The Virgin Birth
The only evidence that we have of the virgin birth of our Lord is contained in the two Gospel stories of Matthew and Luke. In those Gospels we read as follows:
"Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call His name Emanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her first born son: and he called his name Jesus." (Matt. 1:18-25)
"And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city in Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man named Joseph, of the house of David: and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David. And He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore, also, that Holy Thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her." (Luke 1:26-38)
Mary, at the time that this happened, was espoused to Joseph. The old Jewish custom of espousal was very close to what we call engagement. Naturally, when Joseph found that Mary was expecting a baby, he was minded to put her away, but he did not want to make a public example of her. And the import of the Matthew account is that Joseph was completely satisfied by the evidence which the angel gave to him, satisfied that Mary's child was of Divine conception.
The historical birth of the Lord in Bethlehem more than nineteen centuries ago is the turning point of history, and absolutely essential to the salvation of the world, but it is His entrance into our own lives that is essential to us. How the Lord is born into the heart of each one of us is tremendously vital, for the history of the individual repeats the history of the race, and as the Lord was born in time into the world, so also, at some time or other, He must be born into our hearts if we are to be saved.
The manner of that birth into our hearts is described by the virgin birth of our Lord, and it has a peculiar signification to those who believe in the doctrines of the New Church. The Writings of Swedenborg, from which we derive these doctrines, are in no way the product of the human mind of Swedenborg. They are not the result of his long and brilliant career as scientist, engineer, anatomist and philosopher. They are not the combination of great human skill and deep penetration and perception. We look at the Writings as a God-given revelation, which completes the trine of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Writings. This trine of revelation was foreshadowed in the words which Pilate put above the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." (John 19:19) And it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin; the Hebrew representing the Old Testament, the Greek the New, and the Latin the Writings.
It is quite significant that, although Swedenborg was a Swede, every one of the Writings was written in Latin, a language that had been dead many years at the time that Swedenborg used it. Now there is a very clear reason why revelation is written in a "dead" language. A dead language does not change in meaning, but all living spoken languages change from generation to generation. For example, look at Psalm 119, where we read, "I prevented the dawning of the morning." (v. 147) Unless we see what has happened to the word "prevented" during the three hundred years since the King James version was made, we would get the wrong idea. From the common meaning of the word "prevent" today we would suppose that David kept the dawn from coming, but the original meaning of the word "prevent" was to go ahead of. So the Psalm really means that he went before the dawning of the morning. Because those who went before frequently blocked those coming after them, the word "prevent" came to mean to stop or to hinder.
English is changing all the time because it is being spoken, and each generation is giving it a living meaning of its own which former generations did not have. But dead languages are the same today as they were when they ceased to be spoken by a people. The Hebrew of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New Testament, and the Latin of the Writings have not changed their meaning.
When we compare the virgin birth of the Lord's first coming with the manner of His second coming, we note this similarity, that as Mary furnished the human instrumentality through which the Christ-child was born, so the mind of Swedenborg furnished the human vessels into which Divine Revelation could flow. Therefore, we can say that Swedenborg's mind was like the virgin mother into which the Divine truth of revelation flowed. En other words, as Mary furnished her body, her life, everything that she had, to the bringing forth of the Lord as a babe in Bethlehem on the first Christmas, so the Writings are a new revelation, conceived by God, but born through the patient industry and zeal of Swedenborg.
So we can see that if the Lord is to be born into our hearts as a conviction in a living God, He cannot be born of a human father. We cannot have a religion that is founded on something human. There must be the incarnation: there must be the virgin birth. We must receive Divine truths as coming from God and not as coming from man.
The word "Mary" means "bitter." It is the same Hebrew word as is translated "Miriam." The root meaning is "bitterness," and you may think it strange that the Lord should be born into the world of a woman whose name means "bitterness"; and yet, when we consider how He is born into our own lives, we see that He is never born without a struggle. He is never born without giving up other things; He is never born without a conviction that certain things that we once held to be true can no longer satisfy our growing understanding, and it is always with bitterness that we give up things that we once held, in order to accept new truths.
