October 21, 2020

The Third Joyful Mystery: The Birth Of Our Lord

This is part four of our look at the mysteries of the Rosary. I would like to remind you that if you want to purchase a Rosary for yourself, you don’t have to look any further than to the righthand side of this page for Alan Creech Rosaries. Alan is a longtime friend of InternetMonk, and he makes excellent products.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus  (Matthew 1: 18-25).

Do I really have to talk about this one?  Okay, I’m going to talk about this one.  Thanks to the comment from Jack on the Visitation post, and I hope he will permit me to quote from it here:

If we believe in the reality of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, is the Virgin Birth all that important to our religion?  And what might we lose if we say it isn’t?

Yes, it does make a difference that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus (I’m not going to go into the controversy about was she a virgin afterwards in perpetuity or did she have children by Joseph).  We’re all familiar (and indeed, over-familiar) with the account in Luke, the shepherds, the angels and ox and ass and laying the child in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. The lovely, comfortable, sentimental readings we’re accustomed to seeing whether in school nativity plays or art or Christmas cards.  The season all about love and family and generosity and the rest of it.

Jack raised a good point in his comment, so that’s why I’m going with the Gospel of Matthew here.  Matthew gives us the genealogy of Jesus through the line of Joseph, which in combination with Isaiah 11:1. There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit, gave rise to the Jesse Tree imagery in art (as in this charming 15th-century Dutch painting where the descendants of Jesse – asleep at the base of the tree – are quite literally a family tree, hanging onto the branches, until it culminates in Mary and Christ at the peak).

This is all well and good as Joseph is the husband of Mary, and indeed the angel addresses him as “son of David” which emphasizes that the child shall inherit the throne of his forefather David, as foretold in the angelic message at the Annunciation – but then immediately after this genealogy, proving the descent of Jesus as the heir of David, we get the first dissonant (self-contradicting?) note: Joseph is not the father of Jesus.  He is going to put Mary away in a quiet divorce, so as not to disgrace her (and have her liable to be stoned for adultery) but he’s pretty clear that, whoever the father of her child is, it’s not him.

What’s going on here?  In the other miraculous births of the Old and New Testaments, no one doubts who the father is: Abraham is definitely Isaac’s father by Sarah, Elkanah is the father of Samuel by Hannah, Manoah gets Samson on his unnamed wife, Elizabeth becomes pregnant with John by Zechariah, all in the normal way that men and women get children for themselves (and since Abraham and Elkanah, at least, had fathered children by other women, it wasn’t the case that they didn’t know how to plant a cabbage patch for the stork to over-fly as he passed the gooseberry bush).

So if this is no different to the other announcements by an angel that a son shall be conceived and born who will do great things in Israel, why does Matthew point out Joseph as an exception?  If we go into the genealogy as described by Matthew, we find that shady goings-on in regards to sex and marriage and childbirth were present in that line:

1.  Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar: look it up for yourselves if you’re not familiar with the tale; we’ve got two sons killed by God for wickedness (one of whom was Onan, yes, that Onan), disguising yourself as a prostitute, having a child by your father-in-law, and being in danger of being burned to death for prostitution by that same father-in-law when your pregnancy is made known.

2.  Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab.  This may be the Rahab who was a prostitute in Jericho, and saved her family’s life by helping the spies of Joshua.  If she was, you can be pretty sure that – human nature being what it is – Salmon was followed by a lot of sniggering behind his back about his wife’s former profession.

3.  Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth.  Thanks to Chaplain Mike’s Bible study on the Book of Ruth, we all know about Ruth the foreigner who takes the risk of dressing up alluringly and going down to the threshing floor in the evening to lie beside Boaz and get him to marry her.  Even if they didn’t sleep together on that night, this was not the kind of behaviour a respectable woman who wanted to keep her reputation would engage in, is it?

