Each year at Christmas, we encounter the biblical description of what has become known as the Virgin Birth (not to be confused with“ immaculate conception,” which says the conception of Mary was immaculate). We have two sources for this, chapter one of both the Gospel according to Matthew and according to Luke. Mark is silent, as is John. This “pure” way of Jesus’ conception maintains a powerful hold for many believers.
Long ago, I became convinced that this is theological make believe, dreamt up by those who felt that the Messiah could not be the Messiah if he were the product of the sexual activity of his parents. If he is going to be the Son of God, surely God must be his father, right?
Of course, this denies the fact that for me, and most Christians, and Jews, too, every human being is born a child of God. Whether this is literal or figurative is important but does not take away the power of the connection between humanity and the divine One. Without God, the Source of all life, we would not be here.
I remember when I served as a seminary field education intern at an Episcopal congregation in Brookline, MA, I was assigned to meet weekly with the women’s Bible study group. When I told them we would read the birth account from Matthew and from Luke for the following week, one of the members, an older woman born in England, said, “You won’t require us to believe in the virgin birth will you?” Others supported her.
I assured them we did not have theological litmus tests in the group. During our subsequent discussion of the texts, most of the women, some of whom were mothers, spoke very plainly about their belief that Jesus was the child of Mary and Joseph in all respects. The mothers spoke movingly about the birthing experience, including knowing that, whether their husbands were allowed to be present or not (this was 1981 and these births had taken place considerably earlier when the presence of fathers in the delivery room was less common), they shared the intense feelings—the pain and the joy—with the partner who shared the responsibility for creating and caring for this new life.
I was very moved. I thought about the stories of the birth in the stable, how Joseph is pictured as being there with Mary and the baby and how he took them to Egypt for safety against the rampage of King Herod. I also thought about the birth of my daughters, perhaps most powerfully the first but with all three, and how I was present in the delivery room and how I heard angels singing and creation cheering as Judy’s labor pains became more and more intense, then gave way to birth. Each time I felt overwhelming joy and awe. I wept, I thanked God again and again for bringing me and Judy together in the first place and then blessing our marriage and love-making and being on the parenting journey with us. We—Judy, God and I—were a threesome creating life.
I say love-making, but of course I mean sex. Over the course of our almost nine-year marriage, Judy and I had sexual intercourse—more than three times—that resulted in the births of three girls. Some people say, “We’re trying to make a baby.” It is a nice way of saying they are having sex, and hope sperm and egg will meet and mate.
For some reason we can’t talk about it. I think a key reason for that is the idea that Jesus had to be born without human sexual activity in order to be holy. In order to be better than every other human he could not be conceived in the usual way. That sets up a system in which human sexuality is devalued. I admit to not being an expert about ancient attitudes toward sex, so it is entirely possible, I imagine likely, that the devaluing of human sexuality was already a common social idea.
Either way, today we can’t even talk about sex in general, really talk about it, honestly and seriously without innuendo and jokes (often offensive). Currently, much conversation is, rightly, focused on the misuse and abuse of sex, and that soul-searching and fundamental change must continue.
Still, I want us as a society, and certainly those of us who are Christians, to find ways to talk more openly about the beauty and power of sex. One way to do that is to put the sex back in Christmas, or more accurately to jettison the Virgin Birth in favor of the real conception and the real birth which brought Jesus into the world.
According to polls, most Americans believe in the facticity of the Virgin Birth. Many Christian theologians and clergy, probably most, see it as an essential doctrine. “To remove the miraculous from Christmas is to remove this central story of Christianity,” according to Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. “It would dismantle the very center of Christian thought and take away the keystone of the arch of Christian theology.”
Burge, and many others share this view: If Jesus was not virgin-born, then he was not the son of God; if he was not the son of God, then he was just another crucified man and not the sacrifice that would redeem the sins of the world. (To read a journalistic account of this debate, click here )
I want to be clear on one point: I do not question the power of God to do this impregnating, but I do question whether God would see the need to undermine the power and beauty of divinely-inspired creation in order to anoint a human as Messiah.
God likes sex, wants us to have more of it—with consent—and enjoy it more, not only during the acts but to be able to talk about it and enjoy it openly in anticipation and memory. Indeed, I think if we could get sex really out in the open it would be less susceptible to abuse.
So, here’s to Mary and Joseph, who got it on and created Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks be to God!
Perhaps this is less of a risqué statement now than it would have been at other points, but as we approach the Christmas season, I have to make a confession: I have never believed in the immaculate conception, nor the concept of the virgin birth.
