Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Chapter seven, verse fourteen, of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Maybe the King James language is more familiar: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. When the Gospel writer Matthew quotes this text – already seven hundred years old – in his telling of the birth of Jesus, he adds a translation: Emmanuel, which means, God with us.
Growing up in the Episcopal church, I heard a lot of the prophet Isaiah every Advent and Christmas. Our cycle of readings is heavy on Isaiah this season, and our hymns and prayers – even our Gospel readings – quote Isaiah too. The book of Isaiah is an Old Testament book, one of the books we share with God’s first people, the Jews. The prophesies and events it contains happened hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. But right from the start, followers of Jesus have heard certain texts from Isaiah as pointing towards Jesus. This is most certainly one of them.
We start a new year in church today, and that means we also start a new Gospel. We’ll be primarily reading the Gospel of Matthew in the months ahead – with some chunks of John now and then. One of Matthew’s hallmarks is connecting Jesus to Old Testament texts and traditions. He’s really interested in making the case that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible. And he sometimes stretches a point to get there. Take this text from Isaiah 7. The context here, as you heard in our reading, is that two of Judea’s neighboring countries have ganged up on Judea, and King Ahaz is scared. That information isn’t actually part of the assigned text; the Revised Common Lectionary follows Matthew’s lead in taking this passage out of context. Anyway: King Ahaz is scared, and God is telling the king, though the prophet Isaiah, to calm down. And God carries the message through three prophetic names. The first is the name of Isaiah’s son Shear-jashub, meaning, A remnant shall remain. God tells Isaiah to take little SJ with him when he goes out to meet the King and tell him that his fears are unfounded.
But Ahaz is still anxious. God says, Ask me for a sign, to prove to you that this is really My word and not just Isaiah telling you what you want to hear. Ahaz says, No, sir, I will not put God to the test. God speaks through Isaiah to say, Oh, for Pete’s sake. HERE’S THE SIGN YOU WON’T ASK FOR. Look: that young woman is pregnant. The son she will bear will be named Emmanuel. And by the time that child is old enough to know the difference between good and bad, he’ll be eating curds and honey – good, rich food that signifies prosperity and stability.
A few verses later, Isaiah elaborates: “On that day one will keep alive a young cow and two sheep – [such wealth!] – and will eat curds because of the abundance of milk that they give; for everyone that is left in the land shall eat curds and honey.” (By the way, these wouldn’t be Wisconsin-style cheese curds. Probably something more like a thick fresh yoghurt. Still sounds pretty good, especially with honey!)
There’s one more prophetic child name just a few verses later. The news is less good this time: God warns Judea of the rise of the Assyrian Empire, the new great power in the region. Isaiah “goes to” a woman named as the prophetess, apparently his wife – they have so much in common! – and she conceives and has a son. God says, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz (which means, He makes haste to plunder); for before the child knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’, Assyria will be looting your neighboring nations.
All these names – Shear-jashub, Immanuel, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz – are prophetic signs that indicate God’s intentions for Judea. The point of little Emmanuel is not that the child himself is someone special. The point is that Judea’s current enemies will be gone within a few years – the time it takes a baby to grow up enough to know bad from good. For Isaiah, the name “Immanuel” is a reassurance that God is with God’s people. It doesn’t mean that the child himself is God. That’s Matthew’s interpretation, woven into the Christmas Gospel and Christian thinking.
Now, hear me: I’m not saying that Matthew is wrong. Prophetic language is rich and strange, and can carry meaning and truth across centuries and context. It’s reasonable to read Isaiah 7 as a text that casts light on Jesus, as long as we understand that it was not originally, and is not only, a text that casts light on Jesus.
All that said: Emmanuel isn’t the word I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the word “virgin.” In fact – true confessions – I actually swapped this lesson with the another Isaiah lesson in this season, because I wanted to talk about this now, as we dive into Advent.
We use this word at least once, often twice, every Sunday – both times talking about Jesus’ mother, Mary. It’s in the Creed – “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary” – and our autumn Eucharistic prayer contains the same phrase. As we move into Advent and towards Christmas, it’ll show up more and more, in our prayers and hymns.
And – I gotta tell you – this year, I’m not looking forward to it. In fact, I’m kind of bracing myself.
Before anybody starts composing angry emails: I am not about to argue that Jesus was not miraculously conceived by the power of God. That’s the witness of both Luke and Matthew. I personally am not especially hung up on whether such a thing is physically possible or not. Compared to rising from the dead, it seems fairly mundane. It’s actually not uncommon in the animal kingdom – Google “parthenogenesis” sometime.
No: It’s not the church’s teaching that troubles me. It’s the church’s language.
I was raised in the Episcopal Church. All this language – “incarnate from the Virgin Mary,” “round yon Virgin,” “Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb” – it was just part of the wallpaper, you know? I don’t think I ever thought about it, just like our kids have probably never really thought about it. The first time I remember examining the phrase was in seminary, when it dawned on me that it’s kind of… weird? interesting? telling? … that this is the one thing we say over and over and over again about Mary. Every time we mention her name.
