He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
(The Apostle’s Creed)

One of the interesting features of saying the Apostles’ Creed regularly (as I do in my context) is that the name of a young woman from the 1st Century is articulated by everyone present. Of course, the significance of this woman is that she is Mary—the mother of Jesus. Nevertheless, for someone who grew up in a Northern Irish Protestant context (where Mary was inextricably linked to Roman Catholicism—the other ‘side’) it is helpful for to be reminded of the importance of Mary. A friend of mine likes to ask her male Christian friends which female Bible characters they most look up to. She is usually met with hesitation as the hapless bloke grasps around for a name, and in so doing realises the one-dimensional nature of his Bible reading. There are many women who could fall into this category but I think of all the women in the Bible, Mary has cause to be regarded as the most significant. Mary’s response to the news her miraculous pregnancy: ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38) is a model of Christian discipleship. However, in the history of the Church, it has been the significance of the virgin birth which has attracted most discussion. In this post, I want to briefly explore 2 ways that Mary and the virgin birth have been thought about.

A friend of mine likes to ask her male Christian friends which female Bible characters they most look up to.

A Wrong Track: Jesus’ Sinlessness

The first is one we can deal with quickly because it is incorrect! It is sometimes argued that Mary had to be a virgin to preserve Jesus’ sinless nature. The assumption seems to be that sin passes through the male DNA. There is no Scriptural evidence for this. Nor is there any evidence for the Roman Catholic teach that Mary herself was sinless from the moment of conception: ‘The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin’.[1] Both these ideas have a biological rather than spiritual understanding of sin. The Scriptures affirm that Jesus was sinless (Hebrews 4:15) without detailing how the incarnation achieved this lack of sin (1 Timothy 3:16 the mystery of godliness)

The Right Track: Divine Salvation

The fact that Mary is a virgin when Jesus is born is referred to in Luke 1. When Mary is told that she will bear a son who will sit on the ‘throne of his father David’ she responds ‘How will this be since I am a virgin?’ (1:34). She is not questioning the angel—like Zechariah earlier in the chapter who had asked ‘how can I know this is true’ (1:18)? No, Mary is simply confused—how can she have a child when she has not known Joseph. The angel replies 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 called holy—the Son of God’. (1:35)

The child will not be born by a natural conception but will be conceived by the Holy Spirit.

We get the same idea in Matthew’s Gospel. Here Mary is described as being ‘found to be with child from the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:18). When Joseph decides to divorce her quietly (presumably thus leading people to think that he had made her pregnant and then abandoned her), the angel reassures him ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ (1:21). The angel continues

‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).

Matthew sees the virgin birth as a fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14. In chapter 7, Isaiah describes how Ahaz, king of Judah, has been pressed to make a treaty with Rezin (king of Syria) and Pekah (king of Israel) to fight against Assyria. Ahaz refuses and so Rezin and Pekah seek to overthrow him and put someone more amenable on the throne who would join with them against Assyria. God offers Ahaz a sign to give him assurance that he should not fear these two kings but he refuses it:

Isaiah 7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz: ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.

God gives him the sign anyway—a virgin will give birth to a boy. This will be a sign that Pekah and Rezin will be defeated. There is not the space to go into the nature of this fulfillment but in the first instance this sign seems to be fulfilled in the birth of Isaiah’s son, the wonderfully-named Maher-shalal-hash-baz (‘The spoil speeds, the prey hastens’; Isaiah 8:3). Matthew understands this birth to be a model, a fore-shadowing or a ‘type’ of Jesus’ utterly miraculous birth.

What is the significance of the virgin birth for Luke and Matthew? It is not Jesus’ sinlessness, but rather the fact that his birth marks a wholly divine intervention in human history. Jesus is not a super-hero rising from the ranks of humanity but he is God come down, ‘God with us’. He is truly human, born of a woman but he is also truly divine—born in an utterly miraculous way. Salvation has not come from within the ranks of humanity but from God himself.

So, saying Mary’s name regularly in the creed is a wonderful reminder of her trusting response to God’s salvation—a salvation that is wholly and utterly divine in its origin.

[1] Catechism #491 citing Pope Pius IX in 1854.

[2] This illustration is from the late Mike Ovey.