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Theology Matters: Virgin Birth

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What do we mean when we say that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary? 

Sometimes Scripture leaves open and mysterious that which we would prefer were more buttoned-down and specific. Such is the case with the conception and incarnation of the Son of God. Such debate as there is on this deals with the “how” of it: how was Mary impregnated by the Holy Spirit? How did the biological act of conception occur? How can new life, which we know to be a combination of genetic material between a mother and father, come about when there seem to be 23 missing male chromosomes? Yet the gospels of Luke and Matthew, which tell the story of Jesus’ conception and birth (and do so in quite different and distinct ways), do not seem terribly interested in these matters, and are absolutely content to leave the biological questions unanswered. The ancient world, after all, didn’t know or understand the science of procreation as we do today. But rather than seeing this as a source of frustration, the lack of biological explanation of the how of Jesus’ conception can allow us to more properly stand in awe of the why. For if we’re able to move beyond the resolution of a question the answer of which is doomed to be inadequate and unsatisfactory (if we claim it was purely miraculous and God provided those missing chromosomes through purely divine action, some will dismiss the story as the unscientific nonsense of mythology; meanwhile, if we claim that Joseph provided those missing chromosomes, then others will resist a seeming diminishment of divine power and possibility), then we can actually get to the heart of what the story is really all about – that is, what we are really saying when we claim that Jesus “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit” and “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.”

For when we make that statement, we are actually making two bold and profoundly important claims: we are saying that this child is fundamentally like, and also unlike, all other human beings. Like, in the sense that he was born from a human mother just like all of us. He didn’t “apparate” out of thin air like some magical or heavenly creature. He didn’t float down from the clouds, or materialize from an alternative world as a fully formed divine creature. He was born in the same way we all are. He grew inside his mother’s uterus and passed through all the same developmental stages each of us did until he was finally birthed into the world. Someone had to cut the umbilical cord that connected his little body to his mother’s, and he had to nurse like every other child of his day during his infancy. Our Savior was very much, in every way, a human being. This is important, because the gospel of Christ is not myth or fantasy. We are dealing with the real stuff of life, and God sent his Son into our messy, chaotic world in the very same way each of us enters it: as a naked, crying, vulnerable infant.

And yet, the Church teaches that Jesus was also distinct from every other creature, every other human being. He was the Son of God, and therefore, he was also divine. The gospels attempt to explain how this could be so by telling the story of his unique conception. Matthew points out that Mary became pregnant before she and Joseph, her betrothed, had ever had intercourse, and in Luke’s gospel, when Mary questions how this could be so, she is told that the “Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Which is to say, Jesus was conceived by an act of God. God made this child through divine agency. He was truly and completely human, yet he was not like everyone else. Yes, he was a child of God in the way we’re all children of God, and yet he was uniquely, particularly the Son of God. And so it had to be, for without his two natures, his humanity and his divinity, he could not have been the Messiah, the Savior. His humanity draws all of us further into the divine life of God, and reveals the fullness of what we are all intended to be as human beings, and his divinity demonstrates that God is truly with us (“Emmanuel”), and it makes possible his perfect, sinless life.

So you see, what we mean when we talk about the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit is much more than a plain question of biology. It is at the heart of everything to do with God’s plan of salvation, and God’s intention to stop at nothing to rescue us and redeem us and be with us forever. God named all Creation good in the beginning of time, and God demonstrated the full capacity for goodness by choosing to be fully immersed in it, even to the point of entering the womb of a girl from Nazareth


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Theology Matters: The Lord's Prayer

It is quite often the first prayer taught to children, and the foundation of many an individual and family’s nighttime prayer routine. It is the prayer of countless sickbeds and battlefield foxholes. It is the last prayer we say together to conclude the Eucharist, in a way that summarizes and completes all that has gone before. We call it the Lord’s Prayer, of course, because it is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they came to him, desperate to know how to pray. And God knows that’s how so many of us feel today, too, desperate to pray, to commune with God, to speak to him and receive his guidance and blessing.

The funny thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that even though it is deeply familiar to most Christians – heck, it’s the only prayer a room full of Christians from various churches and denominations can say together at the same time – nevertheless, we easily lose sight of just how radical it is. We’ve said it so many times, in so many places and on so many Sundays, that it rolls off our tongues unconsciously. But that familiarity may cause us to lose sight of what we’re actually saying, what we’re saying to God. Because Jesus was doing more than giving his disciples something poetic or beautiful to memorize. He wasn’t just inventing a new holy incantation. In just a handful of lines, he framed his whole way of life, one that challenges and provokes and inspires us. This prayer has meaning: to pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer is to embrace the radically different way of Jesus, and to ask for God’s help in bringing it to life.

