A Sermon on the Feast of the Annunciation
It is an odd fact of the liturgical calendar that just one week before we commemorate the death of Jesus, the church invites us to contemplate his conception in the womb of Mary! That is, of course, because we are now nine months away from Christmas.
sure you’ve heard many sermons – some even from me – about Mary’s vital role in
the birth of the Saviour. So, I want to
offer you something new to think about, this year. I’d like to focus on the thorny question of
the virgin birth, itself.
may interest you to know that virginal conceptions were nothing new – at least
not to the people who wrote and read the Scriptures for the first time. There were Jewish legends suggesting that
great patriarchs of the faith, like Noah and Moses were also conceived in
virgin wombs. In other regional religions,
it was a common theme, too.
evidence for Jesus’ own virgin conception is pretty scant, no matter how often
we’ve heard the passage read at Christmas.
The concept of Mary’s virginity doesn’t appear in any of the earliest
Christian writings. St Paul does not
refer to it at all, and neither does Mark (the first of the Gospel
writers). It just wasn’t important to
them, nor necessary to their belief in Jesus as Messiah. Actually, the idea is only found in Luke and
Matthew – both of which were written towards the end of the first century (as
much as 100 years from the events they are describing). And, I find it
fascinating that Matthew substantiates his
claim to the idea by entirely mis-quoting a verse from Isaiah chapter 7. You know – the one about ‘a virgin shall
conceive and bear a child, and you shall call him Emmanuel’. Closer study of
that particular text, which Matthew quotes, quickly demonstrates that Isaiah
was addressing another circumstance altogether.
And, Isaiah didn’t actually refer to a virgin at all, but rather to a ‘young
why are Matthew and Luke so keen to build a virgin birth into their Gospel
you see, virginal conception mattered to the ancient mind, because they didn’t
understand (as we now do) the biological mechanism of conception. Our ancestors didn’t yet understand that the
creation of life is a joint endeavour, biologically speaking. So, if you want to claim that a certain
famous man was actually a son of God, you needed to show how God planted his
seed into the Mother’s womb. And she
needed to be a virgin – so that there could be no doubt. The only way to be certain that a baby was a
son of God was to emphasise the virginity of the mother.
reality is that, despite the tradition of the church, modern scholars agree
that the evidence of Jesus’ own virgin conception is flimsy, at best. But it has nevertheless persisted as a way of
understanding that Jesus was both fully human AND fully divine. Mary offers her own genetic material to the baby. She provides the humanity. God provides the divinity.
(Theological nerds beware, however;
the idea of co-mingling humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus strays
into the heretical territory of ‘monophysitism’ which was condemned by the
Council of Chalcedon. Orthodox teaching
is that Jesus was, mysteriously, both fully God and fully human at the same
time, without any mingling of his two natures whatsoever). Quite how that works, practically speaking,
is one of the great ‘mysteries’ of theology.
We believe something to be true, even though we have no idea, with our
limited brains, how it could be true!
what if the virgin birth turns out to be as flimsy an idea as many scholars
believe? Does the possibility that Jesus
was ‘just a man’ destroy our faith? Not
at all! In fact, I would argue that the
idea of Jesus’ complete humanity offers us even greater hope, even greater
assurance of the most important aspects of our faith.
might recall that Jesus preferred to describe himself as ‘the Son of Man’. To our knowledge, he never spelled out why he
preferred this description to, for example, ‘son of God’. Could it be that this Jesus whom we call
Lord, was just one of us? That he didn’t have a divine advantage,
conferred on him by a miraculous birth? After
all, how many times have we said to ourselves, ‘it was all very well for Jesus
to be holy: he was God’.
let’s imagine that he managed to achieve all that he did, hold all the wisdom
that he had, demonstrate the power that he held within, whilst being purely and
only a human being? Could it be that a
man, only a man, was tempted in every
way that we are and yet lived without sin?
Could it be that a man, only a man, rose from the dead? Could it be that Jesus, a human being,
managed to attain such a level of awareness of the presence of God that he
could say, with his hand on his heart, that he and the Father were one, whilst
at the same time chastising anyone who suggested that he was also God? (cf John
10.30 and Mark 10.18)
that were true, what might that say for our
potential? Could it be that we too have the same capacity, the same potential, to become fully developed, fully
wise, complete and eternal human beings, who are capable of also living lives
that can change the world? Could it be
that Jesus, our brother (as St Paul calls him) is showing us the truly awesome
potential of an entirely human life
lived completely, utterly, and without reserve in the pursuit of God? Could Jesus’ life actually be our life too? Could it be that the image of the Trinity is
given to us so that we can know it is possible for a human being – any human being, even me – to attain
complete union with God.
do not want to tell you what to believe.
You are perfectly welcome to go on believing in the virgin conception of
Jesus if you wish. Ultimately, it makes
little difference, either way, to the decision that we all have to make about
life. Each of us must decide whether we choose to call Jesus our Lord, and our
guide to the Way. If it helps you to believe that Jesus accomplished
all he did because he had a direct helping hand in his biology, then so be
as for me – I’m prefer to focus on the essential humanity of Jesus. Because
recognising Jesus as the Son of Man,
(as well, of course as the Son of Woman)
gives me hope. It gives me the hope that
if I keep striving, and keep running the race that is before me, I too might
one day attain the prize of living a fully realised human life, with all its
potential. It gives me hope that I too,
by God’s grace, might be caught up in the presence and reality of the Divine