In earlier traditions, a virgin birth commonly signaled the entrance of a divine human.
For the author of the gospel of Matthew, after explaining that Jesus was fathered by God in spirit form, the writer associated the birth with a prophecy in Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), and I quote: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet (Isaiah): ‘The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
These gospel writers referenced a Greek translation of Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint) in which the Greek word Parthenos, associated with the virgin goddess Athena, was used for the Hebrew word Almah, which describes a young woman of marriageable age or a young woman full of vigor.
Because early church patriarchs translated almah as sexually chaste, we to this day so associate holiness with chastity that we continue to shame a beautiful aspect of human nature. We have so associated holiness with chastity that to introduce the possibility that Jesus himself could have been married and have been a father is tantamount to blasphemy in certain circles.
Even so, the mythological formula of a sexually chaste woman, impregnated by God, giving birth to a God-person who changes history appeals to the imagination and to the heart. Since taking root in Christianity, the story of the Virgin Mary, impregnated by God in Spirit form, giving birth to the baby Jesus amidst signs and wonders, has become one of the most celebrated and cherished stories in the Christian Bible.
In review, we began with the magi, Gentile scientists who obeyed inspiration, presented in a manner which they could accept. Theirs is a story of that higher idea which already exists for each of us, if we will but lift our eyes high enough over the horizon of current circumstance to see it.
And then we continued with the shepherds. Jewish peasants quietly tending their sheep in the local hills. They obeyed the call of the angels – they obeyed inspiration, again presented in a matter which they could accept. Theirs is a story of that higher idea which already exists for each of us, if we will but find enough stillness to hear it.
These stories endured because both the magi and the shepherds demonstrated obedience to inspiration – inspiration presented in a manner which each could accept - and the courage to navigate the inevitable fears of following that inspiration.
Isn’t it a wonderful attribute of God-ness that inspiration comes to the Jew and to the Christian and to the Buddhist and to the naturist and to the Taoist and to the Confucian and yes, to the agnostic and atheist as well, in a manner which each can accept?
And it’s at this juncture that our story presents Mary, an underage, unmarried peasant girl to whom an angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; the holy offspring to be born of you will be called Son of God.” And she replies, “Let it be. Let it be.”
I love it that Mary was ill-prepared and ill-equipped, for while we tend to reject these as deficits to be overcome, I would suggest that this narrative extends them as necessities to be embraced. I would suggest that these are powerful positions for transformation, for it is only when we recognize our ego selves are ill-prepared and ill-equipped that our spiritual selves are freed to step into to those resources which transcend our own.
So in a world marked with greed and all that greed begets – selfishness, inequity, oppression and cruelty – an angel announced a pregnancy, which symbolized a higher idea for nothing short of a new world order. Taken together, it could be said that these are stories of availability, obedience, courage and willingness to step into the thing.
So, whether we consider the prophecy of Isaiah or the story of Matthew, there is a common thread: both are tales of a hopeful triumph amidst a daunting circumstance, both are tales of a profound light amidst a lingering darkness.
What happened in Bethlehem is what happens in us today. For even now the angel whispers, and our souls - like Mary’s - are called to step into the thing. May we have the courage to heed her example by saying, “Let it be. Let it be.”