Un-Immaculate Conception?


Isaiah 7:10-16

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Romans 1:1-7

Matthew 1:18-25

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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.” Matthew 1:18.

By way of further testimony, Luke’s gospel tells Mary that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Luke 1:35. Traditionally, these two verses have been cited in support of the doctrines of “the virgin birth” and the “Immaculate Conception.” The former asserts that Jesus was conceived without sexual intercourse between Mary and any man. The latter asserts that Mary was “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pious IX. Taken together, these doctrines purport to explain how it is that Jesus, though fully human, nevertheless remains untouched by the sin of Adam and Eve infecting all of humanity. This understanding of Jesus’ birth is deemed necessary to some understandings of Jesus’ atoning work. Jesus must have been without sin from conception to his death on the cross in order for him to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin, thereby making God’s mercy and forgiveness possible.

I have encountered numerous people who tell me that this miraculous view of Jesus’ birth is the sine qua non for genuine faith. To deny it is to reject the divinity of Jesus, the efficacy of the cross and the significance of the Resurrection. I do not for one minute wish to dismiss the possibility that Jesus was in fact so conceived. After all, I wasn’t there and, near as I can tell, neither was anyone else-except Mary and she isn’t talking. Yes, our modernistic prejudices-and that is exactly what they are-make no room for what cannot adequately be explained in scientific terms. But the latter half of the Twentieth Century has made all too clear just how shaky our modernistic assumptions spun out of the Enlightenment actually are. It turns out that human reason, culturally shaped and limited as it is, can blind as well as enlighten. A lot of beliefs that were once supported by the science of the day have proven by subsequent scientific research to have been false or at least only partially true. We are finding that the universe is far more complex than we ever imangined. More often than answers, scientific inquiry tends to raise more questions. I cannot explain how Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus could have come about apart from sexual intercourse with a man. But I can’t even explain how these letters I type find their way to my computer screen and into cyberspace. Just because something is beyond human understanding does not mean it is impossible. And, of course, “with God nothing will be impossible.”

All that being said, the gospels do not tell us anything about how Jesus was conceived. They simply affirm that, however Jesus was conceived, the Holy Spirit was working “in, with and under” the process-to use a Lutheran phrase. That is, I believe, the point of the lenghty genealogy preceeding Sunday’s gospel reading. I understand very well why the makers of the common lectionary did not include these vss. 1-17 in our reading. None of us preachers would relish reading that long list of unpronounceable names any more than our hearers would appreciate listening to it. But I believe the genealogy plays an important part in our interpretation of the captioned verse.

Note well that, after tracing the lineage of Joseph from Abraham through David and finally to his own father, the gospel goes on to say, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…”  The account that follows makes clear that Joseph’s genealogy is irrelevant. If anybody’s genealogy matters, it is Mary’s. But we know nothing about that. Jesus’ conception thus involves a break in Matthew’s carefully reconstructed genealogy. Upon closer inspection however, Joseph’s genealogy is itself somewhat broken. First of all, the line is traced through Perez, born to the patriarch Judah by Tamar through prostitution and in a manner bordering on incest. See Genesis 38 for the sordid details. Second, Boaz the grandfather of King David sired the king’s father Jesse by the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab. Matthew 1:5. Third, David’s royal successor Solomon sprang from an adulterous relationship between the king and his general’s wife, Bathsheba. Matthew 1:6. Far from immaculate, the Spirit’s involvement in this line of biblical ancestors involves some very sordid circumstances. Thus, the angel’s assurance to Joseph that Mary’s conception was through the work of the Holy Spirit might not have been all that comforting to him.

Am I suggesting that Mary was unfaithful or somehow became pregnant through an illicit or perhaps abusive sexual relationship? No. That, too, would be mere speculation. Again, I do not know how Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. I only know that he was. That is enough. I would add, however, that it is comforting to me that God is able to work creatively and redemptively through flawed, broken and shattered human relationships. It is comforting to know that God sees more in my confused, conflicted and often misdirected life than I do. It is comforting to know that the flesh which the Word becomes is nail scarred, wounded and subject to death. That is comforting because my life and the world in which I live is far from immaculate. So, it is good to know that the God we worship and trust is not afraid to get dirty in handling us. However that mystery we call the Incarnation occurred, through it we discover Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon with a unique perspective on the Incarnation.

Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, 1993

On the doomed ceiling
God is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what the do?
I know their hearts
and arguments:

We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and the rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

Source: Poetry, December 1995. Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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