But there was a section of the community who were offended for what I would see as an appropriate reason. That was the group who saw the billboard for what it was, a cheap shot at Bible-believing Christians by appealing to some pagan myths about demigods who were born of a union between a god and a human being. In the ancient world these stories circulated about people like Caesar Augustus, Romulus and Alexander the Great. Although the biology of human reproduction was not understood as it is today, in these legends there was more than the suggestion of a sexual act between the god and the woman. This is not what the Bible portrays with Mary's unexpected pregnancy. God is not said to have fertilised her egg, but to have intervened in the whole natural cycle. As a biology graduate, I would say he formed a gamete within her womb, and whether the babe shared her or Joseph's DNA - or that of both - is an open question. And so St Matthews snide dig, with Joseph's performance being compared with a "divine" sexual experience, has got both the theology and the science wrong. Following some acts of vandalism, the billboard has now been removed. Anglicanism's New Testment lecturer Derek Tovey offered a helpful critique in the Herald this week.
I often spend a little time on the Virgin Birth when taking catechumens through the Apostles Creed. I make sure we are clear it is the Virginal Conception under discussion, and that actual Virgin "Birth" was not what Protestants think the Church Fathers meant. My own view on it is that it is no big deal, if God had to enter this human world at some finite point, then via the womb of a Hebrew teenager seems a particularly imaginative way to do it. Such an incarnation is a message of value about humanity, womanhood, infancy and servanthood. And after all, there were the miracles of resurrection and ascension at the end of his earthly life, so why not at the beginning? But I also explain that for many Christians, this doctrine is a stumbling block, and that to not be able to swallow it is not a barrier to saving faith. (In the Presbyterian tradition, that means it is defined as "not being of the substance of the faith.") For myself, I believe it. I find it stretches the imagination more to think that this complex story, without parallels in Hebrew or Greek mythology, was made up, than to accept it at face value. Tom Wright and Marcus Borg have some good material on this; see chapter 11 of The Meaning of Jesus.
Borg recalls what the thirteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart said, that the Virgin Birth is also something that happens within us, that Christ is born as the Spirit of God is united with our human flesh. This Christmas season I pray that you too experience that transforming indwelling presence.
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.