We know several things about Mary. God chose her to bear Godself as a human infant. God respected her enough to ask her permission. She was bold enough to say Yes. In the song of faith we call the Magnificat, she celebrates the honor bestowed on her – meek and mild, my butt! She says, God has looked favorably on me! All generations shall call me blessed, for the Holy One has done great things for me! And she continues with this powerful prophetic text that the Church has chanted and sung down through the ages – about the mighty cast down, the hungry fed, the world redeemed.
She bears her son, names him, loves him, raises him. Celebrates his giftedness. Harangues him into doing miracles at parties. Struggles with his mission; fears for him. Follows him to the cross. Watches him die. Goes on to be one of those who tells his story.
And, yes, at the moment when the Angel Gabriel invites her into this great, lifelong work, she is a young woman who has not yet experienced physical intimacy. A virgin. She says so herself in Luke’s Gospel: “How exactly am I going to get pregnant with this special baby, when I have not done anything that leads to getting pregnant?”
Orthodox Christians call Mary the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. They liken her to the Burning Bush in Exodus, that holds God’s presence and yet is not consumed. That’s a title much more worthy of Mary. But the Western church settled on Virgin. Our faith fathers chose to focus on her mint-condition reproductive system.
Thinking all this through in seminary, it seemed to me to be just one of many ways in which the church needs to reconsider its language. But it has started to actively trouble me now that I’m involved in raising kids – in my home and my church – whom I very much want to have a happy relationship with their own bodies and a healthy capacity for intimacy.
We tread lightly around the word, in churches like ours. A kid in this church might easily think it just means a young woman – maybe a young man – who hasn’t been married yet. But that’s not how our ancestor churches and some of our sibling churches treat it. And that’s not how popular culture treats it.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive… The Hebrew word in Isaiah’s original text is almah, which just means a young woman of childbearing age. It’s not quite clear from context but it seems that the young woman of Isaiah 7:14 is actually Isaiah’s wife. Emmanuel isn’t even her first child. When Matthew quotes Isaiah, he uses a Greek word – parthenos – that can carry the implication of what we mean by virginity. That comes into Latin – the language of church and Scripture for a thousand years and more – as virgo, the same word as virgin.
But it isn’t even Bible translation that’s the issue. The Bible says this about Mary twice, once in Matthew, once in Luke. Rather, it was the Church’s choice to exalt and enshrine this focus on one very narrow aspect of Mary’s significance, and tangle it up with policing the behavior of women and girls. Putting on my anthropologist hat for a moment: Virginity is a concept with a lot of cultural weight in highly patriarchal societies, where what matters about a young woman is whether she can bear children that are clearly related to one man. It’s ironic, actually, that the Church managed to make Mary the epitome of purity, when in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph very nearly abandons Mary because he doesn’t know who fathered her child! That shame, that struggle, is part of what Mary agreed to face, when she said Yes to the angel’s request.
Many of our sibling churches still put a heavy emphasis on virginity for young people. I’m not talking about encouraging kids to wait till you’re ready, be safe, choose someone you really care about. I’m talking about telling youth groups that a young woman’s purity is like chewing gum. Nobody wants it after it’s already been chewed. There’s a whole movement out there of young adults struggling to recover healthy intimacy after being raised in churches like that.
And broken, destructive thinking about virginity isn’t just in churches. If you watch ‘80s teen movies, ‘90s TV, or read the comments in many corners of the Internet, you’ll find it there too. In addition to its classic use to police young women, the word is used as an insult against young men – the implication being that they’re unworthy of romantic attention. A teenager might well get the message that girls are bad if they’re not virgins and boys are bad if they are – which is a heck of a double-bind, especially for the straight kids.
Physical intimacy, ideally, is something you explore when you are ready, as a free choice, with joy and curiosity and safety, and with somebody who is just as into you as you are into them. That’s what I want for youth and young adults today. I would like to live in a society where young people are not shamed for being OR not being virgins. And I would like to serve in a church that finds better, richer ways to praise and honor Mary, Theotokos, Prophetess, and Mother of God.
Even though the lectionary does not get around to her for a couple more weeks, Mary is rightfully a central figure in this season. What I would really like our young people and indeed all of us to hear when we talk about Mary is not that our holiness, our merit, our worthiness, our potential for becoming an agent of God’s work in the world, depends on what we have or have not done with our bodies. What I would like us to hear when we talk about Mary is that each of us, all of us, and maybe especially the young and hopeful and bold among us, can say Yes to God. Can become part of the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes on earth.
So even as we use inherited and often beloved language about Mary in the weeks ahead, I invite you to try on some alternatives, out loud or in your heart.
Where the Church says Virgin Mary, you might say: Prophet Mary. Mother Mary. Blessed Mary. Gracious Mary. Helper Mary. Chosen Mary. Holy Mary. Wisest Mary. Sorrowing Mary. Loving Mary. God-Bearing Mary, Theotokos. Ark of the Covenant. Burning Bush. Morning Star. Life-giving Spring. Our Lady of Guidance. Mother of Mercy. Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. Help of the Afflicted. Untier of Knots. Mother of the Disappeared. Refuge of Sinners. Mother of Ransom – Pray for us. Amen.