“Do you believe in the virgin birth?” That was the question people asked one another when I was a boy growing up in that Southern Baptist dominated land called Texas. It was the question because how you answered would indicate who you were, what you believed, as well as where you stood in the world. If you expressed any doubts about the birth of Jesus by a virgin, you were identified as one of those liberals that did not believe that the Bible was inspired. That is to put the matter in too general terms. It was not that you not only failed to believe the Bible was inspired, but you refused to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired.
Refusal to believe in the virgin birth also entailed ethical and political implications. If you did not believe in the virgin birth, you were probably a person of loose morals which meant you also wanted to destroy everything we hold dear as Americans. In particular, if you did not believe in the virgin birth, it was assumed you did not believe in the sacredness of the family and, if you did not believe in the sacredness of the family, it meant you were an enemy of the democratic way of life. In short, a failure to believe in the virgin birth was a sure indication that you were a person not to be trusted.
One of the anomalies – at least, what I take to be an anomaly – of this use of the virgin birth to determine one’s standing in the world is those that used the virgin birth as the test case for moral rectitude often seemed to forget who it was that was the virgin. What was crucial for those that used the virgin birth in the manner I am describing is what seemed to matter to them was some woman that was a virgin had given birth. It did not seem to matter if Mary was the one that had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit.
But Isaiah does not say that “a” virgin or young woman will bear a child. Isaiah says “the” young woman will bear a child (Isaiah 7:10-16). “The” is a definite article indicating that not anyone would give birth and still be a virgin, but someone in particular would be a virgin mother. We did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the mother of Jesus, but we knew it would be a “the.” Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry Jesus would be named “Mary.”
That “the” made all the difference for how the church fathers read this text. For them what was significant was that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the virgin. An indication of how important her singularity was regarded is that at Council of Ephesus in 431 she was given the name “Mary, the Mother of God.” That title meant that Mary is not a replaceable instrument in the economy of God’s salvation. Rather she is constitutive of God’s very life making it impossible to say God without also saying Mary.
Such a view of Mary, a view held throughout the Christian tradition, was not how those that used the virgin birth as a test understood matters. They had a high view of virginity, but a low view of Mary. They had a low view of Mary because the last thing they wanted was to be identified with the Roman Catholics. Roman Catholics even seemed to think you could pray to Mary. Those whose focus was primarily on the virgin birth assumed that such a prayer bordered on being idolatrous.
Those that used the virgin birth as a test to determine your character were and continue to be identified as people who are theologically and politically conservative. In general, that assumption is probably true. I think, however, this way of thinking about Christianity can also be found among those who represent more liberal theological and political positions. Conservatives and liberals alike assume that any account of Christianity that can pass muster in our time will be one in which the Christian faith is understood to be a set of strongly held ideas. Conservatives have the virgin birth and satisfaction theories of the atonement. Liberals have love and justice. Conservatives and liberals understand the Christian faith as a set of ideas because, so understood, Christianity seems to be a set of beliefs assessable to anyone upon reflection.
But then there is Mary. She is not just another young Jewish woman. She is the betrothed to Joseph. She has known no man yet she carries a child having been impregnated by the Holy Spirit. In Luke, we have her annunciation in which her “let it be” indicates her willingness to be the mother of the Son of God (Luke 1:38). In Matthew, we have the annunciation of Joseph who is told to take Mary for his wife and he faithfully does so (Matthew 1:16-18). Accordingly, Joseph is given the task of naming Mary’s baby. He names him Jesus, Emmanuel, because this child is the long awaited sign that “God is with us.” The son of David, the King of Israel, has been conceived and born.
Mary and Joseph are not ideas. They are real people who made decisions on which our faith depends. Christianity is not a timeless set of ideas. Christianity is not some ideal toward which we ought always to strive even though the ideal is out of reach. Christianity is not a series of slogans that sum up our beliefs. Slogans such as “justification by grace through faith” can be useful if you do not forget it is a slogan. But Christianity cannot be so easily “summed up” even by the best of slogans or ideas. It cannot be summed up because our faith depends on a young Jewish mother called Mary.
Mary and Joseph are real people who had to make decisions that determined the destiny of the world. Isaiah had foretold that a Mary would come, but we had no idea what Isaiah’s prophecy meant until Mary became the Mother of God. This is no myth. These are people caught up in God’s care of his people through the faithfulness of the most unlikely people. They are unlikely people with names as common as Mary and Joseph, but because of their faithfulness our salvation now depends on acknowledging those names.
