I loved the Christmas story growing up. It was the one time of year that church seemed to center around the children. We sang songs without hymnals and performed pageants where the costumes were more important than the words we memorized. There was a sense of mystery in all of this and perhaps, besides the candle light, it felt mysterious that Jesus had actually once been a baby and a little kid just like me. When I was a teenager I still liked the baby’s birth but the “virgin” birth was troubling. My questions were answered by adults who quoted Gabriel who explained it to Mary, “With God all things are possible.” I began to think that believing in the “Virgin Birth” determined whether one was a real Christian. You can imagine my relief when I asked my New Testament professor in college what he thought. His response was simply, ” Certainly you don’t think you are the only Christian in history who has questioned the meaning of virgin birth?” I felt a bit embarrassed by his short response but I left his office with a great sense of relief.
In Seminary the “virgin birth” was addressed by current scholarship: being born of a virgin was a popular myth in the Roman Empire therefore the Caesars claimed to be born of virgins. Since the myth was used to connect the throne of the Caesars to the throne of the gods we can’t help but ask why the writer/s of Luke wouldn’t use the myth of the Virgin Birth to usurp the power of the Roman Empire that had dehumanized the existence of their community? I could hardly contain my excitement regarding the implications of this information.
In the spirit of the Hebrew prophets who had gone before them, the early Jesus community risked their lives and used the story of Jesus birth to address the greed of Emperors, wealthy patrons and political priests who claimed God as their refuge while at the same time refusing to provide refuge for the widows, orphans and the poor. Reframing the “virgin” birth in the context of Roman Culture, the Gospel of Luke opens up the story of the “little people” (represented by Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds) who live as the “expendables” in the Great Roman Empire. Mary’s Magnificat becomes a political protest; the poor are lifted up rather than disposed of by earthly political power.
I am excited that the children and youth of Wellspring are putting on the play, “The Version Birth“, by Dot Saunders-Perez; Music & Lyrics by Janet Allyn. I am deeply grateful that they will not grow up wrestling with an outdated doctrine of the church, but a radical story of the expendables who believed and were transformed because God showed up in their neighborhood in the flesh of one who looked like them!
Pondering the meaning and mystery of Christmas……..Naomi (Luke 1: 26 -56)