The God Who Would Be Man
Thou hast not made, or taught me, Lord, to care
For times and seasons—but this one glad day
Is the blue sapphire clasping all the lights
That flash in the girdle of the year so fair—
When thou wast born a man, because alway
Thou wast and art a man, through all the flights
Of thought, and time, and thousandfold creation's play.
—George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, December 25
“The Incarnation is the central miracle asserted by Christians,” C. S. Lewis said. “They say that God became a man.”
But how did he do it” How did God become a man?
Matthew and Luke explain Jesus’ entry into the world as a virgin birth, or more correctly, a virgin conception, for it was Jesus’ conception and not his birth that was unique. Mary was a normal woman in every way and Jesus’ gestation and birth was normal in every way that matters.
But he had no human father. As the old text puts it, Mary “had known no man.”
Mary herself was concerned with this question, for nothing in her experience led to the expectation that Messiah would be virginal born: “How can this be?” she asked the angel, who then explained, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34, 35). This is mystery and miracle.
Every conception, of course, is a miracle. No woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, no deer a fawn apart from God. But once, for a very special purpose, God dispensed with long line of descendants. With his naked hand he touched Mary’s womb and made a wee bairn who was…well, himself.
Here’s where clinical explanations falter. All we can say is what the first writers said: the child was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). This was inexplicable then as now, and yet was acceptable, a staunch belief enshrined in the earliest creeds. It became part of the minimal faith of new converts. Today it stands at the heart of the Christian creeds.
You ask, “Is it necessary to believe in the virgin birth?” My answer is, “Necessary to what?” I cannot say that those who deny the virgin birth forfeit their right to be called Christians: “the Lord knows those who are his.” But I believe this belief is necessary to be called a biblical, apostolic Christian.
“Does it matter?” you ask. Of course it does. “All this took place,” Matthew informs us, “to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means (Matthew translates), ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23).
This is the point of the story and an answer to the old question: Does God care? Does disease, pain, affliction, handicap, aging and death overwhelm him as much as it does us?
One answer is the Incarnation, for there God entered fully into our suffering. Pain and anguish were his lot from the crib to the cross. He was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with (our) grief.” He was a child of sorrow and of woe. “In all our afflictions he was afflicted.”
Dorothy Sayers says it far better than I: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever the game he is playing with His creation, He has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”
Jesus’ conception, though one of a kind, is timelessly typical of what is eternally true of God. He is, and has always been, Immanuel: “God with us”; the God who would be man.