The Miracle of Christmas
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 21 Feb 2018
Lee Gatiss unpacks the miracle of Jesus’s conception and birth, in the next part of our series on the Apostles’ Creed. This is part of our 2018 Lent series: Believing, Living, Praying, looking at the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer.
Jesus Christ… was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary
Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “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.” … And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:34-38)
This part of the Apostles’ Creed is about the the greatest of all God’s miracles: the miracle of Christmas. It tells us about the two natures of Christ. It is essential to Christianity that the Lord Jesus is not only human, but also divine. He is a God-man.
The process by which this happened is called the incarnation. God took on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and was born nine months later on that first Christmas day. The Athanasian Creed (a longer creed, all about the Trinity and the incarnation) puts it this way: “Now, the right faith is that we should believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and man equally. He is God from the Being of the Father, begotten before the worlds, and he is man from the being of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man.”
The Apostles’ Creed tells us about Jesus’s two natures by telling us about where he got them from. So let’s examine what it says under two headings.
The Holy Spirit
So, first, Jesus did not have a human father. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by Joseph. It was God who took the initiative in the incarnation, just as he is always the one who makes the first move in our salvation.
Joseph himself knew this. An angel appeared to him in a dream saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). The child was to be given two names: Jesus, which means “the Lord saves”; and Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
So Jesus was more than a man. Although this makes complete sense of the rest of his life (his character and his work) and the fact that millions throughout the world and across history have given their lives to him, it is hard for many people to accept because it is a miracle. It seems much easier to assume that Mary was lying about her virginity and that she tried to cover up her lapse in sexual purity by blaming the baby on God! But that would unravel the whole truthfulness of the Bible and its prophecies. It would put all other miracles in doubt as well, including Jesus’s resurrection, on which our entire hope depends, but which seems equally difficult to believe if one cannot think outside the limitations of this world.
The Virgin Mary
Jesus was, however, also truly a man. He was not a divine ghost who just appeared to be human. He took real human nature from his mother, Mary, who lent her body so that he might be born into the world from her. As the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles put it, the Son of God “took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided” (Article 2).
The fact that Immanuel, God with us, would be born from a virgin mother was prophesied in the Bible around 700 years before it happened. Isaiah 7:14 says “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” When Mary heard it was going to be her, she was startled but replied “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She believed, as the angel said, that nothing is impossible with God. So she is a wonderful example of submissive, obedient trust in God’s promises, even when those promises seem humanly unbelievable.
Since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, he did not inherit that selfish twist of nature which curls us in on ourselves. That’s why the Bible emphasises his sinlessness (see Hebrews 4:15 or 2 Corinthians 5:21), which is an astonishing claim from his own lips (John 8:29, 46) but even more so from the pen of his intimate friend, Peter, who knew him better than most (1 Peter 2:22-24). By contrast, his brothers and sisters (mentioned in Mark 3:31 and 6:3-4) were not sinless.
Mary is very different to some of the other women named in Jesus’s family tree in Matthew 1:1-17. They are adulterers and prostitutes, but she is a faithful virgin. Yet this does not mean that Mary herself was sinless: she needed saving as much as every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, which is why she says “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:47). Jesus’s perfect human nature comes from a long line of people who proved to be fragile, fallen, and fallible; but this is precisely why he is given the name Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Despite our sin, we too can be his people, if we trust in God’s gracious word as Mary did.
Questions for reflection:
1. What parts of Jesus’s life only really make sense if he is more than a mere man?
2. How does Mary’s faith inspire you to act on the promises of God which you find most difficult to believe?
3. Why should it be an encouragement to us that Jesus was born into a sinful family tree as part of a sinful nation who were at the time experiencing oppression and difficulty?
Prayer: Almighty God, who gave us your only Son to take our nature upon him and to be born of a pure virgin: grant that we, who are born again in him and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit and learn to trust every one of your promises. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society
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