Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25
“Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel” which means God is with us. Matthew 1:23.
The Vicar of Dibley was checking out a prospective boyfriend. She asked whether he was a regular church attendee and he replied that he was a C and E kind of person. The vicar was getting very excited about his potential and chipped in, “You mean C of E (Church of England)?” But the man replied “No, Christmas and Easter”.
I always find preaching on Christmas day or Easter Sunday more challenging than other Sundays because the congregation is made up of the usual Sunday worshippers plus people who only came to church at Christmas or Easter. The expectation for many preachers is that they will preach to the unconverted rather than to the converted, to produce a message targeting a wider audience than the faithful. On such occasions I have always sought to speak meaningfully to everyone but the fear is that I could end up speaking to no one. Who really knows why people turn up to church at Christmas? There are many reasons. The story of the birth of Jesus is but one of the many stories that make up the meaning of Christmas for people along with Santa Claus, giving, presents, Christmas lights, food, snow, heat, alcohol, fights, loneliness etc.
This year I don’t have to worry about that as I am not speaking on Christmas day or Christmas Eve. I don’t have to worry that my message is making no sense to the C and Es (Christmas and Easters) so I am going to talk about the virgin birth. How you may ask has that got anything to do with our lives? I’m not sure that it does.
This is the fourth Sunday in Advent and the focus reading for today is Luke 1:26-38 the story foretelling Jesus’ birth. An angel, Gabriel, comes to visit a virgin who was engaged to a man called Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel said to her, “Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you.” You will conceive in your womb and bear a son who will be called the Son of the most high and his kingdom will have no end. Mary asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel continued, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be holy, he will be called the son of God.” Mary responded, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
Matthew’s Gospel also tells the story of the foretelling of the birth of Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25 – But before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. An angel appeared to Joseph and said, “Don’t be afraid to marry Mary for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,” which means God with us. The story says that Joseph did as he was told and had no sexual relations with Mary until she had born a son and he named him Jesus.
Luke and Matthew seem to want to emphasise the non sexual origins of Jesus and the virginity of Mary whereas this is not important to John or Mark in their Gospels. Why the fuss over the virginity of Mary? Were these non-sexual origins written back into these Gospels for a reason by the early church to perhaps to emphasise that Jesus was both human and divine, the child of a male God and a female human – The male giver and the female receiver. In a patriarchal church worshipping a male God, Mary has been held up as the counter balance, a feminine heroine, a role model. Thus the rise of Mariology in the Roman Catholic Church, to help find a place for women in the church. Dogmatic tradition likes to emphasise the virgin birth. But it is not Mary who is venerated but her virginity rendering her womb as just a vessel rather than her as a willing collaborator. Where did the idea come from? From Greek/Roman mythology? When we talk of Jesus being born of a virgin, are we looking for a pure, sinless person? Are we saying that someone who has not had sex is not sinful?
So what can we get from those readings that might help us in the living of life today? It is hard to get one’s head around them. Does it really matter whether or not we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? What difference does it make to who Jesus was and is? Does a virgin birth make Jesus more human or more divine?
While both Luke and Matthew seem to stress the virginity of Mary and the lack of sex in the conception of Jesus, Mark and John have no interest in the birth of Jesus at all. Mark’s Gospel starts… The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God and Mark begins with the proclamation of John the Baptist. John’s Gospel starts… In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Paul doesn’t mention it in his letters. For Mark the beginning occurs in the wilderness, for John the beginning is eternal. The Word was always there. Jesus doesn’t begin with a sperm but has been there from all time. In the birth of Jesus the Word is made flesh.
Born from the Spirit as well as born from Mary. But alongside the emphasis on the virginal status of Mary both Luke and Matthew speak of the Holy Spirit. Matthew says… she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit and a second time says… the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Luke says the Holy Spirit will come upon you…
In John the virgin birth is not mentioned but birth from the Spirit is. John 1 says that the Word born as a child of God through the spirit gave power to others to become children of God – children who were born not of flesh and blood but of God. John 3 speaks about being born from above or being born again, a second time, a spiritual birth. For John it is not Christ’s birth that is important but our being born of God, being born from above.
So what can I say that may be helpful to both regular attendees and C and Es?
1. Christmas is about giving – giving birth
Just as Mary was willing to collaborate with the Holy Spirit in giving birth to Christ as the son of God, so our collaboration with the Holy Spirit not only enables us to become children of God but also to be collaborators with the Holy Spirit in the rebirth of the whole creation; collaborating in giving birth to God’s life in the present world, in the present age, in the present moment.
2. Christmas is about presents – being present – the present of presence
The greatest present you can give anyone is your presence, being present.
The greatest gift you can give the world is yourself, wholly, fully, attentive.
Imagine giving everyone your full undivided attention. Imagine listening to what the other was saying without formulating in one’s mind what one’s answer or response was going to be. Imagine responding with questions of interest and inquiry rather than answers.
In the Gospel stories I can imagine the sense of presence that people felt by Jesus being present to them when they encountered him in their lives.
Reflecting on the angel’s comforting words to Mary, ‘The Lord is with you.’ Perhaps we could pray, ‘May I be with you. May my words, my thoughts, my deeds be with you, now at this present moment and at the hour of my (your) death.
(This talk drew heavily on Jurgen Moltmann’s book ‘The way of Jesus Christ’ SCM Books)