Each line of The Apostles’ Creed is carefully crafted, expressing essential Christian doctrine while staying surprisingly concise. This precision gives each word a weightiness and draws special attention to the the third line: that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” So how is it possible that a teenage girl from a bad neighborhood made it into a statement of faith that would be recited by millions of Christians over two millenia?
Eve, Mother of All Living and Mary, Mother of God
To talk about the significance of the Virgin Mary, we have to go back to Genesis 3:15-16. Even after the rebellion of Adam and Eve, in the midst of the curse of death, we hear the first whisper of good news. God promises that a child of Eve will crush the serpent, though not without pain for both the mother and the child.
As the carnage of the curse and the plan for the Promised Child unfold throughout the Old Testament, we see His lineage marked by barrenness, impossibility and pain. The promise to Abraham isn’t just to him, but also to his barren wife, Sarah. The curse is then passed on to the also-barren Rebekah, to the unwanted Leah and to the widowed and rejected Tamar. From there, it is passed to the prostitute Rahab, to the widowed and childless Ruth, to Bathsheba, wife to a murdered husband and mother of a dead child—and this is just the line of Jesus!
Stories of remarkable pregnancies fill the Bible, particularly marking Israel’s redeemers: the barren Rachel bearing Joseph, the Hebrew midwives and mother of Moses defying Pharaoh, Samson’s mother and the barren Hannah, mother of the king-anointing prophet Samuel. And in a crushing climax, Israel is beaten and broken, carried off into captivity and characterized as a barren woman.
All these stories of women anxiously awaiting a child point us to a barren Israel longing for the child promised to Eve long ago in the Garden. And they all find their culmination in a child promised to Mary in Nazareth, through an utterly impossible pregnancy.
How Will This Be?
At first glance, Mary’s response to this unbelievable news that she is to bear the Promised Child seems odd: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Not that we could blame Mary for being dumbfounded before the angel Gabriel, but isn’t it obvious? How could it be the Promised Child if you weren’t a virgin?
It actually wouldn’t have been that obvious to Mary for two reasons. First, the Jews weren’t necessarily expecting the Promised Child to be God in the flesh—a man of God’s own choosing, yes, but still a mere man. Even the title the angel used, “the Son of God,” was sometimes used for kings and not necessarily indicative of the second person of the Trinity.
Second, it would have been hard for Mary to believe that God would so intimately connect Jesus’ identity with such a uniquely personal testimony of her virginity. Not only did God make Himself dependent on a woman’s body in the Incarnation, but also dependent on a woman’s account. It was countercultural that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women in a day and age when a woman’s testimony meant almost nothing, but even more remarkable is that both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life and ministry were witnessed to by women (Luke 24:1-12).
At the great moment of the Incarnation, God chooses someone young, female and poor—utterly unimportant in society—to be the first to whom He reveals His plan. Not only is Mary entrusted with the Promised Child, but she alone holds unique testimony of His identity. Yes, an angel testified to Joseph of Jesus’ identity, and yes, Jesus testifies to His own identity as He begins His ministry, but who alone can affirm that Mary was indeed a virgin when this child was born? Only Mary herself, the daughter of Eve.
The Glory of God Where?
But Mary’s encounter with the angel gets even more shocking. In order to do this incredible thing that God promised, Gabriel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The language used here refers to the shekinah glory of God, which is the physical manifestation of His glory. Gabriel tells her that this shekinah glory—that which dwelled in the temple’s innermost, private, holiest part—would literally descend into her innermost, private, unclean parts. In the temple, only the High Priest was allowed into the presence of the glory of God and only once a year. Certainly no woman was allowed into the Holiest of Holies, and yet here God said that His glory would descend upon, into and through an utterly unimportant teenage girl.
In all of this, we can look to Mary as a physical representation of that spiritual reality: Through the Holy Spirit, Christ lives inside us. So not only is it essential to believe that Mary was a virgin and the mother of God, it’s also beautiful. Eve, the bearer of death but recipient of the promise, finds her consolation in Mary, the bearer of life through the Promised Child. Through pain and bloodshed, the ultimate barren woman—a virgin—brings forth Life Himself. For Life has a name, and His name is Jesus.