“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” ~ Matthew 1:18–25
Ah, the virgin birth. What a conundrum this story has caused for us in the post-postmodern world! How could a baby be born without, how should I put it, biological considerations? An act of God? Maybe. A misreading of the story? Perhaps (after all, “virgin” is probably not the best translation of the Hebrew word “almah,” which most likely simply means “young woman”). But we’re not going to focus on that so much because I think if we think in purely biological terms, then we’re going to miss the main point of the story.
To my mind, what’s at stake for us isn’t how God could possibly impregnate a woman without using sperm—that’s a rather crude way of thinking about this story—but more about how God chooses to act in the world. That is to say, whereas many of the gods throughout history used force and coercion to get their way, God doesn’t.
For instance, let’s take a look at Zeus for a second, because it’s no secret that gods like him conceiving children with mortals is no new tale. As the story goes, once upon a time Zeus impregnated a princess named Danae, against her will mind you, by streaming through a golden shower (not that kind of golden shower, perverts!). This is nothing new for him, because he has a list of rape victims a mile long (Alcmene, Callisto, Leda, and others). Zeus is not the only one making sons of gods through force, however. In the Arcadian myth, Poseidon transforms into a horse, rapes his older sister Demeter, resulting in her giving birth to a goddess named Despoina (gross, right?).
To that end, what I’m trying to say is that we need to read the so-called virgin birth myth of Jesus as a polemic against how other gods operate in the world. Sure, gods use force and coercion to get their way, but God through the Holy Spirit operates on another level. It’s not through force but through love that Jesus is born. That’s the difference, and it’s a big one because throughout Jesus’ life, one of his main missions was to show us who and what God was like. And while the mercy and forgiveness he showed on the cross was him at his best, the birth narrative offers insights into his character as well, so long as we don’t miss the point of the story by being overly literalistic in our approach.
Another consideration for us when approaching this story is this business of Joseph being a righteous man and wanting to divorce Mary because of what he thought was infidelity. You see, Joseph, being a good Jew, “plays by the rules of sacred society,” as Paul Neuchterlein puts it. In other words, this was going to be a birth that didn’t fit with what living a sacred life looked like, so Joseph wasn’t going to get down with that. Here’s the thing, though. It wasn’t supposed to. Sacred and secular were going to be blown open by this child; the rules of the game were going out the window.
We get a glimpse of this a few verses earlier, in the genealogical list. Included in list of 42 fathers, four mothers along with Mary are inserted. Why is this important? Because all four—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—were viewed as sexually immoral vis-à-vis the sons from the line of David. Again, the rules of the game are tossed out the window because this was supposed to be a “pure” line from Abraham to Jesus. It was supposed to be a clean, straight line, but in reality, turned out to be a rather crooked one.
The take away, then, is that just because we have certain expectations about what is pure vs. what is dirty, what is sacred vs. what is secular, what is righteous vs. what is wicked, doesn’t mean that God is going to let us stay there. He’s in the business of blowing open our boxes, and does so when he incarnates himself into the world.
May we have the heart to pay attention and may we have the courage to jump outside of our sacred safe-spaces, because in all reality, there is no such thing as a sacred/secular divide.
 Neuchterlein, “Advent 4A,” sec. 3, para. 1.