Immaculate Conception or Virgin Birth

As we approach Christmas, I am enjoying my time spent preparing for a sermon series on Jesus’ family tree.  Each week, I examine another woman listed in Jesus’ family tree according to the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel.  Five are mentioned: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife, and Mary.  As we read the introductory verses in the New Testament, the regular drumming pattern of a list of male names is jarred by mention of these women.  Simply put, they do not belong in a formal genealogy of the royal family.  The author purposefully injects these women into this lineage.  Strikingly, these women share a common thread – sexual promiscuity.  Tamer, a widow desperate for a child, purposely got pregnant by dressing up as a roadside prostitute and enticing her own father-in-law.  Rahab was a prostitute.  Ruth was a Moabite woman who crawled into the bed of Boaz after getting him drunk one night.  Bathsheba had an adulterous affair with King David and ended up pregnant, bringing shame on the Great King of Israel.  Mary is an unmarried teenage girl who becomes pregnant.  Such scandal!

Unlike the women whose stories are told in the Hebrew Bible, Mary becomes a focal figure in Christian theology very early in the life of the church.  The earliest creeds affirm, based on Scripture, that Jesus was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”  A friend told me that he listened to his preacher deliver a sermon on his belief in the “immaculate conception.”  This friend, a biblical scholar, then had the audacity to correct the preacher by saying, “you do not believe in the ‘immaculate conception;” instead, you support the ‘virgin birth” theory.  It is easy to confuse the “immaculate conception” with the “virgin birth.”  I would like to end by sharing the distinctions with you.  The Immaculate Conception, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church, refers to the conception of Mary by her mother, not to the conception of Jesus.  This teaching holds that Mary was born without “original sin.”  Because she was without sin, she was able to give birth to Jesus in a special state of moral purity.  The “virgin birth,” on the other hand, is the belief that Mary, without a man, became pregnant through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  It refers more to the source of pregnancy than to the birth itself.

– Micah Spicer