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A Virgin Birth for Everyone

A reflection by Gene Marshall

In my high school years, I went to church regularly, sang in the church choir and joined in saying loudly the Apostle's Creed. The phrase “born of the virgin Mary” went by me as something literal and obvious like “crucified, dead and buried.” But during my first years in college, a literal belief in the virgin birth of Jesus became objectionable to me. I came to believe that Jesus was our example—our exemplar in truly being our full selves. I was willing to believe that I, like Jesus, was capable of miraculous and heroic deeds. But I could not abide that he had a head start on me. What sort of example was that? If his birth was not as human as mine, how could he be a valid example for me? I did not see myself as born of a virgin, so I chose to believe that Jesus was not born of a virgin either. In worship, when we said the Apostles' Creed, I just coughed when we got to the part about the virgin birth.

Later, I began to explore the notion that the virgin birth had nothing to do with the humanity of Jesus' birth, but could be understood as a myth invented by the early Christians to tell about the true source of Jesus' impact upon the world. That impact, that truth which had come to us through Jesus did not have its origin in his earthy parentage, but in a parentage of another sort entirely. This cosmic parentage was a symbol expressing the deep relationship Jesus had with the Almighty Creator of everything.

Though this explanation helped, I did not grasp the profound meaning of the virgin birth until much later when I had children myself. It became obvious to me that my children, each of whom were quite different and unique, could not be accounted for by anything I or their mother had been or done. We had made our mark on them. They still to this day struggle with loosening themselves from the personalities they created to survive their early years with us. But each of them, I have come to see, possesses a factor so mysterious and so very much their own, that I have at times harbored the thought that they might have been sired by some other father.

As I reflected on this, I saw that this was true of myself as well. I, what I am, and what I am still becoming could not be accounted for by my parentage. I have, of course, taken many gifts as well as flaws from my parents. For example, I have taken from my father certain gifts of stalwart persistence as well as certain flaws of aloof inattention. I have taken from my mother certain gifts of independence as well as certain flaws of self-shaming. Through various therapies, I have become fairly clear that I adapted to my childhood environment by becoming alone, aloof, and secretive in order to counter the emotional distancing, the teasing, the shaming, and the inappropriate expectations which I encountered there. My parents left their mark on me. And I also left my own mark on myself by responding as I did to that first environment which my parents set for me.

In my college years, I began to break with the values of my parents and with the goals they had for me. I was discovering sources for my becoming which my parents had very little knowledge about. Decades later, I learned that breaking with your parents is what everyone's life is about until that break is completed. My deep self is not alive and well as long as I am acting like a robot of my childhood conditioning. Once I am my own self, then and only then, can I validly embody whatever gifts I wish to claim from my upbringing. Until then I do not truly appreciate my parents, I am simply cloning their intentions for my life, or I am meaninglessly rebelling in contrary behaviors to their intentions for me. Whether cloning or rebelling, my life is enslaved to my parents. And I can remain so enslaved whether my parents are far away or close by, living or dead.

When the full break with parents comes, a human spirit knows itself to be virgin born. I am, in my deepest spirit existence, simply not the product of my human parentage. I am a freedom and a courage and a potentiality that my parents may or may not have known. I am virgin born. My origin is rooted in the action of The Wholeness of Being which fills me with a spirit of freedom, of awe, of courage, of creative potentiality and happiness that can in no way be accounted for by my parental origin. I am virgin born.

And my children are also virgin born. I have no rights or even ability to direct their lives. If they choose to be enslaved to me that is their choice about which I can do virtually nothing. If they chose to be free of me, that is also their choice about which I can take no credit. If they find their great and glorious self and live it, I am not thereby a successful parent. This possibility was not given to them by me, but by the Wholeness of Being. Nor can I take credit for their having accepted whatever glorious possibilities they have accepted. They either did that on their own, or they did not, also on their own. I am out of it. They are virgin born.

Even if I was the worst possible father, giving my children no end of difficulties—when I am virgin born, I can transcend my regret and their frustrations and smile at whatever difficulties they have had with me. They are not my children. They are virgin born. If they wish to claim that virgin birth, they can smile also at my failures and successes in being a helpful parent. Together we can rejoice in our virgin births and laugh about the crummy and/or wondrous childhoods which were, and were not, provided.

If I still have plans for my children's lives, hoping that they will do for me what I have not had the courage or time to do for myself, I can simply admit that such plans are a violation of their virgin birth. I expect Joseph expected Jesus to be a carpenter. I expect Mary wanted Jesus to be more tactful and stay out of trouble. Clearly Joseph and Mary experienced Jesus as outlandish beyond their wildest expectations. If Mary did indeed allow Jesus to be virgin born, she thereby became herself virgin born. This is what the virgin born do: allow everyone to be virgin born. Indeed, the virgin born challenge everyone to be virgin born. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to receive the impact of his life, is to be virgin born.

I rarely quote Scripture verses anymore, since each verse requires so much interpretation to rescue it from misinterpretation and bring it in line with our actual lives. But surely these two verses from John's gospel have slipped by most of us when their meaning is so clear and obvious:

“But to all who did receive him, to those who have yielded him their allegiance, he gave the right to become children of God, not born of any human stock, or by the fleshly desire of a human father, but the offspring of God himself.” John 1:12,13