Musings on the Annunciation

With the Episcopal Church’s adoption of the Three Year Lectionary, there has been a loss of significance concerning the lighting of the pink candle traditionally done on Advent III and the proclamation of the Annunciation. The candle is still lit on Advent III accompanied by a gospel about John the Baptist with the gospel reading for the Annunciation now occurring  today on Advent IV.

On Advent Sunday the lectionary moved us back to the first of our three-year cycle of readings. This Advent we have been hearing from the Gospel according to Matthew. Note the wording here the wording that each sunday announces the proclamation of the Gospel  hear the holy gospel according to — –.Each Gospel writer or Evangelist although following a general outline has a theme and a context that is particular to the time and place in which they lived. Although the Evangelists are constructing their narrative under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they are writing after the facts – so to speak. Or put another way they are setting the facts into an overarching narrative about God’s action in the world. Writing after the fact is an important point to which I will return later.

Matthew is a Jewish writer writing for a Jewish Christian context and so sets the local story about Jesus of Nazareth into the historical context of God’s call of the Israel – the Jews to be his people. In Jesus the promises that God makes to Israel are finally fulfilled. In Jesus the Law of Moses and the prophecies of Isaiah are fulfilled and for Matthew the symbolism of Jesus is that he is the new Moses, and also the Emmanuel spoken of by Isaiah. But not only the law but all human desire and longing is fulfilled and made compete in Jesus. This includes our individual desires and longings.

So Matthew opens with a long genealogy which locates Jesus in line of decent from Abraham. The message here is that Jesus emerges out of and is the completion of an historical relationship between God and the Jewish people.

The Birth of Jesus

Matthew begins with ‘the birth of Jesus took place like this’ ….

  1. Mary discovers she is pregnant while engaged but not yet married to Joseph. Unlike today sex before marriage is not an explanation for her pregnancy.
  2. Joseph is shocked and in two minds about what to do. The Law allows him to take her to court and have the engagement annulled. Or he can deal with the matter quietly and send her back to her family without a fuss.
  3. While trying to figure out what to do he has a dream in which God tells him to marry Mary because her pregnancy results from an action of God’s holy spirit. Joseph is also told to name the child Joshua – savior of the people.
  4. In the dream Joseph is told that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise made through the prophet Isaiah – a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name will be called Emmanuel – God is with us.
  5. Joseph listens to his dream, marries Mary and does not consummate the marriage until after Jesus is born.

The doctrine of the Virgin Birth

In liberal theological circles its fashionable to describe the doctrine of the Virgin Birth as a myth.  There is often confusion over meaning of term ‘myth’. Is the VB a version of a myth similar to others found in the classical religions of the Mediterranean?

No the VB is not a myth like the conception of Apollo or Hercules. The way Matthew tells the story there is a marked absence of the literary convention of the heroic tale. Its an ordinary story rich in biographical detail in which we see the protagonists as two perplexed, frightened, and ultimately courageous human beings. They struggle to understand what is happening to them and this struggle forces them to move beyond the conventional frame of their society into the uncharted territory of an encounter with the divine. The most important detail in this story is that Joseph heeded the call of the luminous moment (Interpreter Bible). Although Matthew does not mention it the same theme is picked up by Luke, who implies that Mary could have said no! The message of Gabriel to Mary is that of an invitation that requires a willing response on both her’s and Joseph’s parts.

Does myth of the VB mean a story that fills the gap left by an incomplete scientific understanding of human procreative biology? If Matthew had had a biological understanding of the possibilities and limitations of human procreation would he have told the story like this?

If we think Matthew is offering us a pre-modern explanation of how Jesus was conceived then we miss his point completely. Matthew presumably knew enough about sexual procreation to know that what he was writing seemed highly improbable if understood as a biological explanation. Have you seen those paintings of the Annunciation that depict a ray emanating from the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove or from the mouth of Gabriel and entering into the ear of the BVM. Is this a kind of Star Trek beam me up Scotty kind of sexual penetration with laser ray? Hardly! I noted earlier and said I would return to the point that Matthew is writing after the fact. Matthew is not depicting a supernatural biological event. He is constructing a narrative that accounts for what he and his listeners already experienced as being true. This truth is that in the birth of Jesus God has come into the world and everything has changed as a result.