This is, perhaps, a strange thing because, after all, isn’t the virgin birth a central aspect of the Christmas story and, in fact, the entirety of the Christian faith? I remember having a conversation with someone- I believe it was my mother, while she was in seminary- and we were discussing the concepts of virgin birth and immaculate conception. She told me that what makes the story of Mary unusual isn’t the claim of impregnation while maintaining virginity-
historically, queens would make this claim as justification for what made their sons fit to rule over other men; they were not just men, but half-gods, conceived through divine intervention and ordained by deity to rule. No, what made Mary’s claim uncommon wasn’t that she claimed immaculate conception, but that she did so as a commoner. She was not a queen and she was in no position to bear children destined to rule over others.
Understanding that history solidified my belief that Mary was not, in fact, a virgin. I don’t know how she was impregnated, but I assume one of two things happened: either she had premarital intercourse with someone (perhaps Joseph, perhaps someone else), or she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant as a result. Either way, I think there are powerful messages in the concept of the Christmas story that are missed when we cling to a belief in the virgin birth story.
I think we find an incredible story of mercy. A story that shows us the power of God to take a horrific experience (such as assault or rape) and transform it into something healing and powerful. Do I think that the birth of Jesus is a justification for the traumatic experience of rape? Of course not; I’ve never ascribed much to an “ends justify the means” mentality. Rape is, in and of itself, a traumatic, horrific experience, and to live through it (and bear children as a result of it) is atrocious. But the world is full of trauma and horrific experiences that people must figure out how to live through (as we continuously work to eradicate sexually-based violence), and in the story of Mary, I see an immense capacity for healing and transformation after a violating experience.
How can we come to heal from our own traumas and begin to see the experiences that shaped us in new ways? Without minimizing the horror of violence visited upon bodies, how can we realistically move through these experiences to come to a new way of existing in our world? Perhaps we become brazen, like Mary. Perhaps we speak up, and speak our truth. For her, her truth was that she was carrying a child destined to become the King of Kings, the Messiah. She was scorned and ridiculed for her truth, yet she spoke it anyway. What truth can we speak from our own wounds and traumas?
On a less heavy note, my preference is to believe that Mary had premarital
sex. Perhaps she was working as a sex worker, or perhaps she and Joseph got caught up in a moment of passion. Regardless, she broke social mores and bore the consequences of that. And God didn’t care. God is not bound my social rules, nor is God bound by expectations and social hierarchy. This child would be the vessel through which others would come to know and understand God, a message made that much more powerful in understanding that his roots are less than pristine.
What a message- we do not have to be perfect, or come from perfect circumstances, to be a vessel for God. We do not have to meet social criteria or man-made rules to be anointed and appointed. We are Enough, just as we are, not in spite of where we come from, but because of it. Mary had sex outside of wedlock and bore a child who would be known as the son of God. What further proof do we need in the awesome mercy of God, in the miracle of the Christmas story, in the power of our own sexuality to form and build and create?
I want to put the sex back into Christmas because I think the sex is important. I think that we have a rich, powerful story that explores the awesome power of sex to build and form connection, to create life- not just “life” in the sense of a child, but “life” in the sense of creating new life within each of us, allowing space for ourselves to grow in the power of God through our sexual experiences and expressions. Focusing on the virginity and purity of the story, for me, takes away from the awesome power of God to transform our lives- our very human, imperfect lives. Taking the sex out of Christmas allows us to cling to these ideas of purity and morality, an anti-sex sentiment that runs rampant in Christianity when, in fact, the origin of our faith is most likely rooted in sexual exploits that defied social rules!
Sex is good. And quite frankly, what I see in the Christmas story is one of God saying, “I don’t care if you signed the piece of paper before you fuck; I care that you live lives of intentionality and care, that you are willing to see the miracle of your existence and hear me when I speak your name. I care that you will listen to my call, even when others around you do not understand, even when others around you disagree, I want to know that you remain steadfast in your love for me.” And that is what I get out of Christmas: a story of healing. One of transformation. One where a young woman proudly claimed her right to bear children ordained by God. One where God shucks off the limiting rules of humanity and reminds us that God cannot be constrained by our limited perspectives on purity.
This is a message of hope, yes. One of power and transformation. But it is not found through ignoring, minimizing, or disregarding our sexual selves, but found through claiming, owning, experiencing them fully, and hearing when the voice of God speaks our names.