“You really believe that stuff?” a close friend of my husband’s, and now mine, asks me, with both incredulity and a solid dose of urbane, worldly disbelief. “About the virgin birth and all?” The second question is delivered almost as a challenge. Then, with a virtually indescribable vocal gesture, “Bphweh,” the speaker, Mark, dismisses me, and the conversation turns away from issues of Christian theology.
I do not remember the details about how the topic of Christian theology came up, except that Mark, my husband and I had been discussing aspects of our unique childhoods.
We, my husband and myself, were on our second or third afternoon as guests in Mark’s home—one of our few stop-overs on our annually repeated cross-country trips. Mark, a good friend and a supremely generous man, had opened his home yet again. He allowed us to visit him whenever we were travelling, creating space in his overly full schedule, as well as granting us a freshly made bed in a private room, with kitchen privileges, in his equally full apartment—first for the two of us and, eventually, for three.
Normally, when I think about theology, I consider myself an “action girl,” someone who is more concerned about “right action”—to quote the Buddhists—than, say, the details of personal belief, a set of professed theological positions or, even, a specific faith tradition. On that particular afternoon in Mark’s home, his emotive response to my having been raised as a Christian took me by surprise.
Yet, I had to acknowledge Mark’s response would probably have been consistent with the internal, gut-level responses of many of our academically-trained, international and more cosmopolitan friends. I also considered the observed responses among the adults in the context of a working, progressive Christian community—the number of mildly raised eyebrows over certain aspects of Jesus’ narrative during New-Testament readings. It was a case of M I R A C L E S, questions mark… “Well, that was then and this is now,” is the attitude that came seeping through at church. This attitude toward the “supernatural,” among adult members of the congregation (many of whom were also academics), seemed to propel church members even further along the road of taking concrete action toward the alleviation of social suffering in the community. At least that is how things appeared to me, from my childhood perspective.
Because my upbringing taught me to focus on behavior and service, rather than the details of theology and personal belief, at the time of the conversational exchange between Mark and myself, I remained silent, choosing to ponder his questions for a few days and then move on. And, in terms of my life focus and outlook, I was more than satisfied with this approach toward living. Besides, why not accept and live in the Mystery? Thus, the doors that Mark’s questions had opened on the details of Christian theology and my personal beliefs gently swung shut.
More than twenty years later, while reading the book, Jews in the Time of Jesus, by Stephen M. Wylen, I happened upon an interesting note on the issue of translating the word “maiden” from Hebrew into Greek. Apparently, in Greek, there is no direct translation for a young woman without giving a report on her perceived sexual status—virginal or not. Thus, Jesus’ mother moves from being the young woman, or maiden, of Hebrew prophesy, who will bear the Messiah, to a certified virgin in Greek texts.
Now, there have been 2,000 years of Church history, councils, factions, arguments, sides, positions and still no paternity test for the Holy Spirit. Yet, arguably, by embracing the Mystery around Jesus’ conception and birth, readers of Jesus’ origin story may be made more free to focus on what some might consider the more critical teachings surrounding his birth. The narratives associated with Jesus’ birth teach us—potentially—how better to respond or behave in relationship to our perceptions regarding Divine will (leadings of the Spirit, in Quaker tradition), toward one another and toward ourselves, as we choose to affirm Life.
According to the New Testament cannon, Mary, a humble young woman, is selected by the Divine to carry, raise, mother and stand by one of the world’s Teachers of The Way—for nominal Christians, The Teacher. She extends her Trust to the Light–see Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of this moment is poetically rendered in his painting, “The Annunciation”–accepting this assignment without knowing all that it will encompass. She is acting on blind faith in a Higher Power. She says, “Yes.”
Joseph also extends his Trust toward God, when he heeds the dream he is granted, counseling him to accept, safeguard and protect a young woman, whom he has never touched, and a child, not of his own “seed.” This aspect of Jesus’ origin story reminds us to be attentive to our dreams of conscience, affirm life and begs us to act as protectors of human life, whether or not those lives are of “our own” creation or whether or not those lives represent members of our bloodline. Joseph is asked to affirm Life. Additional possible messages? We are all children of God. We are all chosen. We are all sacred. Life is to be protected.
Saying, “Yes,” to a genuine leading of the Spirit (without the full support of community) can be one of the most terrifying and fulfilling things any pious person—from any religious tradition—can do. If a leading affirms the sacred nature of All life, it is a directive from Grace, and we might choose to exercise our free-will and extend our personal Light by following either Mary’s or Joseph’s examples, and say, “Yes.”
The Greek-language rendering of Jesus’ origin story, with the inclusion of the concept of virgin birth, stands as a reminder that we are all called to be here, by Grace, and that there is something Pure in each of our hearts—something of the Light. But, it is we who must attend to the gift of life, daily, to honor, nurture, grow and affirm our Light, if we are ever to open to God’s plans.