4.  David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.  We all know this story; David gets a married woman pregnant, tries to fob off the pregnancy on the husband who is too wily to fall for that, and eventually resorts to having him murdered on the battlefield in order to marry the widow and legitimise her so

So what is the problem here for Joseph?  Why are we told that he wasn’t the father of this child?  Why is it a scandal?  For the other cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, a story of a young woman getting pregnant by a god would be no big deal, and indeed, that’s one of the rationalisations that gets trotted out; you all know how it goes, you’ve read some version of it or heard it or some earnest person has tried to enlighten you: the later generations (Paul gets the rap here mostly, but not exclusively; Constantine is another popular target for making the Church an arm of the State and allowing paganism to creep in and corrupt the pure primitive faith) of Christians who came along after the Apostles and the first generation had died off naturally built up the figure of Jesus to greater and greater importance and, in competition with the other faiths, they ascribed divine origins to this Jewish wisdom teacher.  They copied the origin myths of the demi-gods and heroes in the cultures around them, particularly as Christianity spread amongst the Gentiles and they were appealing to the Greek and Roman world.

Sure, the myths and legends of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Babylonians, the Persians – all of them were full of maidens and strange births.  You can go farther afield and find the same thing: the birth of the Buddha has become festooned with legends of portents and miraculous events, even though strictly speaking Gautama Buddha did not represent himself as a god or son of a god.  The amours of Zeus, where he takes the form of bull or swan or shower of gold or cloud to prosecute his desires are well-known in mythology; the more practical-minded Romans borrowed these legends and only really generated one of their own, where the virgin Rhea Silvia is seduced by Mars and becomes mother of Romulus and Remus; the mysterious dying and reborn deities Tammuz or Attis (born of no human father to a virgin) or Adonis which were celebrated cults of the neighbors of the Jews; Horus begotten on Isis by the dead Osiris – but in all these cases, there is no doubt that if the woman was a virgin before her encounter with the god, she did not remain so.  And for a sect that arose within Judaism to generate such a mythos was very strange; Yahweh was a god without a consort or family, without offspring or parents, unlike the other deities.  Someone claiming to be a son of the Most High was not a prophet or hero like Moses or Joshua or Samson or Samuel; he was a blasphemer and heretic, and the reaction of the High Priest is completely appropriate:

But he remained silent and made no answer.  Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”  And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need?  You have heard his blasphemy.  What is your decision?”  And they all condemned him as deserving death”  (Mark 14:61-64).

But Jesus remained silent.  And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so.  But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy.  What further witnesses do we need?  You have now heard his blasphemy.  What is your judgment?”  They answered, “He deserves death” (Matthew 26:63-66).

For a Jew among Jews, claims of divinity were not assertions of a traditional line of descent, as amongst the Greeks whose nobles and rulers claimed their families were founded by the heroes and demi-gods who were sons of Zeus or the other gods, or a political ploy to claim legitimacy of rule, as Julius Caesar did by emphasizing the Julian family’s descent from Venus through Ascanius (or Iulus), the son of Aeneas the Trojan, founder of what would become Rome: it was shocking, intolerable, and would draw down a curse on the people.  And we still have to deal with this claim, that God who created the universe and all in it, God who is above us, God that is transcendent, is also God the immanent, God who came down to dwell with us, God who shares our flesh, God made Man.

We have to deal with it, because unless we’re willing to accept a euhemerised view of the Gospels and say that such statements as the following are later interpolations by those trying to create divine origins for the rabbi and thaumaturge, then we must come up with some explanation for this scandal:

“You are doing the works your father did.”  They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality.  We have one Father — even God.”

The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon!  Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’  Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  And the prophets died!  Who do you make yourself out to be?”  Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing.  It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’  But you have not known him.  I know him.  If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.  Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad.”  So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8: 41;52-59).

Obviously, we have two quite different understandings in these passages of what it means to call God our father; the Jews who are questioning Jesus (and John tells us that up to now, these were Jews who had followed Him) claim God as their Father, but this is not to be taken as Father in the flesh.  Jesus claims equality and co-eternity with God, His Father in a completely different sense.  His listeners don’t hear Him as making an analogy or saying “We’re all the children of God”, they hear Him as making an outrageous, even unnatural, claim.

You can be a good, moral, right-living person who believes in some way in the Incarnation, but not that Jesus was the Son of God, the actual Second Person of the Trinity, incarnate by the Holy Spirit of Mary, the virgin.  You can be an Arian, a Unitarian, a Mormon.

