Why a Virgin Birth?

Published December 24, 2020

Continuing our lead-up to Christmas with a discussion of the birth of Jesus:

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Some people have the notion the Virgin Birth was a sort of divine stunt meant to impress people about Jesus’ bona fides during his public ministry and get them to believe he is the Son of God.  But this is false for two reasons.

First, God does not do stunts.  The request for stunts was repeatedly rebuffed by Jesus.  Pharisees demanding stunts were told, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4).  When Herod Antipas similarly sought for some magic trick from Jesus, he came away empty-handed (cf. Luke 23:8-9). Jesus comes to seek relationship with us, not to entertain, titillate, or gratify idle curiosity. All attempts to reduce him to a performing monkey—especially from enemies of relationship with him—meet with failure. Most especially, while he will answer (often in riddles) questions asked in order to find things out, there is no record of him answering questions asked in order to keep from finding things out.

The second reason it is false to think the Virgin Birth is a stunt is that stunts are done to ballyhoo and attract attention while the Virgin Birth was, in fact, unknown to Jesus’ contemporaries and only became a part of the preached message of the Church, as far we can tell, after his earthly ministry.

In reality then, the early Church does not treat his Virgin Birth as a stunt, but as a sign. Why a sign?  Because having met the Risen Christ, they have been instructed by his own mouth that he himself is the point of “Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27) and they very understandably include in that remark the words of the prophet Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el.

How they came to see those words applying to Jesus we shall discuss in Chapter 8.  But the point, for the moment is this: signs signify and the early Church therefore took the Virgin Birth to be loaded with significance because they took the whole life of Jesus to be loaded with significance.

The primary thing the Virgin Birth signifies is that the entire project of salvation is God’s initiative, not ours. As the Catechism says:

Mary’s virginity manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. “He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed . . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures” (Council of Friuli (796): DS 619; cf. Luke 2:48-49). (CCC 503).

Jesus, like all of us children of God who call him our older brother, is born, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).  This occurs, not for his benefit, but for ours, as do all the other signs of his life.  He did not need to be born of a virgin, as though the Incarnation would have been impossible any other way.  God chose to be born of a virgin as he chose to multiply loaves and fishes, heal the sick, and raise the dead: as a sign to us of who he is and why he came.

We will resume our discussion on Monday. Till then, Merry Christmas!

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