Centuries before the Eastern and Western churches split, the church began to call her the Queen of Heaven, thinking to honor her. In Scripture, however (Jeremiah 7:18; 44:15-18), the queen of heaven is a pagan fertility goddess. When God’s people worshiped her, they provoked God to anger. It’s an insult to Mary to give her the same title as a false goddess.
In centuries of art and church teaching, Mary becomes some kind of other-worldly figure, devoted to perpetual virginity.
Nowadays, a child often portrays Mary church pageants. Another may portray the angel Gabriel. They perform the same stereotyped gestures year after year in churches all over the world. It becomes hard to remember Mary was a real human being. Even realizing her humanity, the very familiarity of her story may keep us from recognizing its strangeness.
The annunciation in Scripture
26 In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came to her and said, “Rejoice, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. 30 Then the angel told her:
Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
31 Now listen:
You will conceive and give birth to a son,
and you will call His name Jesus.
32 He will be great
and will be called the Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give Him
the throne of His father David.
33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,
and His kingdom will have no end.
34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?”
35 The angel replied to her:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore, the holy One to be born
will be called the Son of God.
36 And consider your relative Elizabeth—even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38 “I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her. – Luke 1:26-38, HCSB
Why the emphasis on virginity?
The virgin birth has been a stumbling block for unbelievers (in and out of the church) from the beginning. But notice in v. 32, the promised child will be called Son of the Most High, and in v. 35, the Son of God. Gabriel promised that God himself will come into the world as a human through Mary.
That promise fulfills numerous Old Testament prophecies, including one in Isaiah 7:14 that explicitly says that a virgin will conceive and bear a son. Isaiah 9:6 declares his name will be, among others, Mighty God.
In John 10:1-2, Jesus said, “I assure you: Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheep pen by the door but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” Later in the chapter, he identifies himself both as the door an as the good shepherd. Anyone who attempts any kind of ministry apart from Jesus is a thief and a robber.
But how did Jesus get here?
The legitimate door into the world is through a woman’s birth canal. To become the door and the good shepherd, God had to come through the door. Anyone who asserts Jesus did not claim to be God incarnate hasn’t read the book of John very carefully.
So Gabriel promised Mary that she would conceive a special son. She was betrothed to Joseph. She expected to consummate her marriage to him and have children. Remember that the conversations we have in Scripture are mostly summaries of what must have been longer than what’s recorded. Gabriel must have said something specify that this conception would be different.
Mary asked him how it would happen, but before considering Gabriel’s answer, we need to consider why God chose to do it that way.
The normal way of producing children had become tainted by sin. Having sex within a marriage is not a sin. A sexual relationship between sinless parents would produce a sinless child. Unfortunately, God didn’t have any of those available. Consider all the sin in Jesus’ family tree.
Genesis 3:1 says that the serpent was more clever than all the animals the Lord had made. It does not say more clever than any of the other animals. The serpent was not one of the animals God made for the garden, but Satan himself. He did not come into the world by the door. He jumped the fence.
We learn in Genesis 5:3, by the way, that God’s name for both the man and woman in the garden was Adam. Adam is the generic word for human in Hebrew. It says in the same verse that Adam had a son in his own image.
God had told Adam he could eat of any tree in the garden except one. The serpent persuaded Adam to eat of that tree. A son in Adam’s image therefore would be a son who had chosen rebellion over obedience. A son, therefore, who functionally acknowledged Satan, not God, as his lord.
In Genesis 3:15, God cursed the serpent and promised that the seed of the woman would crush him. Ordinarily, “seed” in the Bible refers to a man’s semen. This is the only reference to the seed of a woman. The first promise of a virgin birth!
Mary’s seedMany modern feminists look at the conversation between Gabriel and Mary and conclude that God had sex with her.
How like a male, they say. God raped a poor, innocent young girl. And she dared to be submissive and become symbolic of sexual purity.
These feminists look at Mary with scorn instead of reverence. They get that attitude directly from the serpent who seduced the first woman.
What Gabriel said was that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and overshadow her. Compare that with Genesis 1:2, where the Holy Spirit hovered over the chaos of the unformed world. The image there is of a hen brooding over her nest of eggs.
We have come to understand conception on the cellular level only in recent centuries. A couple has sex. The man’s sperm unites with the woman’s egg to form a zygote, which is implanted in her uterus. The Holy Spirit essentially created a zygote with no genetic material from either Joseph or Mary and implanted it in her womb.
God had made a sinless human when he made Adam and again when he made the woman Adam called Eve. So he made another one and joined it with his own Holy Spirit. This sinless human had a strange conception followed by a very ordinary birth. Having entered the world through the door, God manifest in flesh defeated all the serpent’s temptations and remained sinless.
Strangeness hidden in familiarity
Enjoy the songs and rituals of the Christmas season. But look past them to contemplate the strangeness:
- an angel (a strange, supernatural being to begin with) appearing to a peasant girl
- fulfillment of multiple prophecies given at various times by various prophets
- God’s personal intervention in human history
- a sinless human being united with the Spirit of God himself
- his choice of a cultural backwater and very ordinary people to make his appearance
- Mary’s courage, knowing the damage unwed motherhood would do to her reputation and Joseph’s
- and much more