I’m coming out of the closet theologically. On this day, when The Episcopal Church, and several other denominations, celebrate the Annunciation — that event when the angel Gabriel visits Mary with news of God’s astounding plan — I’ll throw my cards down. I’m taking the virgin birth on face value.
I come at this issue with the best of liberal credentials. I have two degrees (MA ’80 and MDiv ’84) from EDS, an institution dedicated to social justice and prophetic callings. I’m a proud Democrat. I bleed blue. I worked as a priest in the Diocese of Newark (and listened to Jack Spong say that Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus was most likely because she’d been raped by a Roman soldier).
I remember a seminary professor at EDS talking about Mary’s unusual pregnancy.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said, “whether she was a virgin or not. The whole thing doesn’t matter.” And we all nodded silently, sagely.
That statement bothered me then and it bothers me more now—because I’m tired of picking and choosing which miracles to believe in. Being able to trust what’s in the Bible does matter. After almost five years of documenting every word said by women in the Bible, and after studying the stories of Bible women for almost ten years, I’m tired of alternate explanations for miracles in the Bible.
I’m glad that the Israelites didn’t starve to death in the wilderness, that God gave them manna for years. I’d say that manna was a miracle.
The parting of the Red Sea? I buy it. The sun that stood still when Joshua was on his way to battle? Yep. The ten plagues of Egypt? Miracles in reverse, depending on your perspective.
Then there’s “the wife of a member of the company of prophets,” in 2 Kings 4. Her husband had died, she complains to Elisha the prophet (her husband’s employer), and her oil jugs overflow and overflow and overflow… There’s the Shunammite woman, also in 2 Kings 4. Elisha brings her dead son back, long before CPR was invented.
In the New Testament, there’s that very first miracle: Jesus turning water into wine, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. And there’s Jesus turning five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food for 5000 men (and thousands of women and children). Mary Magdalene is cured of seven demons. Bartimaeus is given sight. The crippled woman is made straight. Lazarus is brought back to life after three days in the tomb. No, I don’t think he was just sleeping in those linen wrappings, or he wouldn’t have been so smelly, as Martha of Bethany so kindly pointed out.
So why does the virgin birth give people so much trouble? Why do we step back from that particular miracle and and affirm others? What about the resurrection and the bodily assumption of Jesus after forty days? Lots of skeptics out there on those two additional miracles as well.
For the record, I buy it all. I’m done picking and choosing.
Last week I learned that two couples in our faith community are having a baby together, with the help of modern science. One couple is infertile; the second couple have three children, and that is enough for them. The fertile woman will act as a surrogate, giving the infertile couple a much-wanted child.
I’d say that’s a miracle too. I’d say God works in all kinds of miraculous ways, including that day so long ago when the angel Gabriel approached Mary.
She didn’t have to say yes. But think of how different the world would be today if she had said no.
Art: Karen N. Canton, artist, The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women, 2014