On family and the virgin birth

We are bodies, created and mortal, like the grass and the creeping animals; but we are bodies of a different and complex kind. We hunger and ache and struggle and desire, we sicken and die, like all mortal things. But we are, since that fateful moment at the tree, bodies endowed with the knowledge of good and evil, and the faculty of choice. And only through that strange faculty can the story be turned around, and our strange souls and bodies finally saved.

Christianity has always, as a defining feature, insisted on the real and complete physicality of the incarnation. Jesus was flesh as we are flesh, and knew all the joys and pains, and even the random inconveniences, attendant on that condition. Yet he was flesh in a way which was both the same and different, his humanity taken wholly from Mary as (in another reversal of Genesis) Eve was taken wholly from Adam. God enters our physical world, accepts and honours it, but also transforms it. And one of the many implications of that same-and-different flesh, the human flesh redeemed and fully realized, is a reframing of the meaning of “family.”

The concept of the virgin birth of Jesus (or, more accurately, his virginal conception) has perhaps always been a bit perplexing for theologians – similar to, and yet oddly and subtly different from, both the miraculous conception stories in the Jewish scriptures, and the divine impregnation stories from the Greek and Latin world. It is a rare case in which a pregnancy involving some kind of divine intervention is treated as a difficult problem in a socially realistic context, especially in Matthew’s gospel. Even in Luke’s gospel, Mary does not seem, at least initially, particularly pleased by the angel’s announcement, as well she might not be, and speaks rather more like someone who is agreeing to take on a hard and dangerous task. And there may be hints, even in the two gospels which don’t include the story, of some awareness of awkwardness around Jesus’ parentage (the description of Jesus as the “son of Mary” in Mark 6:3; Jesus’ opponents in John 8:41 declaring, “We are not illegitimate children!”, possibly with the implied follow-up, “Unlike some people we could name …”). Luke adds to the strangeness with what appears to be an entirely solitary birth, at a time when both the place of birth, and the presence of midwives and female relatives, were considered important in ensuring the legal status of the infant. From the beginning, it is a story of disruption, dislocation, and marginalization.

And one of the things which is disrupted, in a very deliberate fashion, is genealogical succession. The two gospels which include the virginal conception also include genealogies – the two which don’t include the one, also don’t include the other. It seems that the meaning, the importance, is partly found in the conjunction of the two, not in either treated alone. Genealogy is laid out, its significance is asserted. Joseph’s fatherhood is clearly, in some sense, very real and important – and yet, the narratives make it clear that this fatherhood is not to be understood in the biological sense. The Holy Family is not made by ordinary biological processes. The Holy Family is made by choice – by Mary’s choice to assent to God’s will, by Joseph’s choice to step into the role of father, choices which are brave, dangerous, socially damaging, and motivated by devotion, loyalty, and love. It is a new model of family, in which volition, rather than biology, is the core.

One of the things which makes the idea of the virginal conception problematic for some contemporary Christians is the way that it has been used to try to distance Jesus from some perceived stain of sex, and Mary’s virginity has unquestionably been fetishized by a significant number of devotional writers. Particularly once St Augustine launched the strain of Western thought which would end up talking about original sin as if it were some kind of sexually transmitted disease, the importance of Mary’s virginal/unmarried status did come to be seen as preserving divine purity even from the instant of conception. But that is not how most early church writers read the story – rather, it was commonly seen as a story about how Jesus was conceived in a state of freedom, not from sex, but from family, from the chain of biological reproduction and inheritance which we wield as a social weapon against our own mortality. Jesus is not bound by this contingency, this mortal strategy against fate – from the first moment, his existence is gratuitous and unrestricted. And that freedom is, as it were, transmitted to the two people who would become his atypical family.

It is almost a commonplace to note that adoption is a favoured metaphor, in the New Testament, for the new relationship with God which is made through Christ’s death and resurrection, and our baptism into that reality (Galatians 4:5, Ephesians 1:5, and Romans 8:15 explicitly; John 1:12-13, 1 John 3:1, and other Johannine passages by implication). But it begins here, at least for Matthew and Luke, with a human adoption, with Joseph voluntarily and freely becoming the father of a child not naturally his own, enacting in the human realm the adoption into God’s life which his own adopted son will, in his absolute divine freedom, make possible. It may never have been far from Jesus’s awareness that his life had hung on Joseph’s scandalous and socially unrewarded loyalty. And it may be that this was the truest way in which the Word could come into the world.

