Before there’s a birth, there has to be a conception. Nine months usually, give or take a few weeks. That’s why this morning’s Gospel is traditionally read on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day Mary heard the Word of God through the angel and conceived the Son of God, our Savior Jesus. That’s also why the Christmas tree isn’t up yet. There’s still one more candle to burn on the Advent wreath. Having a Christmas tree today would be like having a birthday cake at a baby shower. Too soon. The baby’s now here yet. And so this morning, on the threshold of Christmas, with Advent fully pregnant with the Promise of God, we hear again the angel Gabriel and his startling announcement to Mary – “You will conceive and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus.”
Actually, there are two pregnant women in this reading. An old woman named Elizabeth is already sixth months along when her younger cousin Mary receives this strange news from the angel. Which is more surprising? A pregnant senior citizen or a pregnant teenager? No doubt about it. Unwed pregnant teenage girls we have aplenty. But women old enough to be your grandmother? Come now. Even today those things are unheard of. Yet written over this whole episode is the sentence: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
When God speaks the Word, the Word makes impossible things happen. The Word created everything out of nothing – earth and sky, sea and dry land, plants and animals. An old woman and her husband, childless throughout their married life, conceive a child near the end of their lives simply because God says so. A young girl in Nazareth, sixteen or seventeen years old, sending out wedding invitations, is greeted by an angel who says, “Guess what? You’re going to conceive and bear a son and call his name Jesus.”
Impossible, you say. Even with today’s cloning business, the original still had a father. You can’t get rid of fathers, no matter how hard we seem to be trying to make them obsolete these days. To conceive a child you need a father.
It reminds me of the story about a rather dim-witted woman who had a paternity test done on her newborn son. A week later, the office called. “We have the results of your test,” the nurse said. “Well, is he mine,” the woman asked anxiously.
You always know who the mother is. That’s the scandal of today’s Gospel. We now who Jesus’ mother is. We confess her in the Creed – “born of the Virgin Mary.” But His Father? Ah, now there we must believe as Mary did. We must trust that the Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of God shadowed over her, and that wonderful Child she bore is indeed God’s Son. We must believe these things, receive them on faith, trust the Word as Mary trusted the Word of the angel, and said, “May it happen according to your word.”
We must trust as Joseph did. He trusted the word of the angel when he heard that this Child his beloved Mary was carrying as “of the Holy Spirit” and not some other man. Imagine the anguish of that man’s soul as he struggled with the news. Ancient art always shows Joseph off in a corner somewhere with a troubled look on his face, a man caught between doubt and faith. Can this be true? Can a virgin conceive and bear a son, as the prophet Isaiah suggested centuries, as the angel told Joseph in a dream. Can God do it this way? Of course He can. With God nothing is impossible.
Elizabeth conceives in her seniority; Mary conceives in her virginity; sinners are forgiven by God; the dead are raised to life. With God nothing is impossible.
God doesn’t choose the easy and convenient way, does He? You may wonder why. Why do it this way? Why make things so difficult? Why not just appear on a mountain as a man? That’s how we would manage it if we were God and needed to show up. That’s how the Romans and Greeks portrayed their gods. They simply appeared as human beings. The Son of God could have done that. He could have simply appeared one day in the Jerusalem temple or the Jordan wilderness or wherever He wished, and say, “Here I am!” He could have saved Mary and Joseph and all of us the embarrassment. You know, Christianity is tough enough to explain. No religion in the world demands that you take on faith that this Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is the Son of God, who by His death on a Roman cross saved the entire world from sin and death. That’s more than enough to wrap your mind around. But here we run into the scandal of the incarnation, that when God’s Son appeared in time and place, when He took on our human flesh and bone He did it by being conceived as the son of an unwed adolescent living in Nazareth.
Why do it this way? When every option is open to God, why make your appearance this way? I think a clue lies in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3. Where Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline back to David and Abraham, Luke goes back to Adam and God. With Matthew, Jesus is the son of David, son of Abraham. He is the promised heir to David’s throne, who would establish the kingdom forever. And He is the promised Seed of Abraham through whom all the people of the earth would be blessed. But with Luke, Jesus is all of that and more. He is, as Luke tells it in the last verse of the genealogy, “the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” Jesus is son of Adam, and He is Son of God. Or as we sing in the hymn, “Son of God and Son of Man.”
