There was one news story in 2016 that I don’t want to forget. It’s the story of how Justin Welby discovered that his father was not the man who had brought him up but was Anthony Montague Browne. It was the kind of story you could hardly make up. But the most striking thing of all was Justin Welby’s response to what had happened. He said, ‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’ At that moment I realised I could at last forgive Justin Welby for not being Rowan Williams.
From what I know of people, I reckon that quite alot of us have a story like this somewhere in our family. I grew up thinking that my Great Aunt Anne was childless. But at her funeral, a very well spoken woman turned up, who to my surprise was my Great Aunt’s daughter. Aunt Anne had worked in service and had conceived a child by the son of the big house. The child had been brought up by the family, rather than by her mother, and so this woman spoke with cut glass vowels rather than with my Aunt’s servants’ brogue. I found myself wondering how my great Aunt had endured this loss. If you’ve ever watched East Enders you will remember the moment when Kat revealed she was not Zoe’s sister at all, but her mother. Our lives and our stories are full of such things. And somehow they matter to us. And sometimes discoveries about our birth or our lineage do leave us with something of an existential crisis. We can all watch ‘Who do you think you are?” and wonder exactly who we are too. And I realise that I might be treading on an uncomfortable place for someone. I hope that any of us could take courage from Justin Welby’s conviction that who we are is not so much about our biological parents or even just our actual parents at all, but about our being beloved children of God– but it might sometimes take us a while to get there…
Matthew’s Gospel begins with some amazing stories about Jesus’ lineage, parentage and birth, stories that can leave modern people puzzled. We might think it would have been better to begin with a joke or a poem than with a genealogy …. Why give us a list of begats and begottens.. before we even get to a reading that you could actually ask someone to read in church? And all those references to a virgin birth – what’s that about? Why did the early Christians think the virgin birth so important that they put it in the creed within decades? And why does Matthew tell us that Jesus is descended from David and Abraham through Joseph, but then tell us that Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus being born anyway?
People often expect the Bible to be boring. But chapter one of Matthew’s Gospel is full of surprises. It gives us a story more exciting and intriguing than any episode of ‘Who do you think you are?’ could be, but then it says, in effect, that this genealogy didn’t really matter anyway. There are some kinks in the genealogy of Joseph, the husband of Mary. You only have to look at the four women in the list to see that. The women stand out of course because mostly it’s a list of men. But there’s Tamar – a woman whose story is such an extraordinary part of the story of Joseph that it gets left out of the musical version entirely and it’s certainly not a story you would want to tell the Sunday school if we had one (Genesis 38). There’s Rahab, the sex worker, who let the spies into Jericho. Then there’s Bathsheba, whose story exposed David as a voyeur and a killer. And finally Ruth, whose charms Naomi used to get a baby for herself. All these women were foreigners too, something not everyone in the Old Testament wanted to remember. It’s as though Matthew wants to say, ‘In this story of Joseph’s descent we can see the whole story of our people. Here are all the relatives we’d rather forget and all the reminders of how difficult the story of humankind has been. In a list of names, here is the story of how tragic and difficult and painful our story has been. Remember the slavery in Egypt, the journeys in the wilderness, the exile in Babylon (Matthew mentions that twice), and all the messes we’ve been in?’
But then he tells us that Jesus’ family tree wasn’t quite what it seemed. Joseph wasn’t, after all, really his father. Jesus was not just his ancestors. He came into the world, through the Holy Spirit. If you made a programme about Jesus called ‘Who do you think you are?’ you might start with all those ancestors and all those strange stories of the struggle to be human, all those false starts and bumps in the genealogical road. But then you would have to say that he was somehow also something completely new, something the world hadn’t seen before, somehow more than a result of the genes of his ancestors. This was God coming into the world in a new way, kind of re-booting the gene pool of humankind, bringing something, someone, new, more than anyone could have expected or predicted.
