The Birth of Christ (c. 1490), Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 34 x 25 cm, London, National Gallery
Stories of miracle births were common in the ancient world. According to Egyptian mythology, the goddess Isis miraculously conceived and gave birth to the falcon-headed god Horus. In ancient Greek mythology, Perseus was conceived when a childless princess named Danaë was impregnated by the god Zeus with a shower of gold. At the desert Oasis of Amen, it was revealed to Alexander the Great that he was the son of the god Amen-Ra. Demigods were a dime a dozen in antiquity.
The ancient Hebrews had their own stories of miracle births as well. Remember, Sara who gave birth to Isaac, even though she was barren and far beyond childbearing years? Samson and Samuel are two other examples of Jewish miracle babies. But there was something different, something special about the story of the baby born in Bethlehem. It’s such a familiar story that it’s easy to forget sometimes how difficult it was even for Joseph to believe.
The version of the nativity story most familiar is the one recited by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter two, and begins: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” It tells the story from the perspective of Mary. The lesser-known version comes from Matthew 1:18-25, our Gospel text for Sunday, and focuses on the experience of Joseph, who learned that Mary was expecting and knew he was not the father. Doubt, hurt, a sense of betrayal—he must have experienced all of these feelings as he considered what to do with his pregnant bride to be. Joseph faced a hard question, which must have caused serious soul searching: How could he be a parent to a child he did not father?
Joseph’s legal options put him in a difficult dilemma. Unlike modern engagements, betrothals in biblical times were legally binding marriage contracts and a betrothed couple was called husband and wife. If a woman who was betrothed became pregnant, the Mosaic Law offered only two options. If the fiancé was the father, he must marry his espoused wife as promised. If the baby wasn’t his, she must be stoned for adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deu. 22:22-24). At first neither option seemed acceptable. Joseph knew he wasn’t the father, so he didn’t want to go through with the wedding. The Romans, who were occupying the Holy Land, reserved capital punishment for themselves, so stoning wasn’t an option either. Joseph decided to divorce Mary privately and the Bible calls him “righteous” for it. In a dream an angel of the Lord convinced Joseph that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, “for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 1:20). To put it in street slang, God himself was the “babydaddy.”
Not only did Joseph take Mary as his wife in obedience to his angelic dream, he also refrained from sleeping with her until after she gave birth (Matt. 1:25). Both Mary and Joseph displayed the virtue of chastity. Chastity is a word that sounds so old fashioned today, like the name of a character in John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century classic Pilgrim’s Progress. Old fashioned or not, God cares about sexual purity. In our sexually permissive society, we need to be reminded that God designed sex first and foremost for procreation, not recreation.
God chose Mary to bear his only Son at least in part because she was sexually pure. One set-piece battle in the fundamentalist-modernist holy wars fought in the last century concerned the translation of a single word in the text: virgin. Matthew interprets this miracle birth as fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Isa. 7:14). The word translated “virgin” is almah in Hebrew, which simply means a “young woman.” The word “virgin” comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright explains, “there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did.” However the Hebrews understood its meaning in Isaiah, the word in the New Testament is “virgin” (Gk., parthenos). If you change the meaning of that word or turn the miracle into a metaphor, you make the Virgin Mary into a harlot.
You can’t prove the virgin birth. You can’t disprove it either. As with other mysteries of the faith, the proper response is belief. It’s the same with all profound truths. You can’t prove beauty or love or kindness, but you know these things exist once you’ve experienced them. It’s also the same with Jesus himself. You know he’s real once you’ve experienced him.
The great nineteenth-century preacher Phillips Brooks wrote the words to the familiar Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. I hope we will make the last verse our prayer:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!