The Virgin Birth: to God, nothing is impossible

The Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Credit: elizaraxi/flickr
The Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Credit: elizaraxi/flickr

As Christians prepare to celebrate Christmas, recalling how Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, a Jesuit scholar has taken part in a BBC radio programme to discuss the Virgin Birth. Fr Philip Endean SJ – a British Jesuit who is now Professor of Spirituality at the Centre Sévres in Paris – was invited to be a contributor to this week’s edition of Beyond Belief on BBC Radio 4.

In his introduction to the programme, presenter Revd Ernie Rea pointed out that, 30 years ago, a bishop could still hit the headlines by saying that he did not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. While this doctrine is still strongly held in some parts of the Church, it is rarely discussed outside of theological circles, he said, adding that some want to point to the "truth" behind the idea while others regard it as irrational, quaint or damaging to our understanding of God, women and paternity.

Fr Endean was one of several guests who were invited by Revd Rea to discuss the genesis of the idea of the Virgin Birth and to explore its contemporary validity and value. And while he said that belief in the Virgin Birth was important to him, Fr Endean felt it had an even deeper significance: " … more for what it symbolises than for what it actually says. In my view, it's a way in which early Christians were wanting to express the fact that something else of vital significance happened with the birth of Christ."

The salvation that came from Jesus

Revd Rea challenged that evidence for the Virgin Birth – most notably the fact that it is not mentioned by either Mark or Paul, the earliest authors in the New Testament – is flimsy. "No, it is basically mentioned by Matthew and by Luke," Fr Endean responded, "but where the New Testament authors are united is a set of convictions about the salvation that came from Jesus."Philip Endean SJ

The panel members on Beyond Belief pointed out that several world faiths have a similar belief to the Christian concept of a Virgin Birth. But Fr Endean claimed that – from the evangelists' point of view, writing for the early Christian communities – it was not absolutely necessary to include this idea: their faith had a different starting point. "Whether it's necessary or not is perhaps an open question," he said; "but it certainly wasn't the beginning. The beginning in fact was something to do with the Resurrection – the way in which that enabled the early Christians to see what had gone before it – and in a completely new light."

He then went on to imagine a conversation with someone who had real difficulty in accepting the Virgin Birth but who was, nevertheless, moving closer to Christianity. "I think my suggestion would be: well, let's just stay with the bits that you can do and let's stay with what has attracted you to Christianity – let's stay with something close to the Resurrection and salvation; and maybe if you stay with that long enough, you'll begin to understand why the tradition has actually moved in on this idea of Christ being born of a virgin."

Fr Endean concluded by explaining what he felt was the central message contained in the belief of the Virgin Birth: 'for nothing is impossible to God' (Luke 1: 37). "What it's really doing is saying: whoever you are, God has begun to work in Jesus in ways that make things that might have otherwise have looked impossible – possible. That by Mary simply opening herself to what the angel says, she is brought to the point where she can come out with [the Magnificat]."

You can listen to Beyond Belief on BBC iPlayer.