Even in those first few well-worn words, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” there’s a lot going on. Right from the start, Jesus is calling into question many of our commonly held assumptions about God. We live in an increasingly secular society, but belief in God remains remarkably high. Some 90% of Americans still claim to “believe” in God. When people I meet for the first time find out that I’m a priest, after the customary moment of awkward silence, they almost always blurt out “Oh, I believe in God, and all that. I don’t go to church or anything, but I believe in God.” But when Jesus teaches us to pray, he wants more for us than an intellectual assent to the idea of God. He wants relationship. He wants intimacy. And so he begins the prayer, “Our Father,” using deeply intimate language to talk about a God who for many people feels terribly distant and removed.

Next comes the petition that God’s Kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The God of Jesus may be “in heaven,” but that same God’s desire is to bring the heavenly reality down here to earth. The Lord’s Prayer is an antidote to pie-in-the-sky spiritual gobbledygook. When we pray these words, we’re asking for God to bring about a real, actual, dramatic transformation of the known, experienced world. If the kingdom Jesus talked about was just a spiritual realm of cloud tops and “kumbayas,” he would never have gotten so very many people angry at him. But his life and teaching revealed the inadequacy of our fallen world, with its cruelty and violence and injustice. Our society, no matter how noble its founding, no matter how perfect the union, is a far cry from the Kingdom proclaimed by the Sermon on the Mount. And it is for that Kingdom that we pray each time we say these words, that it may crash down upon our broken realm with the perfection of God’s glory.

But Jesus was just getting started. “Give us this day our daily bread,” he then has us say, in a direct homage to the Exodus, when God’s people depended upon a daily ration of heavenly food (manna) to sustain them. To hoard more than a single day’s share was impossible during those 40 years, reinforcing the people’s dependency on God’s providence and generosity. It didn’t take long for them to lose that hard-earned lesson once they exited the wilderness of Sinai, and we generally accept as wisdom the opposite practices of accumulation and stockpiling. Frankly, one glance at my pantry exposes my reluctance to live this prayer, because I could easily live for weeks only on what I brought home from my last trip to Costco. Yet, God asks for my vulnerability, my dependency, my trust, utterly and daily.

Then Jesus really starts to meddle. “Forgive my sins as I have forgiven the sins of others,” he teaches us to say. Pay even cursory attention to this statement and you quickly realize its implications for your relationship with God. Somehow our ability, our willingness to forgive others is profoundly and inextricably connected with our experience of God’s forgiveness of us. Our reception of God’s mercy is proven only when we reflect it out toward others. Failure to forgive others reveals that we haven’t actually experienced God’s forgiveness of us. It’s not that God is waiting to forgive us until we go around forgiving others; it’s that God’s forgiveness is a catalyst for our practice of forgiving others. Those who hold grudges, who withhold mercy, who resist forgiving others in their lives, no matter the reason, are under a judgement. According to Jesus, and to the words of the prayer they no doubt say ad nauseam, they have not ever fully experienced or even understood the forgiveness of God. But the contrary is true: those who engage in the hard, holy work of forgiving others have opened the sealed tomb of their hearts to the resurrecting power of God’s forgiveness.

The prayer ends in a burst of honest desperation. “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil,” Jesus has us conclude. We are lost without you, Father. Save us and deliver us, because frankly, we aren’t able to do this job on our own. There are powers alive and at work in this world that are beyond us, beyond our ability to overcome by good ole fashioned pluck and determination. Heck, just go to any 12-step meeting, and you’ll hear that the first step toward recovery is to admit your powerlessness and embrace the power of God. I sometimes wonder if all Christians, and especially all Episcopalians, shouldn’t be in a 12-step group. Because we typically don’t like to talk about our problems, let alone talk about evil. Our pride and vanity are so strong that we consider sin as a list of personal weakness or faults or foibles, something that we could or should be able to handle on our own. But to pray the words of Jesus, to pray to our Father in heaven to “save us” and “deliver us,” is an acknowledgment that there really is something in the world worth resisting, and that we are incapable of accomplishing the battle against it alone. We are somehow insufficient to combat this force.

Which is why we look to God, who is greater than any foe. The power of evil must be taken seriously, yet not too seriously. God did not merely create the world, then walk off, leaving us to fend off all assails of the enemy. God intruded, and got into the trenches with us. Evil is a threatening power, but in the cross and empty tomb, God vanquished evil forever. Though the battle rages, we know that God has already won the war. We may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. Knowing that, we can have patience in the midst of struggle, and trust that the evil we see and experience is not final, and will not have the ultimate word.

The whole prayer takes less than a minute to recite. It can seem inadequate when we consider how great are our problems, and how sin-drenched is our world. Yet in less time than it takes to brush our teeth, we can say profoundly, eternally true words to our God and to ourselves, and be reminded of the path set by Christ toward the Kingdom. In the Lord’s Prayer we don’t say everything that could be said, but what we say is enough to stir our hearts and our minds and our imaginations back toward God.

Now, if only we lived what we prayed.

The Rev. Casey Shobe is Rector for Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas

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