God’s people had been trying to sort themselves for generations – everyone of those begats and begottens had done their best to make the world a place that God would love or in which people could flourish and thrive. But none of them had managed it. Not even Abraham, not even David, not even Tamar, not even Ruth. So, now God was doing something new, something different, something as yet unknown, a new ‘genesis’, a new beginning. And that was Jesus. We just couldn’t give birth to our own salvation, even with patriarchs and kings for ancestors – and so God did something new. Jesus was more than just more of the same, more than just another one in the line of humanity from Abraham on. He was a new beginning.
This is really what the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is about and this is why it made it into the creed right from the beginning. It’s not saying that sex is a bad or unholy thing. It’s not a naïve mythic fairy tale that we’d be best to forget. It’s not a stupid irrelevance that sophisticated Christians could forget. It’s a way of saying what is at the very heart of the Gospel – that God in Jesus was doing something radically new, not repeating the past, not just finding the best human being there could be under the circumstances, but recreating humankind and giving us a new beginning. Maybe this isn’t the way we might have chosen to describe it, maybe it seems a strange way to go about shaping a theology, but it was clearly absolutely what Matthew wanted to convey. He showed as clearly as he could, in words that he chose with infinite care, that he knew what Joseph’s story was and how it could have been Jesus’ story too – but then he throws away the whole geneaology and says, ‘Do you know what? Jesus was not that story – he is a new story.’ His birth came out of nowhere – it was a virgin birth.
But there’s another twist to the story. Once when I was reading the beginning of John’s Gospel, I suddenly realised that the Virgin Birth is there too… except that this Gospel writes about us being virgin born, us being born again. .. it says…. ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ We can be born again, we can make a new start, we can be more than our heritage, more than our genes. Who do we think we are? We are children of God, that’s who we are.
Which brings me back to Justin Welby. When he found out that his human father was someone different from the man he had thought, he was OK, because he knew that what really defines him is his being a child of God. Who does he think he is? A child of God, in Christ. He had been born, really born, not of blood, of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
St Paul talks quite a lot about how the first Christians were not, generally speaking, high born people with great pedigrees. They were common folk, like you and me, not nobly born. And I suspect that, like you and me, they had secrets and hidden stories, of births unnamed, of children lost and parents never known. There was a story going round at one stage that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier, Mary a victim of some disgraceful abuse. These things, tragically, happen. But the Virgin Birth says that perhaps it’s worth trusting and believing, that for once, those same old things weren’t what happened. For once, and like a miracle, God did something new, something that might start the whole adventure of being human from a different and new place. The reading from Matthew today says something like ‘This is the genesis of Jesus Christ’ – that’s the word in Greek – genesis. Which ought to give us a clue that this Matthew is saying, ‘we are going back to the beginning’ and even ‘you can go back to the beginning too’. This whole story was about God taking us all back to a new beginning.
There are moments in any person’s life when we wish we could go back and start again… and sometimes the world can seem very unforgiving of our mistakes. But the Gospel says that in Jesus God sent someone who was more than the sum of his past, more than the inheritance of his ancestors, more than his parents, more than his people. He was the beginning of a new humankind. How easy that seems to say. And how hard it seems to make that real, given the way the world looks now. But how different the world could be if all of us could somehow believe that the past does not have to hold us and define us, that the identities we’ve inherited don’t have to be what we always are, that the enmities of the past don’t have to remain ours. If who you are is defined in a new way, then you too can be new, virgin born, born of the Holy Spirit.
I find quite a few people these days who will say ‘Of course, I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth’. But I think that the early Christians were a lot wiser than we sometimes give them credit for. Jesus’ opponents asked him who did he think he was to be forgiving sins and raising the dead. But his followers knew that what counted about him was not Joseph’s line, but the presence of the Holy Spirit. He was and is ‘God with us’. And he taught us and showed us that it matters nothing who we are or what secrets we hide or what gene pool we come from – all that matters is that we are God’s beloved children. I’d like to see us join in with God’s plan to make a world that lives like that. That would be really to believe in the possibility of a Virgin Birth. What do you think?