Christian tradition has always emphasized that Jesus was born of a virgin. The Messiah could only come forth from a virgin’s womb. The main reason for this emphasis of course is to highlight that Jesus did not have a human father and that his conception was from the Holy Spirit.
But there is often a secondary emphasis as well, less-founded in scripture. Too common within that notion is the idea that Jesus was born from a virgin because somehow sexuality is impure, that it is too base and earthy to have a connection to such a sacred event. The holy must be kept separate from what is base. Jesus wasn’t just born of a virgin because he did not have a human father; he was also born of a virgin because his birth demanded a purity that, by definition, rules out sex. Our concept of the virgin birth has been infiltrated by a piety which, for all kinds of reasons, cannot accord sexuality to the holy.
What’s wrong with this? Beyond denigrating the God-given goodness of sexuality, it misses one of the major aspects of revelation within the virgin birth. There is a moral challenge within the virgin birth, something which invites imitation rather than admiration.
Thirty years ago, trying to express this, I wrote poem entitled, Virgin Birth. Today I blush at the youthful idealism in that poem; but, on my better days, I take counsel from the young man who wrote those lines:
The perennial paradox, peculiar to this Father and Son
Specialists in confounding human wisdom withdrawn from wonder.
A virgin gives birth, not to sterility, but to a Messiah.
What has virginity to do with giving birth? Nothing!
When wisdom wastes words wandering towards
a truth that will not set us free.
Virginity and inconsummation: Incomplete heart and flesh,
wrestle with a God who has no flesh
who won’t let flesh meet flesh
ache, awaiting completeness
to stave off sterility, truly the unforgivable sin against the spirit of life.
But sterility becomes pregnant with yearning for the spirit
that sleeps with God at night and
impregnates with messianic spirit those patient enough
to yearn and sweat lonely tears
rather than ruin gift
Only virgins’ wombs bring forth messiahs
because they alone live in advent
waiting a delaying bridegroom late,
hopelessly beyond the eleventh hour.
Still the virgin’s womb waits
Refusing all counterfeit lovers and impatience
which demand flesh on flesh and
a divine Kingdom on human terms.
Messiahs are only born
in virginity’s space
within virginity’s patience
which let God be God and
love be gift.
Why a virgin’s womb for a Messiah’s birth? Why an obsession with purity within the Christian tradition? Because, as we all know only too well, our lives are full of most everything that is not virginal or pure: impatience, disrespect, irreverence, manipulation, cynicism, grandiosity; and, as we all know too, within this matrix no messiah can be gestated.