical to accept, on an imaginative level it makes sense - perfectly.

As for the connection between Jesus earthly mother and the divinity manifested in both Jesus and the Creator, there seems little better expression than to say that Jesus was "conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." This expresses the very human act of childbirth, while signaling the unfolding of divine activity in the world. Of course children receive their DNA from a human mother and a human father. Even his contemporaries were aware of this. But there was the need to explain the uniqueness of Jesus. So the affirmation of the participation of God in his birth and the denial of a human father continually reminds us that Jesus was not a normal human being, born simply of peasant parents in Palestine. Nor was his chosen-ness random, Jesus was intended by God as an incarnational event. And Mary's alleged virginal nature is also critical to the formula. She may or may not have been an actual virgin - the truth being expressed is at least two-fold: Jesus' birth was a fulfillment of the promises of God in scripture, and, more importantly to me, the. Pain of virginity emphasizes the assertion that the Creator, the only one who matters, deemed that she was worthy of bearing the incarnation. Nothing in her was deemed "unclean" by God - not her womanhood, not her station in life, and not any of her life choices before she conceived Jesus. This metaphorical purity was acquired by her through her trust in the will of God to guide and guard her life. She had faith, and her faith was indeed enough. This 'virginal' status is available to each and everyone of us provided we can learn to trust in the presence of God in our lives.

So I have no problem with this formula - heretic though I may be.

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