Both Adam’s son and God’s Son. He is like Adam, in the sense that He is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The early church father Irenaeus put it this way (and I paraphrase): The first Adam was born of untilled virgin soil; the second Adam, Christ, was born of a virgin Mother. The Son of God in His humanity embraces, embodies all of humanity in His own body. When the Son of God, the eternal Word through whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together, when the second Person of the undivided holy Trinity became a male human being, the human race received a new head, a new Adam.
Through Adam sin and death came into the cosmos. Disorder, disease, death. Adam chose the way of death over the way of life, and he did for all of us. We are conceived and born in Adam’s sin. The deck is stacked against us. “In sin was I born, and in iniquity did my mother conceive me,” David says in Psalm 51. He’s speaking for all of us. We are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, stuck, imprisoned in their deadly decision to go with knowing good and evil and choosing death as the way of life. We’re all born bent – bent inward, bent away from God, bent in on ourselves. Self-oriented. That’s how we are, and we can’t be fixed. And no one in this world can fix us.
We need a second Adam, a new head, a new birth, a new start, a new creation. We need an insider who is outside of our sin and death. We need a son of Eve who isn’t an heir to Adam’s sin and death.
That’s Jesus. He the second Adam who undoes what the first Adam did. He takes up our humanity into His own humanity. “For us men and for our salvation, He became man.” For us children of Adam, He became the new Adam, embracing all of humanity in His own flesh and blood conceived and born of Mary. This is the point of the incarnation. Here’s why the Son of God goes the difficult, inconvenient, scandalous way of a virgin Mother: To embrace our humanity in every way, literally from the womb to the tomb. There is no part of our humanity that is left out of Jesus’ humanity. He takes up every single step of our human life – from a tiny cluster of cells in Mary’s womb to a nursing baby at her breast to a young boy at the feet of his teachers to a craftsman in his father’s carpentry shop to an itinerant preacher to a dying man on a cross to a dead man in a tomb. That’s our whole life, all of humanity wrapped up in one, unique divine-human Person.
We revel in the Mystery of God Incarnate at Christmas time. “Veiled in Flesh the Godhead see, Hail Incarnate Deity.” The fullness of God dwells in the humblem human flesh of this Child named Jesus. It’s so much beyond what any religion could offer. But there’s more, and the more is our salvation. This isn’t simply God come to be with us, to hang out with us, to show His face for 33 years and then disappear again. Tthis is God come to save us, God embracing each and every one of Adam’s children in His own sinless humanity.
What Jesus does, you do in Him. He is conceived, and in Him you are reconceived. He is born, and in Him you are reborn. He is circumsized and keeps the Law perfectly, and in Him, your are perfected. He suffers and dies for the sins of the world, and in Him you suffer and die for your sins. “You were crucified together with Christ.” “Christ died for all, and therefore all died.” He rises from the dead, and in Him you rise. He is glorified at the right hand of God, and in Him you, indeed all humanity, is glorified.
It’s as though God took everything in this world, and put it all one this one Person whose Father is the Father and whose mother is the virgin Mary. And don’t take my word for it. Listen to the apostle Paul:
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them (2 Cor. 5:19).
For He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his prupose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in Him things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:9-10)
For in Him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. (Col 1:20)
I know this isheady stuff heading into the holidays, and you’d probably rather have visions of sugar plums dancing in your heads. And maybe you do. But the Incarnation of God in the womb of Mary is far too important to leave to Christmas carols and cards. This baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, He is all of us. He isn’t simply the Christian’s baby, He’s the world’s baby. He’s not just the Savior of some, the few, the chosen, the religious. He’s the Savior of all. Christmas really isn’t a Christian holiday, the way Chanukkah is a Jewish holiday, or Rammadan is a Muslim holidy. Christmas is the world’s holy day. Humanity has been taken up by the Son of God. Whether we know it or not, want it or not, believe it or not. He’s got the whole world in His little fetal hands.
He is Immanuel. God with us. He is us. He is the sufferer, the victim, the sacrifice. He is the unborn fetus, the newborn child, the toddler, the teenager, the adult, the dying man, the dead man in the funeral home. He’s taken up everything that’s gone wrong with us – our sin, our disease, the terror we inflict on each other, our pain, our suffering, our abandonment. He has taken it all into His own humanity and reconciled it all to God – in the womb of Mary, in the manger, on the cross, at the right hand of God.
Behold, the Mystery revealed –
The eternal God is here conceived
Infinite in finite virgin’s womb received.
Creator of the cosmos now the creature
Word made flesh with servant’s feature
Son begotten without a mother
Here conceived without a father.
God and man are reconciled.
In the name of Jesus,