What you can’t be is a Christian.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

 

 

Comments

  1. Awesome series, Martha. As a protestant, I do think we may have thrown the baby out with the holy water when it comes to much of the ancient history and traditions of the Church. Reading about how deep some of those traditions go and the accompanying theology, has been enlightening. Thank you!

    • Christopher, these were going to be short, filler-material type ponderings on a quick canter through the twenty (by the new count) mysteries of the Rosary, done in as non-denominational a style as I could manage, so as to avoid controversy. Something fast and brief to answer Jeff’s call for help while Chaplain Mike was on sabbatical in October (and since October is the month of the Rosary, that’s where the lightbulb went ‘ding!’ over my head).

      You see how that turned out 😀

      • Jack Heron says

        My apologies for the chaos I seem to have unleashed.

        On the other hand, if it means I get to read more of your writing, Martha, I’m not sorry at all.

        • Jack, no bother at all. See what happens when I’m actively trying not to be controversial? In future, I will stick to safe topics that cannot possibly offend anyone at all – like the message of Garabandal is the only thing that can save us all, or calls for the revelation of the real Third Secret of Fatima, or the necessity for all humanity to kneel before the throne of the destined God-Emperor of the entire Earth, the Pope 😀

          Jack, you have to write something and send it in to Jeff for publication. I am longing for a view from people on the non-crazy zealot Catholic side of things to balance me out. Please throw a few thoughts together on your views and what you think the development of Christian doctrines entails in the modern world (if I can con my way on here, anyone can do it!).

          • Martha, Maybe after the 20 Mysteries you could do a post on the four last things: Death, judgment, heaven and hell.
            That would be interesting.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            The Four Last Things.

            i.e. what “Eschatology” meant long before it became Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist.

          • Jack Heron says

            Sure, Martha, I could probably sort something out. Now all I have to do is decide how heretical I want to be…

        • Oh, Anne – can you imagine? I start off “Hell exists” and then – well, remember the Rob Bell kerfulffle?

          We’ll be having pitched battles in the combox between those who hold to a literal fire and those who are universalists, with the annilihationists getting caught in the crossfire 🙂

          • Ah, but that assumes annilihationists don’t believe in hell. 😉

          • James, that’s why they’d be getting it in the neck from both sides: “We believe hell exists, but we don’t believe there’s anyone in it” 😉

          • LOL, so true. 🙂

          • And if your going to talk about that then we need to throw in sanctifying and actual grace, venial and mortal sin and (gasp) the “p” word (sounds kind of like laboratory only with a p… and a u instead of an a….and an r and g….. oh I’m giving it away…)

  2. Dear MARTHA,

    thank you so very much for all of this series. . . .

    I found this for you on youtube and wanted to share it. I hope you like Anuna’s choral work:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMydR6G0U4o&feature=related

  3. Okay, I’ll just lob one more coal on the fire, then let this topic rest. Here is an extract from John Shelby Spong, a retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church:

    “No modern person understanding genetics and reproduction can believe that virgins conceive, nor can those who understand what death does to the human body in a matter of just minutes still view the resurrection as the resuscitation of a deceased body after three days. Biblical scholars know that the accounts of the crucifixion read in Christian churches on Good Friday are not eye witness reports, but developed interpretations of Jesus’ death based on a series of Old Testament texts selected to convince fellow Jews that Jesus “fulfilled the scriptures” and thus really was the “messiah.””

    And this is a prime example of what I termed “chronological snobbery”. Maybe our remote ancestors did not have an understanding of genetics, but they fully understood that to get a baby, a daddy and a mommy must love one another very, very much. They were more intimately familiar with what a corpse would be like after three days in the grave (why, I believe it was my own namesake who pointed out at the time the condition her brother’s body would be in) than we are nowadays.

    Whatever else you want to think about them, they knew as much as we do that you don’t get pregnant without sex and that dead is dead. That’s why they were willing to believe in miracles; not because they were more credulous or less educated than ourselves, but because they knew something when they fell over it. Does Bishop Spong really think St. Joseph needed him to whisper in his ear “You know, your betrothed must have cheated on you with another man” when he found out she was pregnant?