This reconfiguration becomes a constant theme throughout the gospels – the reframing of “family” as a thing constructed not by genetics, but by loyalty and choice. In the Synoptics, hostility to family structures is a running and sometimes uncomfortable theme. Jesus declares “those who do the will of God” to be his family, as opposed, in that moment, to his family of origin (Mark 3:31-35, Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21). He instructs people repeatedly to leave their families (Luke 14:26), often with the suggestion that they will receive a larger and different sort of family in their place (Mark 10:29-30, Matthew 19:29, Luke 18:29-30), and indeed actively calls James and John away from their father (Matthew 4:21-22); he tells one man to violate his filial duty and leave his dead father unburied (Matthew 8:21-22, Luke 9:60). He promises that he has come to set family members against each other (Matthew 10:35-37, Luke 12:53). When someone blesses “the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” he responds, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28). The teachings against divorce in Mark and Matthew are just about the only places where there is any word of Jesus endorsing any part of family structure, and even there he seems to think marriage (about which he is elsewhere ambiguous) is a potential good because it breaks ties with parental authority and substitutes, or should ideally substitute, ties of interpersonal loyalty. (Although he seems to have been fond of children, at no point does he mention childbearing as a potential good of marriage.)

That there is, beyond that, a new and different family into which we are brought is only hinted at in the Synoptics, although the Abba/Father language for God which Jesus both uses himself, and encourages his disciples to use, is certainly a displacement of the crucial family role in the ancient world into a new realm. John’s gospel is, as usual, more conceptually complex. There is less openly expressed hostility to family structure, and it is the only gospel where we see the adult Jesus actually interacting with members of his family of origin, although it seems to be a prickly set of relationships (both his slightly testy exchange of words with Mary at Cana, and his more acrimonious conversation with his brothers before the Festival of Booths). We also see here (and briefly in Luke) the one other family ever portrayed in the gospels, the distinctly strange Bethany family, which appears to consist of three adult unmarried siblings — all apparently close friends of Jesus — living in one house, with one of the sisters as the head of the household, an even more unusual arrangement then than it would be now. But it is also the gospel which most systematically and clearly poses Christian identity as bringing the believer into a new family – a theme clearly expressed in the first chapter, and alluded to throughout the Farewell Discourse – and illustrates this by creating a new family at the foot of the cross, Mary and John given to each other as mother and son, a family made not by biology but in a real sense by blood, a family of loyalty at the most extreme moment.

One of many stories which demonstrates the astonishing potential of this is the martyrdom of Vibia Perpetua in 203 CE. A young mother from a wealthy Roman family, whose purpose in life was to continue the family line as a dutiful daughter, she instead forged a new identity as a Christian among the “family” of her fellow Christian prisoners and martyrs, breaking decisively with her father, and even choosing to give up her infant son. What makes the story even more of a challenge to social norms is that her new family was composed mostly of slaves, indeed people who had been slaves in her household, essentially her property. It was an unthinkable transition for a Roman woman of good standing to make, and yet she made it. Some scholars have speculated that it is most likely that the soldiers who came to her house intended only to arrest slaves, but that she, the daughter of the house, forced their hand by stepping forward and declaring herself a Christian also, a part of that family, relocating her loyalty even at the cost of her own life, as well as (what might have been more important in Roman society) her social role.

The church would, for a while, hold at least in part to this countercultural understanding of family; but gradually the biological family, which obviously never disappeared from the picture, would reassert its ideological hegemony. Yet, if there is one community now which understands what it means for family to be made by choice, it is the queer community. The phrase “chosen family” is reasonably familiar, but its full weight is not, perhaps, always understood. It is not meant to indicate the people who happen to suit you better, who are more convenient, or easier to deal with, or more fun; the “choice” in the phrase is closer to the choice that is made in baptism. The words came into wide use during the crisis of HIV/AIDS, and the defining feature – as with Perpetua’s choice — was loyalty even to death. Chosen family, in a time when people were even more likely than they are now to be cast off by biological families, was made up of those who would be with you even as you were dying, those you would willingly accompany in their own deaths, deaths which were often horrific, socially stigmatized, and terribly lonely, the people who would remain, like Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross. Chosen family is the family which takes you in when others cast you out, the people you carry through self-harm and suicidality, the place of truth-telling, the place of unbreakable promise.

It is also quite true that queer chosen family has its own limits, is often bound by race and ethnicity and class difference, has failed to transcend most other social divisions – but nevertheless, there is something in this of what the church is meant to be, has occasionally been, but in which we have quite often failed.

• • •

An addendum, which may be further expanded later on:

Another aspect of the virgin birth is that it is the first – though far from the last – theological move which will raise some significant complications in how we think about Jesus’s same-but-different flesh with regard to gender. For the story of the annunciation is not only, as I described it in my last post, a story about a young woman standing as the representative of all humanity as she assents to the incarnation of God; it is also about God taking on a human fleshly nature which derives entirely from that young woman.