Does our scientific understanding of human biology now mean that we use the word myth to view the VB as a kind of fairy story which is no-longer credible to the modern mind?

The Narrative of the VB, which occurs in both Matthew and Luke comes to be understood in the early Church period in a variety of ways. This variety of interpretations later recognized as heresies increasingly gave concern resulting in the need for an Ecumenical Council to thrash the truth out once and for all. The result was the Nicene Creed in which the Church states that Jesus who is the pre-existent second person of the Trinity was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit – came down from heaven – and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary – and was made human. Like Matthew the Nicene doctrine emerges after the fact so to speak as an affirmation of the essential experience of the Early Church.

Again this is not an explanation of a process its a statement of a belief. A belief that has arisen to account for a lived experience that in Jesus the God of Israel has created a completely new relationship with humanity. This relationship is a new covenant in which the human and the divine while remaining distinct are equal participants in a relationship – a relationship which mirrors the equality yet separation of the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the ‘persons’ whose relationship makes up the Trinity. By the time of the Council of Nicaea the Church has the gospel of John where Jesus makes the point over and over again that if the Father and he are one so then the Father and we are one through him.

In Jesus our human nature and God’s divine nature meet in relationship yet remain distinct. Nicaea repudiated all heretical explanations, which tried to say either God is masquerading under the guise of being human in a semi divine Jesus (allusions to Classical thinking) or Jesus is a really great and good man – a Buddha-like figure through whom God speaks. The VB is the formula that explains nothing. Instead it protects the mystery of God’s reaching-out to his creation and pulling us into a relationship of equality hither-to unknown and unthinkable. This is a truth we can’t explain but a truth we nevertheless experience the fruits of in our lives as Christians.

Today we live in a world dominated by the scientific paradigm. Science seeks only to explain what it can see. If it can’t see it, it can’t explain it, and so is silent on the matter. As the technologies of observation increase scientific explanations change and advance. For three hundred years the proponents of theology as a competing explanatory paradigm have fought with science and lost every battle. Today fundamentalist Christianity challenges the theory of evolution as if they are competing explanatory systems for the origin of the universe. Science and theology differ. There is no competition between scientific theory and theological belief. Theory and belief operate completely differently. Theory seeks to make the unknown known about. Belief seeks to protect the mystery of what we experience yet can’t know about from being reduced to mere explanation.

As Episcopalians our Church accepts only the teaching of the first five centuries of the Christian Church – which is up to the end of the last great Ecumenical Council. Therefore, unlike liberal Protestants we cannot jettison the VB or any other teaching of the Tradition when it seems to conflict with scientific explanation. The tripartite balance between Scripture, Tradition and Reason which Anglican Tradition upholds constantly propels us into an engagement between our own experience and the teaching of the Tradition through which the Church has come to understand Scripture. This bears a richer fruit than simply editing the Tradition to fit the arrogance of modern minds. We avoid easy explanation as the basis for faith and experience faith as a journey involving a struggle with mystery. I use the word mystery here to describe what we cannot ever know or control and yet dimly perceive and experience. For us the VB is not about biology at all its about the mystery of God’s action in the salvation of the world. It articulates God’s first invitation of the New Covenant. Like all invitations it awaits appropriate response. In this way humanity is invited into a new covenant to with God co-create the Kingdom together.

As Episcopalians sacramental worship lies at the heart of our practice. In this context I conclude with the final stanza from a great 20th century mystics response to the invitation to Rejoice.

Fifteen years old –

The flowers printed on her dress

Cease moving in the middle of her prayer

When God, Who sends the messenger,

Meets His messenger in her Heart.

Her answer, between breath and breath,

Wrings from her innocence our Sacrament!

In her {white} body God becomes our Bread.

Annunciation by Thomas Merton

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