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The Virgin Birth (Two meditations) - by Stephen Noll

The Virgin Birth (Two meditations)

by Stephen Noll

I. The Scandal of the Virgin Birth

MY FIRST Advent in parish ministry, I learned a lesson about a central mystery of the faith. I preached a sermon suggesting that "whatever one may conclude about the historical fact of the Virgin Birth, the important thing is what it points to: the Incarnation of Jesus Christ." After the sermon, the senior warden came up to me and said he was disturbed by my words: "Without the Virgin Birth," he said, "there would be no Incarnation."

I was taken aback and forced to rethink the easy dismissals I had picked up in seminary. So let me now return to the "historical fact" of the Virgin Birth. After an exhaustive study in The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond Brown leaves the question of historicity "unresolved" but suggests that "it is easier to explain the New Testament evidence by positing historical basis than by positing pure theological creation."

Does this scholarly reserve leave us in perpetual doubt? I do not think so. First of all, the prophet Isaiah obliquely and Matthew and Luke directly attest to the Virgin Birth as a miraculous historical event, and no other authors contradict them. Secondly, the Church has consistently taught that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. (Raymond Brown accepts the Virgin Birth on this authority.) Thus Scripture and tradition agree.

Finally, the theological necessity of the Virgin Birth, in my opinion, overwhelms any absence of historical proof, which is never certain for any event. Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, apparently thought so too when he wrote: "It is rare in life to be able to separate form and content... The miracle of Christmas is the actual form of the mystery of the personal union of God and man."

To ask the question "Could God have become Man some other way?" is as idle as asking whether God could have saved us some other way than through the Cross and grave of death. Since he did do it one way, and that once for all, our task is to move from the Virgin Mary's first response to the Annunciation, "How can this be?" to her second, "Be it to me according to your Word."

From very early times, the Church chose two moments of history to include in its creeds: "born of the Virgin Mary" and "crucified under Pontius Pilate." There is a necessary connection between these two credal moments. In his famous treatise, Why God Became Man, Anselm of Canterbury argued that just as only God can save us and only Man bear our sins through the Cross, so also only by a Virgin Birth can One who is wholly God and wholly Man enter into the world for our salvation.

Some people claim that the Incarnation is the characteristic doctrine of Anglicanism. Unfortunately, many who claim to be Incarnational Anglicans express apathy, or even antipathy, toward the Virgin Birth. But the Incarnation without the Virgin Birth is like the Resurrection without the Empty Tomb. Without the Virgin Birth, the "incarnate" Christ becomes a Palestinian guru or social worker, not a Savior.

The Virgin Birth is part of the scandal of the Christian Gospel. Bishop Spong, in his book Born of a Woman (note "woman" instead of "virgin"), is offended by the idea of "a God who was in fact a manipulative male person, who would set aside the processes of the world to produce a miracle in order to bring his (sic) divine presence into a human enterprise called life."

Bishop Spong's view of the Incarnation is, frankly, industrial strength humanism lightly scented with Christianity. It is religion purged of the scandal of particularity, the particularity of a transcendent Father who has sent his Eternal Son, through the Holy Spirit, to become human, a particular man from Nazareth, but also Man, the second Adam. That God-Man became a Servant of all, a Sin-bearer for our sake, so that we might share in the life of the Triune God forever (Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

When I was a young, my parents never took me to church, not even at Christmas. I nevertheless was fascinated with the symbols and lore of Christmas. I would sit in the dark at home and play Robert Shaw recordings of Christmas carols, singing along with Adeste Fideles: "God of God, Light of Light, Lo! He abhors not the Virgin's womb."

I did not know it at the time, but in these hymns I was encountering full-strength Christianity. God did not abhor the Virgin Birth. Neither should we. And when we joyfully embrace the scandal of the Virgin Birth, our hearts will learn to worship the Christ Child in his full saving Person, as Very God and Very Man. Venite adoremus Dominum.

II. SHAZAM!!! Hey, unto you . . .

ONE OF OUR family's favorite Christmas time activities is reading Barbara Harrison's wonderful story "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." It tells how some ragamuffin children called the Herdmans invaded a sedate Sunday School pageant and in so doing brought alive the meaning of Christ's birth. Gladys Herdman, for one, grabbed the role of "the Angel of the Lord." When the narrator's mother reads the story of the Angel's appearance to the Virgin Mary,

"Shazam!" Gladys yelled, flinging her arms out and smacking the kid next to her.

"What?" Mother said. Mother never read "Amazing Comics."

"Out of the black night with horrible vengeance, the Might Marvo -"

"I don't know what your are talking about, Gladys," Mother said. "This is the Angel of the Lord who comes to the shepherds in the fields, and -"

"Out of nowhere, right? Gladys said. "In the black night, right?"

"Well . . ." Mother looked unhappy. "In a way."

I think Gladys was on to something. The angels of the Christmas story are not chubby cherubs out of a "Past Times" catalogue. They're more like the Mighty Marvo.

Angels appear at the intersection points of biblical history. The Old Testament ends with the prediction that the Lord will send his messenger ("angel") just before he suddenly, personally, comes to his Temple (Malachi 3:1). Almost five hundred years pass and then, suddenly "out of the black night," angels begin to appear again, announcing that the Lord has come - as a baby in Bethlehem! And if we believe Advent is not just about remembering Jesus' first coming, what about his Second Coming, when "the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God" (1 Thessalonians 4:16)? This assured event of the future should focus our minds as much as any "Y2K" scenario.

Angels also appear at the intersection points of heaven and earth: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!'" (Luke 2:13-14) When we worship "with angels and archangels," we claim a stake in the unseen world above because the Gospel, as the great theologian Karl Barth put it, "is the event between heaven and earth or it is not the event between God and man, the event of Christ." If we demythologize the angels, Barth says, all we're left with is "a little morality and mysticism," the ingredients of a typical Christmas pageant - minus Gladys.

Angels appear at the intersection of life and death. Angels shatter our expectation that life just goes on and on an on. Zechariah is struck dumb; Mary marvels, "How can this be?" And the shepherds are sore afraid. So much of "real" life is humdrum, one damned thing after another... until we are jolted into another reality, as when the doctor says the dread word "cancer." At such moments, angels may again appear relevant. Diane Komp, a pediatric oncologist, records the last words of a seven-year-old girl named Anna, who raised herself up on her pillow and said: "The angels - they're so beautiful! Mommy, can you see them? Do you hear their singing? I've never heard such beautiful singing!"

Awesome as they are, they are also angels of mercy, rejoicing over one sinner who repents and taking them into "Abraham's bosom" (Luke 15:7; 16:22). While the Bible does not clearly teach that we each have a personal guardian angel, Jesus does says of his disciples that "their angels always behold the face of my Father in heaven" (Matthew 18:10). And they present our prayers like incense before God (Revelation 5:8). In the face of the recent disaster in Central America, let us pour out our mercy both before God and our suffering brothers and sisters, knowing that our prayer are heard before his throne.

I'm not sure I've ever seen an angel. But I do believe that a church that awaits their visitation will be open for a new chapter in its history. How better for the Episcopal Church to begin the new year than with Gladys' Good News: "Shazam! Hey, unto you a child is born!"

--Dr. Noll retired as academic dean and Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in 2000, to become the vice-chancellor of the Christian University of Uganda. He is the author of Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness: Thinking Biblically about Angels, Satan and Principalities (InterVarsity Press, 1998), Two Sexes, One Flesh (Latimer Press, 1997), and The Handwriting on the Wall (Latimer Press, 1998). He was also the founding editor of Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council, as well as a member of the AAC's board.

Copyright Stephen F. Noll, 1998.

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