Breath of the Spirit: Just How Did the Word Become Flesh?
Despite the gospel accounts, and to some extent because of them, the historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth are shrouded in mystery. To some Christians, belief in the historical nature of Scripture is a matter of faith. But what precisely does it mean to be “conceived through the Holy Spirit?” Today’s reflection, offered on the cusp of our annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity, invites us to consider who Jesus is to us. And, more importantly, why?
December 18, 2022: Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A
Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Just How Did the Word Become Flesh?
A reflection by Marianne Seggerman
The first instance of Christian mercy occurred when Jesus was still in the womb. A very young Mary is pregnant – and her fiancé, a skilled laborer named Joseph who could be twice her age, knows the child-to-be isn’t his. By law, if a woman, or in this case a girl barely in her teens, became pregnant by someone other than her religiously married husband, her punishment was stoning to death. Nowadays when a girl of fourteen or fifteen turns up pregnant – where there is no obvious boyfriend – it is usually a case of incest or rape – or both. Biblical law didn’t have that insight – or didn’t care. But Joseph believes his intended wife is innocent – or doesn’t want to see her put to death, so even before the angel tells him that he should go through with the marriage he has decided to circumvent the law. Think of how much different the history of the world would be if Joseph intended to execute the letter of the law. Even if he had sent his teenage wife-to-be back to her family – what would her life have been? She would have lived out the rest of her life in disgrace – and her son would have had to grow up with the stain of illegitimacy. I have wondered why people who call themselves pro-life do not point out more often that Jesus was an unplanned pregnancy (at least in human terms) and conceived by a girl who was not married at the time. Perhaps because the alternative was not birth of the child but death to the child’s mother.
Today’s gospel tells of Mary’s becoming pregnant as a result of an act of God. Interestingly, this story resembles the Greek myth of Danae, who likewise became pregnant by a god. The first reading is understood in Christian tradition as a prophecy about the birth of the Messiah, there referred to as Emmanuel. The gospel assumes the prophecy was of a virgin with child, but the passage from Isaiah is more accurately understood as a young woman with child – without mention of how she got that way. The late (Episcopal) bishop John Phillip Spong suggests that when a gospel account fulfills an Old Testament prophecy it was on account of the New Testament being written to show that the Old Testament prophecy was in fact fulfilled. Shocked? Scandalized? I’m not. Something wonderous occurred, an event of historic and spiritual importance – and the story gets told and retold until a few decades or even centuries later it gets written down. This is part and parcel of the way humans have made meaning throughout our history.
The second reading in fact contradicts the Catholic belief of the Virgin Birth (which as Sister Mary Ignatius explains is not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception). If Jesus is descended from the house of David through Joseph – biblical begats generally trace father to son with only an occasional mention of the mother – then Jesus would have to be Joseph’s biological son. This difference in the account of how Jesus came to be doesn’t bother me any more than reconciling the difference between the four different creation stories in Genesis with Darwin’s theory of evolution – for the same reason. Divine Wisdom is not the same as human history or scientific fact. Abraham Heschel, in God in Search of Man, wrote that at certain points events occurred where God made God’s presence known – and the Bible is our human effort to write down what happened – to try and make sense of it. A primary event for Christians was the birth and life of an extraordinary man, the son of a carpenter, born into humble surroundings but whose life was such that we base our calendar on it. However Jesus came to be, it is the second reading which resonates with me the most – descended from David according to the flesh but established in power as Son of God through resurrection from the dead.
Marianne Seggerman joined the chapter of Dignity New Haven around 30 years ago. That chapter is no longer, alas, but she continues to attend the biannual conference. In her day job she is a computer programmer living (and for the moment working) in Westport, Connecticut. She is in a long-term relationship with a person raised Jewish who converted to the Mormon faith.