Of all the miracles recorded in the bible, none has been derided as much as the virgin birth. The skeptic who turns a cool ear to stories about walking on water, healing the sick, and raising the dead will, more often than not, sneer at the very mention of the virgin birth. For many folks, it is a doctrine that has caused them to stop short of faith, or so they claim.
It is as if the One who breathed the universe into existence by a mere utterance lost the ability a few millennia later. Yet Jesus was not the first child brought into the world in an unconventional manner. Isaac was born to a barren, geriatric mother, so was John the Baptist, and let’s not forget Adam and Eve.
For Isaac, the circumstances were so unusual that when his mother, Sarah, was told of her impending pregnancy, like a modern-day skeptic she laughed. In John’s case, his father, Zechariah, didn’t laugh, but his response, “How can I be sure,” betrayed a measured dose of doubt. Which makes Mary’s reaction to her annunciation all the more remarkable.
An inconvenient message
By all external measures, there was nothing exceptional about the mother of Jesus. As a young teenage girl in a backwater town in Galilee, Mary lacked the social status and experience of Zechariah and Sarah. Zechariah was a temple priest, Sarah was the wife of a patriarch, and, most significantly, both were married. But Mary was an unwed peasant engaged to a common carpenter.
Despite her humble circumstances, Mary’s shock at the angel’s visitation did not give way to doubt. When told that she will conceive the long-awaited Messiah, Mary neither scoffs nor asks for proof. Instead, she wonders aloud, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Mary was not questioning the fact of what would be; she was curious about the how. Even as an inexperienced teenager, Mary knew that babies arrive only after a man and woman come together; and she had not been with a man. It cannot be underestimated how inconvenient this message was.
In that day, betrothal was tantamount to marriage except that the man and woman did not live together. Pregnancy for an engaged woman meant one of two things: adultery or fornication. Either way, knowing nods and innuendoes passed through hand-covered lips were sure to be an enduring sting on Mary’s heart. Nevertheless, when the angel explains the “how,” Mary submits, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”
Most people would have reacted to the angel’s enigmatic answer with more questions: What do you mean “the Most High will overshadow” me? How will my husband react? What will people think, say? What’s to become of me if my family turns me out? Who will care for my child? For Mary, it was enough to know that her child would come by supernatural means.
But what about us? How do we react when God calls us to something that is beyond our abilities, circumstances, and understanding? Do we snicker, like Sarah? Do we ask for certainty, like Zechariah? Do we demand proof of success, like Gideon? Do we make excuses, like Moses? Do we run and hide, like Jonah? Or do we rush to share our joy with a close relative, like Mary?
Throughout my life, I’ve responded in most of those ways. Some years ago, if someone had told me that I would be a writer and commentator on faith and culture, I would have done Sarah proud, letting out a good snort. If the news had come through a seraphic visitation, I may have attributed it, in Ebenezer Scrooge-like fashion, to “A slight disorder of the stomach” brought on by “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
An inconvenient call
Fresh out of grad school and early in my career in the nuclear power industry, I presented a technical paper at a regional conference. Following my talk, a seasoned specialist in the audience came up and remarked, “Regis, that was very good! I wouldn’t have thought that this topic could be presented in such an understandable way. You know, Regis, you’d make a good teacher.”
It had never crossed my mind. As an introverted, number-crunching engineer, my comfort was behind a desk, working out some thorny technical problem, not behind a lectern looking at a group of droopy-eyed students. Although I was encouraged to pursue more technical writing, it would be sometime later before I stretched myself by teaching a class at church.
Over the next few years, there was a nudging. Was it a call, or just my imagining? I couldn’t say. All I knew was that it was inconvenient. So I temporized: Am I supposed to abandon my profession for a teaching ministry? Can’t I serve the Lord just fine in the workplace and within my church? What about my family’s financial needs? OK, I may be a decent teacher, but I’m an accomplished engineer. And so it went.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. It was a time when I felt God’s presence more intensely and continuously than at any time before or since. After a year of medical intervention and prayer, my body was in remission, my spirit was under conviction, and my life was about to take a new direction.
Upon returning to work after a week-long vacation, I learned that my position was being “surplussed.” That’s corporate-ese for “eliminated.” Strangely, it was a relief. I no longer had to make up excuses or wonder about my next step — it was clear and inescapable: the analytical abilities that God had given me, the communicative skills I developed as an engineer, the biblical knowledge I gained teaching in church, and the worldview training I received as a Colson Fellow, all converged on a single path.
In January 2005, I had my first article published. Within a year, I was writing columns for publications with an international reach and receiving regular responses from readers in countries like Russia, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, responses that fill me with a mixture of joy and humility: Joy, at hearing how people are being enriched through my writing; and humility, realizing that whatever impact it has comes from God who is faithful in equipping those who are faithful in responding to him. For in the divine economy, it is faithfulness (not circulation, “likes,” or reader feedback) and only faithfulness that has value.
Two thousand years ago, an unstoried girl in Nazareth “got” that. She believed God in the face of unbelievable circumstances and was blessed with the greatest gift ever bestowed upon a human being: the privilege of bearing the incarnate Son of God. The virgin’s faithfulness became God’s love-gift to the entire race. And today, we, as generations before us, rightly call her, “blessed.”