This is the last Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time the church has given us in the hope we can learn to wait. To learn to wait is to learn how to recognize we are creatures of time. Time is a gift and a threat. Time is a gift and a threat because we are bodily creatures. We only come into existence through the bodies of others, but that very body destines us to death. We must be born and we must die. Birth and death are the brass tacks of life that make possible and necessary the storied character of our lives. It is never a question whether our lives will be storied, but the only question is which stories will determine our living in and through time.
Stories come in all shape and sizes. Some are quite short, such as the story of a young Texan trying to figure out what it means to believe or not believe in the virgin birth. Other stories are quite long, beginning with “In the beginning.” We are storied by many stories, which is an indication that we cannot escape nor should we want to escape being captured in and by time.
Jesus, very God, became for us time. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin named Mary. Jesus, so born, is very man. He is fully God and fully man making it possible for us to be fully human. To be fully human means that through his conception and birth we have become storied by Mary. We are Mary’s people.
What could it possibly mean that we are Mary’s people? In his monumental book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor characterizes the time that constitutes our time as “empty.” By “empty” Taylor means as modern people we think of time as if it were a container that can be filled up by our indifferent likes and dislikes. As a result, our sense of time has a homogeneous character in which all events can be placed in unambiguous relations of simultaneity and succession. Taylor suggests our view of time has a corresponding account of our social world as one constituted by a horizontal space – that is, a space in which each of us has direct access to time without the assistance of a mediator.
If Taylor’s characterization of our time as empty – a characterization I suspect many of us will find forces a self-recognition we would prefer to avoid – is accurate, we can better understand why we have trouble knowing how to acknowledge we are Mary’s people. We may be ready to acknowledge that the stories that constitute our lives are ones we may not have chosen, but we nevertheless believe that when all is said and done we get to make our lives up. But Mary did not choose to be Mary, the one highly favoured by God. Rather, she willingly accepted her role in God’s salvation by becoming the mother of God – even while asking, “How can this be?”
How extraordinary it is that we know the name of our Lord’s mother! The time we live in as Christians is not empty. It is a time constituted by Isaiah’s prophecy that a particular young woman will bear a son whose name will be Immanuel. It is a time constituted by a young woman named Mary who was chosen by God to carry and give birth to one fully human and fully God. It is a time that is made possible by Joseph, her husband, who trusted in what he was told by the Holy Spirit. It is that time in which we exist. It is a time that gives us time in a world that thinks it has no time to worship a Lord who has Mary as a mother.
“Do you believe in the virgin birth?” was a question generated by a world that had produced people who feared they no longer knew the time they were in. That is, they had no other way to tell time but to think they must force time to conform to their fantasy that they could make time be anything they wanted it to be. “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” was a desperate question asked by a desperate people. It was a question asked by good people lost in a world they feared threatened all they held dear. Yet it was a question that could only distort the gospel by failing to see that the good news is Mary is the Mother of God. I fear, however, that question, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” remains in the hearts of many who count themselves Christians.
If you try to answer that question, I fear you will only distort the gospel. Mary, the Mother of God, is not an answer to that question. Mary, the Mother of God, is not an answer to any question. Mary, the Mother of God, is a declarative assertion that makes clear that it was from Mary that Jesus assumed our humanity by becoming a creature of time.
That Mary is the Mother of God means we do not begin with speculative accounts about God’s existence or nature. Our God is to be found in Mary’s womb. Because our God is to be found in Mary’s body we believe that same God desires to be taken in by us in this miraculous gift of the holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. By partaking of this gift, a gift that if pondered leads us to ask with Mary, “How can this be?” But the gift makes the question possible, because through this gift we become participants in a time that is filled with God’s providential care of us. We are Christians. We live in Mary’s time.
Such a time is anything but empty. Rather, it is a time storied by people whose lives witness to the Lord of time, the Lord who encompasses all life and death. I suggested above that there was a politics often associated with the question, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” There is also a politics that is entailed by our affirmation that Mary is the Mother of God. The politics of Mary is a politics of joy characteristic of a people who have no reason to be desperate. They have no reason to be desperate because they have faith in the Lord of time.
So, on this Sunday, a Sunday when Christmas seems so near, let us remember that because we are Mary’s people we are in no hurry. Let us wait in patience for the Christ-child whose own life depended on the lives of Mary and Joseph. The Word of God was made flesh. He came so that we might experience the fullness of time. Let us wait with Mary and Joseph for the child who will redeem all of time. Let us wait with patience and hope so that the world may discover that time is not empty; rather time remains pregnant with God’s promise found in Mary, the Mother of God.
Stanley Hauerwas is Senior Research Fellow at the Duke University Divinity School. His most recent books are Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church and Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics and Life. This is a sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, on 22 December 2013.