Sometimes we get hung up on strange details – like where did the Y chromosome come from? [here & here & here, for the curious] But the story of the virgin birth isn’t about chromosomes. It’s not about genetics, not about science at all. And the truth it proclaims isn’t about some miracle of divine reproductive technology. The truth it proclaims is about your life. And my life. About human society and its foolishness and a living God who acts in unexpected ways.
I think Karl Barth understood
. . . the male is excluded here. The male has nothing to do with this birth. What is involved here is, if you like, a divine act of judgment. . . The male, as the specific agent of human action and history, with his responsibility for directing the human species, must now retire into the background, as the powerless figure of Joseph. . . here the woman stands absolutely in the foreground. [Dogmatics in Outline]
Historically the male has been the agent of power and dominance in human society. In the Christmas story, the male is relegated to helpless role of bystander. This is God engaging directly with humans, not through systems of economic or political power, not through potency at all, but through a direct encounter with Mary, woman of the earth, child of oppression. And Joseph stands by, scratching his head, trying his best to figure out what is going on and somehow react appropriately.
But there was another legend about the birth of Jesus, that it took place in a cave. So strong was it that St. Helena in the 4th Century built the Church of the Nativity over the place where the cave was believed to be, and that remains Jesus official birthplace in Catholic tradition. In that story, Joseph, after placing Mary in the cave runs out to try to find a midwife. Off he goes knocking on doors. Trying to do the male thing, help fix a problem. And he misses the whole blessed event. Different story. Same truth. If this story was proven to be more historical than the barn story would it matter? Not at all. It’s the truth that changes us, not its historicity, not its factuality.
And the truth is this: God doesn’t need your help, doesn’t depend on your strength. God doesn’t love us for our competencies and doesn’t reject us for our incompetencies. In reality, God loves us as much for our incompetencies and foolishness as for our wisdom and strength [which is generally fleeting at best anyway]. That is why the holy birth was attended by such a strange entourage of peasant-shepherds, farm animals and holy pagans. They are us. And every year we are invited once again to join them, to give up our pretensions, our illusions about ourselves, and stand by, helpless and bewildered, delighted and blessed. It’s a holy moment. And we get to share in it each year. What could be better.