Ask a newspaper editor what sort of stories will sell the most copies, and three categories come quickly to mind: sex, politics, and religion. If they can be combined, so much the better. So when people read the story of Gabriel visiting Mary (Lk.1:26-38), with the child to be born being the future Lord of the world, their minds easily jump in the way the newspapers have conditioned them to do. People have read into this story all sorts of things that aren’t there, and have failed to notice some of the really important things that are. Let’s begin with the obvious point. The story makes it clear that Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb before she had had any sexual relations. Many people today find this impossible to believe, but they often think that this difficulty has only arisen in modern times, because of all we now know about the precise mechanics of conception and birth. Not so. The ancient world didn’t know about X Chromosomes and Y Chromosomes, but they knew as well as we do that babies were the result of sexual intercourse, and that people who claimed to be pregnant by other means might well be covering up a moral and social offence.
It’s important to stress that the story says nothing about Mary remaining a virgin after Jesus’ birth. That’s a much later idea. Nor does it say anything about the goodness or badness of sexual identity or sexual relations. Whatever Luke was trying to say with this story, he wasn’t saying that virginity is a morally better state than marriage. Luke wasn’t denigrating sex, women, conception or birth. He was simply stating that Jesus did not have a father in the ordinary way, and that this was because Mary had been given special grace to be the Mother of God’s incarnate self. And when God takes the initiative, it is always a matter of love, love which will care for us and take us up into His saving purposes. Mary is, to that extent, the supreme example of what always happens when God is at work by grace through human beings, God’s power from outside, and the indwelling spirit within, together result in things being done which would have been unthinkable any other way.
The love of God appears in surprising ways, with possibilities and trials we never imagined. Mary, a very young woman, was startled by the angel’s invitation. She was a virgin. How could she give birth to the Son of God or any child? It didn’t make sense. Nothing is impossible with God. Mary accepted hope beyond the limits of reason or understanding. The love of God invited her, and Mary said yes. She offered her life in response: “Here am I.” We may encounter all kinds of reasonable obstacles in life, and we must accept some limitations. But in God’s love, we discover hope beyond reason, unlikely solutions, and life that surpasses all expectations.