It seems that Christmas and Easter are the two points in the Christian year where we are made most aware of the extent that we are prisoners of the Enlightenment! Resurrection and virgin birth – anyone would think that the key question to be asked is, “Do you believe in miracles, or don’t you?”
It’s as though Christian faith suddenly boils down, not to issues of commitment and discipleship, but to how our heads work. Is there room for the supernatural or isn’t there? And, if you think I’m exaggerating, note just how many Christian groups within the Church require assent to bodily resurrection and virgin birth as tenets of faith and the criteria by which they measure whether or not one can belong to them. Then, on the other “side” of the debate, look at how much time and energy and ink and thought is devoted to explaining how it is possible to hold to the historic creeds which affirm both resurrection and virgin birth, while not being required to commit what appears to be intellectual suicide. And lastly, look at how many ministers dread Easter and Christmas – because it apparently means entering the lions’ den of “did it happen?” and therefore requires incredible wisdom and care to find a form of words that is both sufficiently faithful and sufficiently non-committal to avoid offence!
The point is that the question of the historicity of miracles is a question that is shared by both sides of the argument. The “ground rules” are the same – it’s only the answers that differ. And those are the ground rules laid down by our post-enlightenment views of fact and truth. I am thankful in the extreme that both post-liberal and post-evangelical exegesis has broken out of the sterility of the old historical-critical paradigm and found new vistas. They challenge us with the important questions that have been marginalised for so long: not so much “What happened?” but “What does it mean?” Advent is, above all, a time of waiting on the latter answer: “What is the Truth of what happens at Christmas?”
Advent: learning the right questions
This week in Advent we enter into Mary’s time of waiting. It is hardly a peaceful time! The curtain opens on Mary, who is waiting to be married. She is a virgin. Let’s be clear: however we might legitimately translate the word parthenos as “young woman” (or even take it to refer to a widowed woman who had not remarried), Luke intends us to understand that Mary is a virgin. This, like Matthew’s, is a story of virgin birth. But the point is not to give us biological facts about Jesus: it is to explain the significance of this one who is to be born – and the fact that he is greater than his cousin, John the Baptist whose birth is also miraculous. Mary is told that she is about to conceive a son, whom she (rather than her husband-to-be) is to name Jesus – and do so now, during her time of waiting.
We need to understand that virginity, in her culture, was not something to be prized – certainly not to be perpetuated. Human beings were meant to breed – and do so fast enough to ensure the survival of the human race in the face of war, famine, disease and death. Virginity was therefore a sign of a waste of good breeding stock; it was valuable only to ensure that women weren’t “shop-soiled” before marriage, so that a man could be absolutely sure that any child was his and not someone else’s. What Mary is faced with is the choice of saying “yes” to a God who is doing something at least as shocking and offensive as it is miraculous: she is being asked to place herself in the most extreme place of social and economic vulnerability. This is a “yes” with an enormously high price tag! She is being asked to put her and her illegitimate child’s future on the line.
God, Mary and vulnerability
Let me say that I find convincing the arguments of the scholars who find in all the gospels clear traces of a widespread question mark over Jesus’ parentage. If I’m asked what I think actually happened, it seems to me clear that Jesus was Mary’s son and not Joseph’s. That, of course, is true on any reading of the infancy narratives (unless we are to think of Jesus as Joseph’s son, about whom theological stories are told): Jesus is a bastard. But what is the Truth of this angelic proposal? The Truth is twofold, and ties in with two of Luke’s important emphases. The first is that all that God is doing in Jesus happens on the margins. The Galilee is not the centre of events: Jerusalem, – and particularly the temple – is the centre. Jerusalem is the centre both of Jewish religious power and also the epicentre of Roman occupational power in the region. Now, in Nazareth, the birth of a king is announced, whose power, authority, message and kingdom will challenge the existing powers. But it is happening in political, religious, social and geographical obscurity. And it is certainly happening on the margins of respectability! The friend of sinners has much common cause with those whom he chooses as table companions!
