If you’re from a Christian family, the chances are that you’ve believed in the virgin birth for longer than you’ve really understood it (certainly for longer than you’ve known what a virgin was). I remember being in church singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ as a child and really belting out the line ‘Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb’, compensating for the fact that I didn’t know what it meant. I think I assumed ‘virgin’ was just a fancy word for a woman, but I also pronounced the word ‘womb’ like the first syllable of ‘wombat’. We watched a lot of wildlife programmes in our house, more than medical documentaries anyway.
Even at the grand age of whatever you are as you read this, the ratio of believing to understanding probably stands in favour of the former when it comes to the virgin birth. It only gets mentioned at Christmas and even then it’s usually obscured behind all the other stuff (no room at the inn, shepherds wearing tea towels etc.).
It might be a comfort for you to realise, then, that the New Testament itself initially seems not to make such a big deal of it. Only two authors even mention it and when they do, the issue isn’t dwelt upon. Matthew (1:18-25) emphasises the fact that the child is from the Holy Spirit (1:18, 20) and that it fulfils Old Testament prophecy. He does stress that Mary stayed virgin until Jesus’ birth, but says no more than this. It’s also important for Luke (1:26-38) that Mary is a virgin, and that this makes her surprised at the news of her imminent pregnancy. But Luke doesn’t spell out why her being a virgin is important for who Jesus was to be and what he would do.
One way to look at it is to shrug our shoulders and say ‘Well, if it wasn’t explained by the Evangelists, we shouldn’t worry about it’. That would be a mistake; a lot of what the Gospels only narrate turns out to have incredible theological importance. Besides, a lot of what the readers are supposed to pick up is too easily lost on us as mainly Gentile readers in the 21st century.
One of those things is that God’s relationship to his people is portrayed in terms of a husband-wife, man-woman relationship. This is not a new idea that Paul comes up with in Ephesians, but is at the heart of the Old Testament, and sometimes in a really graphic way (don’t read Ezekiel 16 to your kids). The yearning expectation of the consummation of God’s kingdom that faithful Jews held onto in the midst of exile and punishment was expressed as desire for the consummation of a marriage. Hence, there was the ideal of a virgin Israel – also known, like Mary, as a ‘servant’ – being united to God with the result of a new fertility for land and people (Isaiah 61). We then meet this Messianic bridegroom in the Gospels, first in Mark 2:19-20 and then in John 4, where the irony is that the Messiah meets a woman who is very much not a virgin but is invited to know him anyway.
So we see that when we think of ‘virgin’ not just as ‘somebody who hasn’t had sex’ but as a young woman awaiting her wedding (the same Greek word can mean ‘maiden’ anyway), the significance of Mary within the biblical picture comes into focus a bit more clearly. But moving out of New Testament times, as Christianity steps outside of its cradle in Judaism, questions about Jesus take on a more metaphysical complexion.
It was, and always has been an issue for people that a man – and especially somebody as unimpressive as a small-town Galilean tradesman – could actually be God. Even those that believed it struggled to articulate the precise way in which Jesus is both divine and human, since Scripture itself never puts it in a neat formula for us. It would be tempting to say that it would have saved a lot of trouble if it had, but however much the Bible says, new questions are always bound to turn up. It seems that what God wants from his people is to seek him by wrestling towards truth rather than spoon-feeding everything in ‘GCSE Bitesize’ form.
In any case, through various controversies, councils and creeds, 5th century leaders came up with an understanding of Christ’s two natures that we still rely on today. The so-called ‘Chalcedonian Definition’ emphasises that the Lord Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man, but without sin and begotten ‘of Mary the Virgin’. Why this last part is so vital is that to have both the divine and human, two things are involved. Firstly, the (supernatural) communication of God’s being, through the Holy Spirit, since humanity can’t become God itself. Secondly, the (natural) process of gestation essential for a human being who would live and die as we do, for our sakes.
So why is this all so important today? Well for a start, the meaning of history is still bound up with the story of Israel that culminated in Jesus Christ. Everything depends on the church being able to retell that story, and retell it faithfully so that people can turn from sin and know their loving God. But we also need to take Mary seriously as an example.
Sometimes, reacting against convoluted Marian-devotion can make people forget how remarkable this young woman was. The way that she responded to the news that she would be the ‘God-bearer’ (as she has sometimes been known), with all the social stigma from people who would assume the worst about her, is a supreme example of beautiful, sacrificial and gritty faith. If she slides into the background of the New Testament, it’s not because she is a minor figure. It’s because she prepared the ground for the one who all Christmas gifts point to, the one who was absolutely faithful and who thought of this woman even as he was making the greatest sacrifice the world has ever known (John 19:25-27).