Among many women a frequent reaction to the news that they are pregnant is, 'Oh Lord no', or 'why me?'. Therefore is it not easy to understand Mary's distress when she is told by Gabriel, who claims to be an angel, a messenger from God himself, that she has been chosen to bear the great one's child? Millions of human beings believe this a true story. That requires belief in God, Angels and Mary's version of events as she is the unique witness.
The leap of faith that is required to believe in the story of the immaculate conception is considerable by modern standards but millions still believe it is literally true. It doesn't really matter whether individuals believe Jesus Christ ever walked upon this earth, and archeology says he probably did, but it is rather different to believe he was, or should we say is, the son of God? And many millions of people do.
NARZARETH,ABOUT 2000 YEARS AGO
Thanks to educated historians, we know a good deal about ordinary life 2000 years ago. Therefore, the story of the immaculate conception takes place during an era that is fairly well understood. We know how people tended to their daily needs and how they organised themselves, socially, politically and spiritually. In other words, this story happens to modern people in the recent past. The fact that Mary was pregnant is easy to believe and that she gave birth to Jesus is not a matter for dispute. Therefore Jesus can be believed to be a historical figure. It is rather more difficult for the modern mind, informed by sound investigation, to believe he was divine.
The bible contends that the angel Gabriel appeared before Mary in Nazareth. One can only imagine what Mary must have thought about the vision. If a similar incident were to occur in the life of an average women, even if it were to occur in the same place, expert analysts would undoubtedly declare it to be a product of self delusion, possibly even madness or hallucinigenic drugs.
Gabriel, an angel, told Mary she was pregnant when she had never knowingly had intercourse. 'Right...' would probably be the response of any father with a teenage daughter. And the Jewish document, Toledoth Yeshu, published 170 years later even claimed that Jesus was the issue of a Roman soldier by the name of Panthera.
Mary was engaged to Joseph at the time. So now one must believe that God believed in infidelity and we also must believe that he did not believe in or adhere to one of his own commandments...ie...the one about coveting one's neighbour's wife.
Mary was a virgin. Yet Gabriel told her God's power would make the conception possible. Gabriel said 'Nothing will be impossible with God.' It is not outside normal mortal behaviour, and the story is very specific that Mary was mortal, that Mary would not be best pleased by the news and would surmise that she had no say in the matter at all.
At the same time, Mary's elderly relative, Elizabeth, was six months pregnant. Before visiting Mary, Gabriel appeared to a priest named Zacharias. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were very old. Gabriel told Zacharias they would have a son named John. And that John would prepare the way of the Lord. God inflicting a pregnancy on a very old woman raises questions of credibility still further, but a believer cannot take this story as fable or parable. No. The immaculate conception is gospel.
The story contains an episode that when Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth's baby leaped in her womb for joy. This seemed confirmation that Gabriel's suggestion that John (the Baptist) would have the Holy Spirit while yet unborn. OK so a baby kicking in the womb, is an preface to the arrival of a divine being on earth. A compelling interpretation of this event could get some to believe.
Joseph, upon hearing his fiance was pregnant, and having denied having intercourse with her, considered calling off the marriage. But, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, not in actuality, as Gabriel had for Mary, but in the etherial and told him to marry her anyway. Joseph, an otherwise reasonable man by all accounts, acts upon the advice of a belief that cannot be rationally verified to make a very significant decision in his life. Hard to square with normal human behaviour.
Joseph took Mary as his wife but denied himself intercourse until Jesus was born.
Palestine, under Roman rule, ordered a census. Everyone in the land must return to the homeland of his father to be counted. The town of Bethleham was the birthplace of Joseph.
There was nowhere to stay in Bethleham because of the many others migrating to their homelands. Mary was approaching the time of labor. An innkeeper says, 'No room at the inn'. A pregnant woman. Harsh behaviour even for an innkeeper. Are we in the realm of fantasy? Is this a parable? If it is, are parables just as fundamental to our beliefs as facts?
In a distant land an angel of the Lord appeared to shephards attending sheep. The angel told them of the birth of Jesus and told them to go find this miracle of the Lord. But the shephards didn't appear to freak out at the idea of an angel. They just Okay Dokayed and headed for the manger.
Herod, the king of the Jews, hears the news that a baby boy who was to be king and became afraid. Look how many mothers have boasted their babies are going to grow up to be...Secretary General of the United Nations.
In the neighbourhood these astrologers were following a star in hopes of finding this young king. Herod told them that when they found him to come back and tell him where the baby was so that he could show his respect to the child as well. Yeah...right.
Jesus was born and Mary wrapped him in cloth and placed him in a feeding trough. Polite society would call it manger. Was there a dog? Can there be divine peace in the presence of a dog?
That night of purple, blue desert skies, of angels, of kings and camels, of shepherd boys and sheep, of quiet cows laying amongst the straw of the manger. That was quite a night. Joseph,standing by the family, just like a lot of stepfathers who assume the burdens and responsibilities associated with the support and protection of the mother of another man's child. The quiet partner who made sure the queues were orderly and the tea was served. Was there sniggering behind his back? Were there those who believed she made up the whole story to save herself from being stoned to death as an adulteress?
Herod put out a decree which demanded that every boy under the age of two must be killed. However, another angel appeared to Joseph, warned him of the approaching danger, and told him to flee to Egypt where he would be beyond the reach of Herod's wrath. Joseph believed in angels by this time and didn't put up any arguements. Joseph and Mary waited in Egypt until Herod's death before returning to Nazareth where Jesus spent the remainder of his childhood years, growing up as a normal boy, a little bit like Pinnochio.
The reported words of Jesus in the gardens of Gethsemene, 'Why me?' resonate through this whole story. Those who believe in it literally surely must consider that virtually all the players got a raw deal from God and yet their take on the story of Jesus is one of forgiveness and benevolence.
This where issues of belief become complex. The reponse to the statement...I believe...is often...prove it! Belief does not always stand up too well to the prosecutor's interrogation. Yet even when the underlying rational burden of proof fails to support the proposition, belief is often undiminished. Perhaps the function of belief, is to help us make decisions, and in Joseph's case for example, important ones, on precisely that, unsubstaniated knowledge. Perhaps every decision, or every belief, cannot be based on irrefutable proof.