Angela Tilby: Letting the Virgin-birth mystery be

21 December 2017

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AMONG our Christmas cards there will probably be portrayals of the annunciation. Mary, the angel, and, perhaps, an inscribed scroll, a dove, or a beam of light pointing to Mary’s head — in fact, to her ear.

The idea that Mary conceived Jesus through the ear has an ancient Christian pedigree. It was suggested in the fourth century by Athanasius, and taken up by Ephrem the Syrian: “Through her ear the Word of the divine Father entered and dwelt sec­retly in her womb.” To us, all this is simply bizarre, and we may be tempt­ed to dismiss the notion as an example of early Christian squeam­ishness about sex and female bodies.

The background, though, is more theologically nuanced. The Fathers were familiar with stories from Greek mythology about Zeus’s impregnating pretty girls who subsequently gave birth to semi-divine figures, such as Hercules. They were determined to distinguish Christian faith in the incarnation from any sugges­tion that God was involved biologic­ally in Christ’s conception.

So, following Luke’s insistence that Mary would conceive by the Holy Spirit, they taught that the mode of Christ’s conception was simply ineffable: beyond human comprehension. Mary’s ear, then, simply represents Mary’s consent to God. She listened and obeyed, and, from that listening and obedience, the Word was made flesh.

Medieval writers went further, suggesting that, just as Eve had given her ear to the words of the serpent, Mary overturned the serpent’s curse by listening to God’s Word and con­ceiving the Word within her body. Hence the theological pun: Eva’s disobedience was reversed by the angel’s Ave to Mary.

I find this background helpful when people express doubts about the doctrine of the Virgin birth. When we say “He came down from heaven, was incarn­ate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” we are not saying what many seem to as­­sume: that God somehow had sex with Mary and produced a Jesus who was half hu­­man and half divine.

Doctrinal statements are explicit: Christ is no hybrid — he is both fully God and fully human. The point being made here is subtle and pro­found: Christ is not the result of any human will or act, only of God’s will and Mary’s consent: a virgin birth. That is why I not only reject the idea that God somehow had sex with Mary, but I am reluctant to go along with the commonsense assumption that Jesus was conceived as the result of normal human inter­course.

Somehow, Christmas forces us to suspend judgement, to let the mys­tery be. Meanwhile, the chal­lenge is not to attempt to dissolve the mystery by speculating about how Jesus ob­­tained a Y chro­mosome, but to emu­late Mary: to hear the word of God, and let God bring Christ to birth within our lives.

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