The Virgin and the King

Elvis Nabbed In Poughkeepsie Soup Kitchen. Warns cops: Don’t step on my blue suede shoes! —Recent headline seen in the National Disquieter

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be frightened, Mary,” the angel told her, “for God has decided to bless you! You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
Mary asked the angel, “But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin.”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s already in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true.” And the angel left. —Luke 1:26-38, NLT

elvisImmaculate conception (see comments). Virgin birth. Angelic visitations. As far-out beliefs go, these rank right up there with Elvis sightings and alien abductions.

Both Time and Newsweek have rolled out skeptical, one-sided cover stories suggesting that you have to be naïve, at best, to take the Christmas story literally. In a multi-part examination of the Newsweek story called The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?, Mark D Roberts cites a number of scholars who think the New Testament account is credible.

But to be fair about it, the Christmas story is a whale of a tale. No other religion makes the audacious claims that Christianity makes about Jesus.

The story starts with Joseph and Mary, a young, Jewish couple who are engaged to be married. Adhering to the traditional laws of tzniut (modesty in dress and behavior), they will have no physical contact with each other—no sex, no kissing, no hand-holding, nothing—until they are married. Among some modern Jews, tzniut has come back in vogue as a symbol of dedication to God and as an alternative to the free-for-all ethic of meaningless hook-ups, co-habitation, and post-modern sexual permissiveness.

When Mary is informed that she is about to become pregnant, she understands something not made explicit in the text—the angel is not foretelling a distant-future event, something to look forward to after she and Joseph have said their wedding vows. What the angel proposes is very close at hand.

Mary, who understands her own body and the moral code she and Joseph live by, naturally asks the question, “But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin.”

It is possible that Mary is being coy. It is possible that Mary is already very popular with the boys. The trouble with this possibility is that there is never a hint of it in any of the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Nazareth was a small and highly conservative town. If Mary had become pregnant out of wedlock, news would have spread like wildfire. Once Jesus became a public figure, word of his mother’s indiscretion would surely have reached his enemies. They would have been delighted to use this information to discredit his ministry. A bastard rabbi calling himself the Anointed One of God? That would have made for some juicy headlines in Jerusalem.

Worse yet, there was Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s husband was a priest, and the son she carried would become John the Baptist, the fiery wilderness preacher who called Israel to repentance.

Is it likely that John the Baptist—who so fearlessly taunted Herod about his own adultery that Herod had him jailed—would have supported Jesus’ ministry if he’d had any suspicions about Mary’s sexual purity?

To call the Old Testament sexual laws harsh is an understatement. Deuteronomy 22 states that if a woman cannot be proved to be a virgin on her wedding night, she is to be stoned to death. If an engaged woman takes a lover, both the woman and her lover are to be put to death.

Deuteronomy 23:2 is right on point:

Those of illegitimate birth and their descendants for ten generations may not be included in the assembly of the Lord. (NLT)

In the highly legalistic culture that was first century Israel, it seems extremely unlikely that Jesus could have survived even a hint of disgrace about his paternity.

If you can’t accept the virgin birth, none of the other claims about Jesus are any easier to swallow—in fact, none of them make much sense unless you begin with a grand, eye-popping miracle right off the bat. The Apostle John says this about Jesus:

In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God. He was in the beginning with God. He created everything there is. Nothing exists that he didn’t make. Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. … So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. —John 1:1-4,14, (NLT)

God becomes human by conceiving himself in an innocent virgin. For a headline like that, the editor of the National Disquieter would probably sell his mother!

Whether you believe it or not, that’s the Christmas story: Jesus Christ, Savior, Messiah, came into the world as a helpless infant and suckled at his mother’s breast. Makes your average Elvis sighting look pretty tame by comparison, doesn’t it?

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  1. good thoughts, Charlie. but could you please clarify? a lot of people think that the phrase ‘immaculate conception’ refers to Jesus’ conception, but it is actually an extrabiblical Roman Catholic doctrine describing the conception of Mary as miraculously sinless.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Joy. You are right that I have made an error by conflating the Virgin Birth with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Pius IX in 1854 clarified the Roman Catholic position on this matter in his Bull Ineffabilis:

    “We declare … that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God … was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”

    My view, which is the generally-accepted Protestant view, is that Mary was a fallen sinner like all of us, born in the normal human way. She was devoted to God and chosen by God for reasons known only to him.

  3. I always wondered if God really did that for Mary, then why Jesus? Why not just do it for everyone? Hmmm… Do you have to ask those kind of questions they said as they led me away?

  4. Catholics believe Mary sinned, but they don’t believe she had original sin, which itself isn’t exactly what Protestants mean by the term.

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