Conceived of the Holy Spirit
Born of the Virgin Mary
Isaiah 9:6-7, Luke 1:26-38
“He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, Born of the virgin Mary.” Over the centuries these words have inspired artists to paint pictures of the Madonna and child, and inspired the poets to write poems and plays about this wondrous event. The cradle and the cross were the two events that captured the imagination of the Christian world.
In the past century, however, these words have been beset with grave debates. It has been said that in a more credulous age it was easier to believe in the miraculous. But in an age dominated by the sciences, these words have become just a bit unbelievable. After all, we all know where babies come from. We are not so naïve as to believe that storks bring babies or conception can take place without two partners.
But perhaps here something needs to be said about earlier days. The people of that first century were not as naïve as we have made them out to be. Joseph knew how babies were made and he was prepared to sever his relationship with his fiancé when he heard she was pregnant. He didn’t believe in Virgin Births. Neither did Mary. She asked the angel, how could she get pregnant since she had not known any man in an intimate way and wasn’t about to until she was married. She was not a simpleton. No one else believed in them either for the next 2,000 years. So if our day has a hard time believing these words from the creed, welcome to the human race. These are incredible words in any age.
So let’s look at why these words are found in the creed and in the New Testament.
The Opposing of Heresies
The question is important, why place these words in the creed at all? The Creed says nothing about other important realities, so why touch on this issue? You may have noticed that the creed jumps from his birth to his death, and makes no mention of the intervening 30 years of his life. It does not note that he was a marvelous teacher. It tells us nothing about his wondrous miracles. The creed tells us so little that the four gospels tell us. So why bother with his conception & birth?
It is obvious that the Apostles’ Creed is not out to tell the entire story about either God the Father or about Jesus either. Its words are intended to be a response to the cults that were invading the church in those early centuries.
There was a movement called the Docetists. They said that Jesus was not human, he only seemed to be. But in fact, he was God in disguise. Some of them said that His body was a phantom body. It was not real flesh and blood like us. He was not human at all. He was more like a holograph.
Another movement was called the Nazoreans. They said that Jesus from Nazareth was only a man, but God invaded his body at his baptism. Then at the cross, God jettisoned the human body. When God was in the act of bailing out of the human body that he had invaded, it caused Jesus to cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” This strange cult taught that the divine invader left the human body to suffer alone on the cross, making its own getaway. So Jesus, they said, was born and died a mere mortal, while God used him as a dog would use a kennel. It was like demon possession, except this was divine possession, but possession nonetheless.
But there was a third group called the Ebionites. They said Jesus was not divine at all. He was only human. Just a man. He was adopted by God as his son at the moment of Baptism, and the Ebionites added a word to the story of His baptism to make their ideas more clear, “You are (now) my beloved son.” But, they said, for 30 years there was nothing unique about him. He was a good man that God adopted as his number-one son. But he was simply a good man, that’s all.
So there was the debate. Some said, “He was God, period!” Others shouted back, “He was merely a man!” Others insisted, “He was a man with God inside him!”
The Response of the Church
What is the church to say to ideas like these? It can keep silent, and hope they just go away, like most fads do. Or they can choose to contradict these strange ideas. They chose to oppose these viewpoints because they knew that the more simple and simplistic an idea is, the easier it is to believe. But there are some things, when overly simplified, are no longer true.
Now the first part of the Apostle’s Creed has left behind a litany of words that underscore the divinity of Jesus. The creed, after saying “I believe in God”, rapidly goes on to say “I believe in Jesus” who is the Christ, The Son of God, the Lord of life. Here is one so related to God that we are to trust Him just as we trust the Father. It asserts beyond all doubt that there is something divine about Jesus.
But the creed is not satisfied to leave it there, because that falls into one of the ditches of heresy if left that way. So the creed moves to the strange declaration, “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
At his birth, the church said, he was conceived by the supernatural activity of God. Oh yes! From the very beginning He was divine. But, besides that, the church said, he was born of a woman. He was human, fully human, who shared with us a birth and a childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
He is Divine, related to God. Yet at the same time he is human, related to us.
To underscore the same truth, the creed leaps from his birth to the other end of his life to tell us that he was human enough to have suffered, to have been crucified, to die and to be buried.
He is divine. The Christ, the Son of God, the Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
He is also human. He was born, suffered, & died.
The Reason for the birth.
But why would God choose this way of entry into our world? If God chose to enter our world, why did he not send Himself in His Son as a fully developed angelic adult. Why waste the first 30 years!
Can I explore that with us? The miraculous birth of Jesus Christ was not just history, though it is that. It was also God’s greatest parable. Like an Old Testament Prophet who often acted out the message, God too was acting out a truth crucial about Himself. He could have chosen to intervene in any number of ways, but he wanted to come to us in the glory and the scandal of the virgin birth.
The feeling of too many of us has been that God is remote, removed, and rather distant from our human scene. God is aloof with little desire to share our life. He sits on his divine throne, managing his universe by remote control.
The virgin birth contradicts that message. It declares in unequivocal terms – God has shared our life! He would be called “Emmanuel” which means God is with us! So God put himself in our hands. He made himself vulnerable. He chose to share our life and to share it with the same limitations that we face life with.
- He was born as helpless as the rest of us.
- And if the whole story be told, he was conceived out of wedlock, like some of us perhaps, to the scandalizing of the neighbours!
- Shortly after birth he became part of a refugee family fleeing the country to escape for their lives. He and his parents found themselves living in a foreign country during those formative childhood years.
- Even when he and his family returned to Palestine, they decided to hide out in the boondocks of Northern Galilee, away from the centers of power and influence. There he lived out the normal struggles of childhood and youth.
- At 12 years of age, he undergoes his bar-mitzvah and childhood is over, and for the next 18 years he worked with his hands as a carpenter.
- And all of this in a world occupied by invading and occupying forces. If you want the best picture of those years, think of a young man growing up in a Palestinian enclave in modern Israel. A second class citizen in your own land!
- Paul says that He emptied himself and became a man, and then a servant, and then a victim of human tyranny.
Now God had always understood the struggle that life is for so many. But we were never sure He really did. But after Jesus of Nazareth was born into the harsh realities of coping with life, it is easier for us to believe that God understands us. And that is a great comfort to us.
The New Testament writers feel that way too. Listen to the book of Hebrews:
- “He was tempted in all points, same as we….”
- “He learned obedience through the things he suffered.”
- “We do not have a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our weaknesses….”
The New Testament is not embarrassed to tell us that Jesus wept, got hungry and thirsty, and got tired enough to fall asleep in the boat. He struggled in temptation and in prayer. He shared in a life similar to ours.
The Nicene Creed is right when it declares him to be both “very God of very God, and very man of very man.” He has the experience of our humanity to prove he understand us. He has the power of God to help us.
The story of the Virgin Birth is not simply something incredible that we are supposed to believe against all odds. It is not a call to be incredulous. It is a call to review our understanding of who God really is. He comes to us in humility. He comes to us to live along side of us and share in the joys and hurts of our lives.
St. Gregory from the 4th century said about Jesus “What he did not assume, he did not heal.” What he did not experience, he did not redeem. So Jesus not only shares our lives from the womb to the tomb, but offers healing and help for every stage of that journey.
For that reason, we can draw near to God with the confidence that he not only cares, but also offers us his help. Let me close with words from the book of Hebrews:
“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, He is able to help those of us who are being tested…. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and grace to help in time of need.”