The second is the vulnerability of God, which parallels the vulnerability of Mary. The question running through Luke’s narrative here at the beginning is, “Where will God find room in our world?” It is answered at the end, where Jesus is rejected and crucified: there is no room! In Luke’s gospel there is no one to shout for Jesus when Pilate is faced with calls for his murder. He asks, “What then shall I do with Jesus?” and they answer with a single voice: “Crucify him!” The way of Jesus Christ is the way of a God who is given no room in the world. That is what Jesus tells a would-be follower in Luke 9:58: “Even foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to call home”. The story of Jesus is of the God who comes to us but finds no room and no welcome, save on the margins of society and among those who are despised and rejected as sinners. No room – save in Mary’s womb. That is what Mary’s “Yes” means: “I will give you room, God!”
Son of David, Son of God (2 Samuel/Psalm 89)
The lectionary passages link Gabriel’s announcement about the royal status of the child with the Old Testament passages about the Davidic covenant. David is promised an enduring dynasty and perpetual kingdom, with his ancestors ruling from Jerusalem (2 Samuel 9: 9ff). Moreover, David and his descendants are called (derivatively), “sons of God” (v14). The Davidic dynasty lasted some 400 years, and then disappeared. In time, the longed for restoration of the Davidic monarchy became part of Israel’s hope and messianic expectation (cf Psalm 89).
What are we to learn to wait for in the coming messiah, Jesus, who is the king in David’s line and who will rule forever? Obviously, Luke (and the lectionary!) is reminding us that “one greater than David” is here. Jesus is not great because of his Davidic lineage: David is great because he is the ancestor of Jesus! This is why, when Jesus is questioned about the source of his authority (Luke 20: 2ff) he challenges them to recognise that he is greater than David because David worships Jesus (20:41-44). Jesus turns the significance of the relationship with David on its head: it is not that he should be regarded as David’s son, but as David’s lord (20:44).
Less obviously, we need to recognise the intensely politically charged implications of Gabriel’s announcement. If Jesus is the king who will rule from Jerusalem, what about the existing powers there – the powers of Herod, king of the Jews, and Rome? In other words, in the opening verses of the Jesus story, Luke highlights an element of his story that will be developed more fully and very carefully throughout the gospel: the way of Jesus Christ is a path that will lead to direct confrontation with the vested powers in Jerusalem. That is why he constructs his gospel using the device of the Lukan Travel Narrative (from 9:51 onwards). Jesus’ person and message of the kingdom is one that sets him on an inevitable collision course with the powers of his day, because his kingdom will prevail forever and ever. Both the impregnability of Roman power and the endurance of Jerusalem are myths that will be shattered in the near future. Jesus’ kingdom requires conflict with the powers because it is not a privatised, individualised, spiritualised and psychologised message of inner peace and private relationship with God: it is about a transformed world. And it is a transformation that begins with Good News to the very least (cf Luke 4: 16-21), just as it has begun in an obscure hamlet in the Galilee, heard first by a soon-to-be unmarried mother and then later by shepherds near Bethlehem.
Jesus – the man who is worthy of worship (Romans 16: 25-27)
I want to return to the Truth about Jesus that the virgin birth tells us in closing. It is clear that Luke intends his story to tell us two things: firstly, that Jesus of Nazareth was fully a human being! Luke traces his ancestry back to Adam, and has him (presumably) recorded in the census. This is no phantom, or heavenly apparition who appears in human guise as an “adult” messenger (as the biblical stories tell), but who spends the first nine months of his life in the womb. He has a human history from conception to death.
Yet is tells us something further. This human being, alone of any other, is to be offered worship. However special any other human being’s relationship is to God; whatever marvellous things God has done through any other human being, it is Jesus alone who can be appropriately worshipped.
This is why, for Paul, “the gospel is Jesus” (cf Romans 16:25)! God has come among us in Jesus in a way that has no parallel. “In him (Jesus) dwelt all the fullness of the godhead bodily”, says Paul in another passage (Colossians 2:9). Jesus the man becomes the ultimate revelation of God – and reveals God as the destiny not only of the Jews but of the Gentiles too (Romans 16:26). That is why Paul can write to the Philippians that it is at the name of Jesus that every knee on earth, in earth and under the earth will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2: 10-11).
The Jesus for whom we wait with Mary, and prepare him heart room as Mary gave him womb space, is not just a man of God. He is not just the son of God derivatively. He is the Son of God – God as a man – to be worshiped, adored and followed. He is the Lord – David’s Lord, Paul’s Lord and ours.