It does, as I briefly suggested earlier, recapitulate in a sense the creation of the ishshah from ha’adam in Genesis 2, male flesh coming from female as female flesh came from male – although it is not absolutely clear that the adam was male in any meaningful sense before the creation of the woman. Both stories suggest an underlying ontology in which humanness, as such, transcends sexual or gender differentiation – and certainly, the human nature taken on by Jesus, at least, cannot be ontologically gendered, or it would cast in doubt the salvation of half the human race. (Admittedly, this was an active difficulty in the Anglican polity during debates about the ordination of women, and remains something of an intellectual dilemma in the Roman Catholic church, as they wrestle with the same issue.)

And yet, there has always been a lingering sense that there is something meaningful about Jesus taking his entire humanity from a woman. It made a certain sort of crude sense in terms of Aristotelian science, in which it was believed that women contributed the “blood” which formed the substance of a human body, while men contributed the spiritual essence and intelligence, the meaning-making with which our matter is imbued. It would be mischievous to invoke contemporary science, and to propose Jesus, male-identified yet without any apparent source of Y chromosomes, as a strangely transgender being. And yet, from the beginning, there has been a strong pull towards a perception of his body as somehow feminine. A body which washes, serves (the verb diakonein is applied, in the New Testament, exclusively to women and Jesus), spends significant time in conversation with women in contravention of social conventions, a body from which water mixed with blood issues forth in a way which brings us new life, a body which feeds the children from its own substance – there is imagery in the very scriptural text which makes the body of Jesus something quite different from a typically male body. A male-identified body — and a male-configured body, we assume, certainly if Luke’s story of Jesus’ circumcision is reliable — yet a body drawing humanity entirely from femaleness, and enacting female roles and images, more and more so as the story reaches its most important moments. There is nothing we can say about this body which is not strange. This body, the body that embodies male Logos and female Sophia, is inescapably – let’s just say it – kind of queer. (This may be most fully realized in Western later medieval mysticism, but it is by no means absent from earlier writers.)

It is not accidental, nor incidental, that early anti-Christian writings frequently include accusations or implications of gender deviancy, and especially of male effeminacy. Insofar as we put on this body at our baptism, we are brought into this strange life, in which family is not a construction of genealogy but a vow of loyalty even to death, in which the sex and gender signifiers of our bodies become unstable, and a particular kind of socially resistant and yet self-offering femaleness becomes all humanity’s pattern. Because we choose; and this time choose, in the face of danger, to say yes to the renewal of the world.

5 thoughts on “On family and the virgin birth

  1. I caught a minor error in quoting from John 8:

    “And there may be hints, even in the two gospels which don’t include the story, of some awareness of awkwardness around Jesus’ parentage (the description of Jesus as the “son of Mary” in Mark 6:3; Jesus’ opponents in //John 8:14// declaring, “We are not illegitimate children!”, possibly with the implied follow-up, “Unlike some people we could name …”). ”

    This quote is John 8:41 🙂

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    1. Now, having actually finished, I have to say this is really thought-provoking.

      “Chosen family is the family which takes you in when others cast you out, the people you carry through self-harm and suicidality, the place of truth-telling, the place of unbreakable promise.”

      This really struck a cord, personally.

      What I find so strange about Christians is the tendency to create, maintain, and enforce static roles around gender family structure, to the point of influencing whole societies even into a “secular” age – but the central figure of our faith is a man who not only is fundamentally queer (in the sense of “other”) himself – both in body and in ideology/theology, but who leads people to follow him towards his queerness and invites people to take comfort in it. I don’t really believe such a strict structure as many Christian families and leaders insist upon was ever intended.

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      1. At the risk of being a parody of myself; it also feels strongly Western/European (and Modern?), as a strict family structure, focused on the ordering of property (people being a sub-set of that).

        The evangelical in me always looked askance at the stories of whole household (extended families and the people they enslave) converting to Christianity, because people converting into the evangelical communities I was familiar with were individuals, not families (although there were plenty of families who raised their kids in the tradition; me included). It seemed to be very much based around coercion – the Father of the household decides that this is the new God.

        So I appreciate you commentary about how secular society replicates this. Enforcing whole social structures based around the creation of ‘legitimate’ children feels like an awfully anxious thing to do.

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  2. It does not astonish or offend me, the idea that as Jesus had no source of the Y chromosome, and so must have been Intersex, a person with XX chromosomes but with male genitalia (and possibly also female). God said, “Let us make humans in our image” and made them male and female, showing that God is both male and female, or neither male nor female. certainly not exclusively male. It warms my heart to think that Jesus was more like me, a woman, than has been previously taught. It explains his openness to women and his acceptance of women as his disciples.

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