During the time of Jesus, there were many superstitions and unexplained phenomenon. Science was not advanced enough to free the mind of an entire people or cast them out into the cold darkness of a mechanized world. Religious and political fears were important factors in keeping society in check. Life was difficult. Those who did not have wealth spent most of their energy attempting to care for their physical well-being as well as that of their families. The rich, on the other hand, were busy protecting their wealth and status and also enjoying the fruits of their stature. Then there were those on the fringes of society who, for one reason or another, sought something that lay beyond the offerings of society. These are the rebels, mystics, madmen, hermits, ascetics and others who may have at one point lived in society but then abandoned it or were rejected by it out of disenchantment, necessity or madness. For the sake of this discussion, I shall call these the outcasts. This was the primordial brew out of which the story and genius of Jesus came forth.
In reading the scriptures, one can argue that Jesus had within him a bit of the poet, the rebel, the hermit, the ascetic, the genius, the mystic and the madman. Who among us can deny that we, in varying degrees, harbor all of those characteristics? Among this group of people, ideas were constantly flowing. Those who belonged to society, whether rich or poor, were busy tending to a pre-established system and moving within a certain range of life. There may not have been as much room for contemplation or reflection or creativity or madness among them as there was among the outcasts. Those who lived on the fringes of society were not standing on solid ground but upon unformed terrain that was constantly shifting. On this day, they followed this visionary or healer. On the next day, they followed this rebel-philosopher. And on the next day, they sought to become ascetics. The point here is that instability and uncertainty and confusion are fertile grounds for creativity, whether within an individual or a whole society. Unlike those who lived and accepted the clearly formed or fossilized ideas of society, of theology, the outcasts were living constantly with chaos, out of which at times sprung new ideas or potentialities. Not all of these ideas of course were fruitful and there were certainly many pitfalls; however, if there is such a thing as an evolution of ideas, it was present among the outcasts. They were creating among them, whether they knew this or not, the clearly formed or fossilized ideas of tomorrow's societies. This scenario has taken place regularly in human history.
Moving from the societal setting to the individual, in the story of Jesus we find a man who has clearly undergone some profound transformation of sorts, perhaps at a very early age. And the importance and power of this revolution are inflected and most effectively expressed through historical context. The story begins in Matthew 1:23, "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." The Church traditionally interprets the word "virgin" as a woman who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. Although the word "virgin" in ancient times referred to a woman who had never borne a child, the Gospel of Luke 1:34 makes it very clear that this was an immaculate conception. Of the four Gospel authors, Luke is the only one who spells out this Immaculate Conception. The verse states: "Then said Mary unto the angel: How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." So we have a phenomenon by which a child is conceived not by the familiar concept of sexual intercourse, but by divine inspiration.
This is one of the richest and most beautiful metaphorical notions in Scripture. But first we must ask how we should ponder Jesus' birth and roots, if the Virgin Birth is not physically factual? It is absolutely abhorrent for the traditional Christian to even imagine that Jesus was born out of wedlock, a product perhaps of infidelity or momentary, fleeting passion. Social morals and taboos even prohibit us from approaching this idea further, but these morals and taboos can also be blinding and limiting. Is it not fitting for the Savior of the world to come through that which society rejects and that which shatters orthodox vision? Is it not fitting for the Savior to be born in modesty and humility, a reject of social norms, having no glorious lineage from earthly kings and emperors? Is it not fitting for the Savior to be lacking of a socially sanctioned biological father, to be an earthly orphan whose Father is found not in the Roman Empire but in a far greater Kingdom? And yet – and this is what Jesus tried to teach us – if we do not get to know our heavenly Father, through self-knowledge (“The kingdom of heaven is within you”), we remain the true orphans and the true illegitimate, misbegotten children who have no root, no matter how wealthy we are or how noble and glorious our biological lineage may be. The Scriptures emphasize often to a fault that the lineage of Jesus goes back to King David. Traditional Christianity takes this proclamation as a fact rather than as a symbol for the powerful new paradigm that Jesus is bringing into the world.
In the metaphorical Virgin Birth we can decipher two interconnected ideas. One idea is that this renaissance, this rebirth is inspired not by tradition, the repetition of familiar patterns and the same established ideas, but by something quite more profound, unique and revolutionary. The other idea reflects the rebirth or transformation of the human being, not from flesh and blood but from a greater dimension or intelligence. It is a renewal of the self. Jesus is the visible representation of these notions. In other words, one idea addresses the source as inspiration and the other addresses the transformation of the human being.
First, the Virgin Birth is the birth that is not the product of man and woman but of a more profound inspiration. It is in this Virgin Birth, enshrouded in wonder and mystery that we are born of the spirit, of the heart, of the landscape of love and compassion. Consider this example: Ludwig Van Beethoven, and many others like him, conceived many compositions that live on and are loved all over the globe. Beethoven never had any children; however he composed many musical compositions that are most certainly his children, born of his mind. They live with us in our hearts even now. Also consider this: How many children were born in Vienna, at the time that Beethoven was composing, who lived and died without making as much of a significant impact upon the lives of others as Beethoven had done? The point is that the power of conception lies not only in the physical sense but also, often in more powerful ways, in works of art or ideas. Physical birth or conception is only one expression, one inflection, or one metaphor for the creative power. Artists are constantly giving birth to works of art that impact the world. Why not think of Jesus in the same way, as a work of art that sprung from the heart of God? Actually, the Gospel of John does exactly this. Consider the verse beginning with John 1:12: "But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." The phrase "and the Word was made flesh" speaks exactly of the poem that flows through the pen of God, the ultimate poet, whereby the word, the poem, becomes real, awakens from parchment, lives and makes an everlasting impression on people. It is not by blood but by inspiration, by the Father. Speaking in terms of music, Jesus was the song and the Father was the composer.
Consider the story of the Greek goddess of wisdom Athene. Greek mythology says that Athene was born fully formed from the head of Zeus, her father. That is to say, she came forth as an idea from the mind of the god of all gods. Now we know that Athene was a divine character in Greek mythology and physically, no such goddess existed; however the impact of this idea upon Greek society was very real indeed. The Greeks built temples, started a cult in her honor and named their city after her. Athene became an integral part of Greek society. Interestingly enough, Athene, as the story goes, never married and remained a virgin. Only the apostle Luke, having come from Greek descent, points to the conception of Jesus as immaculate. There is some evidence here that Luke naturally incorporated some of his Greek heritage in his account of Jesus. So, in the same manner, Jesus was conceived from the mind (or heart) of God. Therefore, the Immaculate Conception is not a rejection of sexual intercourse as unclean or sinful, as it has come to be viewed, but a demonstration of the everlasting life and power of the Idea, of the Word that has become flesh.