This Christmas the theme we’re following is ‘Not a fairytale Christmas’. So many myths have arisen around the Christmas story, and society has romanticised what is in fact quite a grim story. Imagine what that would be like giving birth out the back of a crowded pub, lying in half eaten animal fodder and surrounded by animals: it probably wasn’t as romantic as it’s now made out to be in Christmas cards etc!
When it comes to Mary, we tend towards one of two camps. Either we venerate her, turn her into a godlike figure, or, as good Protestants, we swing so far from that extreme and go to the other: we pretty well ignore her. Yet the Virgin Mary is essential in God’s plan for humanity. Jesus’ birth to a Virgin is a real event that actually happened: and if we don’t believe it then it brings about problems for the whole of our Christian faith.
We actually know very little about Mary. There’s more about her in a second century Gospel of James, but in the scripture we accept as the Word of God and authentic, there is very little about her. Matthew describes the birth of Jesus in about eight verses, though makes it clear that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mark pitches in with John the Baptist announcing an adult Jesus. John starts from a heavenly rather than earthly perspective, though makes it clear that Jesus is ‘born of God’, and then also goes straight into John the Baptist announcing Jesus. Luke, who carefully studied the history behind the gospel, is the only one who tells us anything about Mary. All we know is she is related to Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother), who’s married to a priest, Zechariah and it’s quite clear they’re of a good Jewish pedigree. But there’s nothing to suggest Mary is anything more remarkable than that.
However we do also know that she is obedient to God and faithful. Understandably she’s puzzled when the angel comes to tell her she’s going to have a baby (Luke 1 v34: ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’). The angel explains the baby will be conceived by the Holy Spirit, and points out that Elizabeth, who was barren and is past the normal age for procreating, is also having a baby, and he reminds her (v37) that ‘No word from God will ever fail’. Mary’s response to such earth-shattering news is just beautiful: ‘I am the Lord’s Servant; may your word to me be fulfilled’.
This is an ordinary young lady (and she was thought to be very young indeed) making herself available to God. She is also trusting in God for a very difficult situation. Surely Joseph will go mad when he finds out, she could be divorced before she’s even married, there could be total disgrace for her (remember how intolerant the Pharisees at the time were about women who ‘did that sort of thing’): ‘may your word to me be fulfilled’ implies total trust in God.
Because of her faith and trust and her willingness to be used by God this young lady plays a central part in changing the course of history and enabling God to fulfil his eternal plan for mankind. And for God’s plan to be fulfilled it is essential that Mary was a Virgin. Because Adam sinned, everyone who has ever been born is sinful. You may wonder how a little baby can possibly be born sinful: but one thing we never need to teach our kids is how to be naughty! How much of parenthood is about trying to teach our kids to stay out of trouble: and what would happen to them if we just let them do as they please? We are sinful and because Adam sinned and allowed sin to come into the world. His sin is passed down through the generations. So if Jesus had been conceived naturally he would have been born just as sinful as you and I. It was only because he was born free from that line of sin, and then went on to live a sinless life, that he was able to conquer sin through his death and resurrection. Had Jesus not been born of a Virgin then God’s whole plan for mankind would have come to nothing and we would have no hope.
Indeed had Jesus been Joseph’s son he would not only have been born into sin, he would have been born of a sinful act, undermining God’s standards for marriage. And if Jesus had been Joseph’s natural son, on what grounds could he claim to be God’s son? The whole point of Jesus is that God is his father, and how often does Jesus make that point in the gospels? He would have been no-one at all, with no credentials for saving mankind, if he’d actually been Joseph’s son. He would have been just another person like you or I, and would now probably be entirely forgotten. Jesus had to be conceived by the Holy Spirit (who is also God just as God the Father and God the Son are) to be the Son of God.
This cynical generation says it’s impossible that Jesus could have been born of a virgin. It’s just not natural, it can’t happen that way. But God is capable of anything. He is the author of life in the first place, so why would it be difficult for him to give life to Jesus in human form?
So the Virgin Birth is not part of a fairy tale: it is true and central to our faith: we need to believe it! And just like Mary we have to make ourselves available to God, believing that he can do amazing things and work out all the practicalities for us to achieve his purposes for us. Like Mary, we can say to God: ‘I am the Lord’s Servant; may your word to me be fulfilled’: then let God do amazing things with your life!