Sex and Christmas
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
BCP Collect for Christmas Day
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.
Why was Jesus ‘born of a virgin’? Isn’t this the unnecessary miracle, simply coming from an embarrassment at - ahem, let’s face it - sex? Couldn’t theologians simply discount at least this one as a pious invention of the gospel authors who were simply too shocked by the thought that ordinary human bedroom activity could have been involved?
Some critics of Christianity, Anglicanism’s very own Bishop Spong among them, have said that, blinded by his blushes, Matthew simply mis-translated or over-translated the Hebrew word from the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 which can mean either ‘virgin’ or ‘young woman’. This fails to see how the NT’s reading of Old Testament prophecy works. It doesn’t treat the Old Testament as a dot-to-dot picture which it is simply colouring in. In addition, it is likely that ‘virgin’ and ‘young woman’ were so closely associated in the ancient mind as to be tantamount to the same thing.
The Bible isn’t, however, coy about the messy details of human reproduction as an instrument of God’s purposes. For one thing, it is filled with genealogies. For genealogies you need to have sexual intercourse (sorry to break it to you). That’s key to the working out of the promises of God in the whole Bible. Think of Abraham and Sarah, those old fogeys who produced a child in their old age. Some of the pages of the Bible contain adult themes!
So horror or embarrassment at the sexual particulars of the birth of the Messiah does not drive the evangelists.
No: something far more theologically significant is communicated by these accounts. Firstly, they are saying that the birth of Jesus is something God has brought about. This is a specific and unique divine work in human history. And it is (second) a decisive one: this is not just a stage on the way to another, later and better thing that God will do. - Jesus is not a development from anything or anyone who has gone before. He is an intrusion of God into our affairs. He is an eruption of God into the plight of humankind. Sure, humankind is involved, in that Jesus inherits the substance of flesh - the DNA etc - from Mary, but only in the most passive and receptive way “not by a husband’s will” as John says in his gospel, ‘but by the will of God’.
As they said at the wedding at Cana: ‘the best has been left till now!’
But third, the virgin birth is a sign of God’s judgement on human nature. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth said: ‘human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ’. Not education, not decision or desire, not civilisation, not evolution - nothing could procure from among our own ranks a worthy saviour. Our plight was desperate. In our very bones we carried about our own doom.
The virgin birth also tells us, fourth, that Jesus is the true Son of God. The angel says to Mary: ‘he will be called Son of God’. We must be careful, how we think of this. This is not the pagan model of divine parenting, with Zeus turning into a swan to have his way with Leda and so give birth to the beautiful Helen (of Troy). What is not being suggested by the Bible is some kind of paternity of the Holy Spirit, or that Jesus was conceived through some sexual union between Mary and the deity. The human nature of Jesus was created by the Holy Spirit – in parallel with the creation of the world. It is an of creation, not of reproduction.
This baby does not somehow earn the right to be called the Son of God later in life - he has left the side of the Father in heaven and taken on human flesh. He is already the Son of God - who was in the beginning with God.
And so, fifth: Jesus comes in the likeness of sinful flesh, but does not share in our sinfulness. “Therefore the child to be born will be holy” says Gabriel. Jesus had no part in the terrible inheritance of sinfulness passed down from generation to generation since Adam.
He avoids human sin not because Mary was sinless; in fact, Mary was as sinful as any human being. Any glory given to her only detracts from that given to the only truly worthy object of our worship - the one to whom she gave birth! Thank her indeed, but to adore her is problematic to put it mildly, whatever the good intentions of those that do so.
Nor does he escape sin because sex was avoided, as if sex was somehow a contaminating factor itself. It is because Jesus’ humanity is a creation of God by the Holy Spirit, and not a product of human sexual intercourse. It wasn’t the sex that was the problem in itself - it was that it was human and thus, like all human activity, tainted by sin.
In Jesus God performed a true miracle: he made possible the impossible rescue of sinful humanity. Jesus’ very birth - a virgin birth - shows us the power of the Most High God at work to make holy unholy humanity. Only from outside fallen human life could our redemption come; only from outside our sphere could the guilt of sin be made good; only from outside human existence could victory over death be won; only with God could these impossible things be gloriously done. The circumstances of his birth are indeed no skeleton in the family closet - but an indication of the glory of what occurred in Him.
[NB - I have prepared this piece from some material that I have been using in various settings for a number of years. I have checked, but it maybe that parts of what is written above are directly copied from other authors, and in the process of shaping and reshaping the material for use in oral settings, the attributions have become lost. I certainly am indebted to TF Torrance and Karl Barth here, among others.]