I was browsing through some online material recently and came across a conversation between a non-believing sceptic and a Christian apologist. The question was asked (right off the top): “Why a virgin birth?” The apologist did a decent job of responding, giving a fairly common explanation of “why Christ had to be born of a virgin.” Something about it left me empty. Thinking about it – I believe my problem was that the question was wrong.
“Why a virgin birth?” Is the question of a philosopher, that is, a question that we put to things rooted in their necessity. It is how we argue points with one another. We say that something must be true…because…and we state the reasons that describe its necessity.
These are often the wrong kinds of questions to ask of God or of the things of God. In God, there is no necessity. He is utterly free and does not exist “because He has to.” If we could state such a reason – then that reason would itself be prior to God. There is no “prior” to God. We want to “make sense” of holy things, or to conclude that they are nonsense. We fail to see that “holy” is what makes sense possible. Holy is prior to sense.
Which brings me back to the Virgin. If the sense-driven question of necessity (“why did Christ have to be born of a virgin?”) is the wrong question, what would be the right one?
In short, the question would be: What does this mean?
The virgin birth is not given to us as an argument of necessity. It is a revelation. It tells us something. And the something it tells us is described as a mystery. There are things about the universe, about God, about our place within all things, that cannot be seen apart from the lens of the virgin birth. More than this, these things will not be known as “facts” (information that we can manipulate and manage for our own ends).
The capacity to see and know without understanding and managing is, in our modern world, something that is often lost and forgotten (or never learned). It is the capacity for wonder and awe, the ground of worship itself. What is forgotten is not just “how” to do this, but that this action is a means of knowing.
The virgin birth is an excellent example of this knowing. In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, the virgin birth (and the Theotokos) are something of a theme that runs throughout all things. She is seen in a host of images: the Burning Bush, the Ark of the Covenant, Aaron’s Rod that Budded, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Uncut Mountain (in Daniel), the Eastern Gate in Ezekiel’s Temple Vision, Jacob’s Ladder, the Fleece of Gideon, and the list goes on…
In considering such a list, we could ask, “How are all of these things like one another?”
I will share some of what I understand in this. The conception of Christ by a virgin is an example of an unexplainable impossibility. It carries with it the familiar shape of a contradiction and paradox. It is not just an impossibility – it is an impossibility that is a contradiction of the very thing itself: virgins to not conceive. It is not what virgins do. And so, Mary accrues titles that are contradictions: Mother of God, Bride Unwedded, etc.
This is not only (though supremely) true of her – it is of a piece with the wisdom of God. We speak of a universe that comes into existence “out of nothing.” Existence from non-existence. A contradiction. The stories within the Scriptures are replete with impossible examples. However, the examples do not point to the mere possibility of miracles. The miracles have a character about them that point towards a pattern and meaning. Miracles themselves are revelatory as are the stories that surround them.
When St. Paul writes of this, it is primarily around the topic of the Cross. The Cross shares the same revelation of God’s wisdom that can be discerned in the Theotokos. Interestingly, no one speaks of the Cross as a “miracle.” Nevertheless, it is the greatest of miracles. It has the mark of paradox and contradiction. St. Paul describes Christ Crucified as the “wisdom and power of God” (1Cor. 1:24). St. Maximos the Confessor said, “He who understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.”
The Cross is apparent weakness and defeat. It is “foolishness,” in the eyes of many, St. Paul notes. But this goes to the heart of God’s work in the world, and, goes to the heart of God’s self-revelation to the world. We like to imagine that we know what the word, “God,” means and frequently apply it to the One described in the Scriptures. Quite often, that “definition” is wrong. The Scriptures show forth God’s self-definition, one that is quite distinct from our popular notions.
“Weakness” and “foolishness” are things that we do not normally associate with God, but are specifically identified with Him in the New Testament. Throughout the testimony of Scripture, there is a consistent preference on the part of God for the weak, the despised, the second-born, the foolish, the least-likely. St. Paul reflects on this:
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty;and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are…” (1Cor. 1:26-28).
Over the course of Christian history, forgetting this character of God’s revelation has led to repeated disasters. The great notorious heresies were often sponsored by emperors. Others were the work of those who imagined themselves to be wise. The abuse of power (which has been all too common in our history) has generally been “in the name of God,” even though God Himself clearly revealed the emptiness of such so-called power.
The life of the Church and its devotion constantly call us back to the truth. We stand before the Virgin, wondering at the weakness of her words to the angel, “Be it unto me according to Your word.” That is true strength. We stand before the Cross in awe and worship, knowing that it is only as the Cross is manifest in our own lives (“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live”) that we can truly know God. There is no salvation apart from the Cross because it is there most definitively that God has revealed Himself to the world. “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.”
In Matins we pray, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.” Our attention is properly directed towards the mystery of salvation hidden within the revelation that is given to us (“Thy statutes”). They are not mastered by memorization or rational analysis. They are made known to us in the depths of the heart as we offer ourselves to God.
It is a mystery in which the Church traditionally prays (again, a contradiction): “Most holy Theotokos, save us!”