In addition to the Virgin Mary, there are two other Marys. One was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who had an interesting part to play in the Lord's life. When He came to their quiet house at Bethany, while Martha was out preparing the meal, Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to His word; and in our lives this Mary represents the willingness to put aside the things of this world and to sit at the Master's feet, that is, the willingness to read the revelation that God has given to us. The bitterness there involved is that we have to put aside other things, such as reading magazines and novels, and find the time and the leisure to read the Word of God. The bitterness comes from giving up something else that we really love.
The other was Mary Magdalene. It is generally supposed that she was that woman, who, when the Lord sat in the house of Simon the Pharisee, came in and anointed His head, and washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head. She was a sinner, and it is said that out of her the Lord had cast seven devil~, and that He forgave her her sins because she loved much. She represented the third basic principle of our religion, the willingness to give up evil that the Lord may fill our hearts with good. It is not enough to believe that the Word which we receive is Divine; it is not enough to read and study it; we must also live by it. These three phases of our religion are represented by the three Marys, Mary, the virgin, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene. All three acts require sacrifice, hence the name "Mary." It is interesting to note that on Easter morning, of all the human beings who loved Him and to whom He might have appeared first, He chose to appear first to Mary Magdalene out of whom He had cast seven devils.
The stories of the three Marys give us a complete picture of the life of regeneration. If we desire religion to play a real part in our lives, we must first of all see that it has a Divine origin. Then we must take the time to fill our minds with it. But most important of all, if we hope to change the character of our lives from avarice to generosity, from interest in self to interest in others, we must see to it that our convictions change the very mode of our lives, causing us to shun evils as sins against God.
The Writings say that the higher angels regard the happiness of others before their own. They say that this can be seen even in this world when a mother starves herself for her child, or a husband lays down his life for his wife, or a wife for her husband- In these deeds we see an image of heavenly love, a love which springs from that affection which Mary Magdalene represents, that is the willingness to shun evils as sins against God.
Having seen the spiritual significance of the virgin birth, let us consider the actual occurrence from the standpoint of Mary and the position of Joseph and see if we can come to understand it. Of course, in our day and age, the day of the science of biology much of the world scoffs at the idea of the virgin birth. Yet we cannot possibly accept anything of the New Church in our hearts and in our minds if we deny the virgin birth, so it is tremendously important to us to contemplate the subject, and to see just exactly what is involved in it, and upon what our faith rests.
I have quoted the two simple accounts upon which our faith in the virgin birth rests. The arguments against the virgin birth are simply that it never happened before or since. All of those arguments we grant. We also admit that there is no illustration in nature of parthenogenesis. It is true that the green plant lice will reproduce for three generations, but it is simply a carry-over of the male element in the female for three generations. It is not a genuine virgin birth or parthenogenesis. There is no illustration in nature of this, and no illustrations among human beings, so it is a unique thing, and men find it difficult to believe things that occur only once.
It has been argued by some that Hindu traditions had their weight and influence with Matthew and Luke, and in order to enhance the standing of the Lord and make Him a more important character, they invented the story of the virgin birth.
Let us examine that argument. The disciples who wrote the Gospels were simple men, not highly educated, especially Matthew who had been a politician and a tax collector, sitting at the receipt of customs. He was probably a very ordinary sort of person, as far as his external life went, and certainly he was not highly educated, and it would stretch one's imagination a great deal to believe that he had any contact with the literary ideas of India. And he had no particular purpose in inventing the story of a virgin birth because he had been with the Lord, he had seen his miracles and needed no further proof. He had heard the Lord's words, he had felt the Divine fire of love when the Lord said "Follow Me" and he had left all to come with the Master. Matthew dropped everything at once. He felt that attraction, that love, that marvelous compelling force to follow the Lord. He was a simple person, and it would have taken quite a complex mind to build up the idea that by claiming that the Lord had no human father people would be in awe of Him. On the contrary, Matthew probably knew as well as you and I that to claim that the Lord had no earthly father would raise a host of questions and start a thousand doubts circulating in men's minds. There would be nothing to gain by it.
But notice the simple way that the story of the virgin birth is told. Here was Joseph, and he was about to marry Mary, and then he thought that Mary had been unfaithful to him. Being a just man he was going to put her away privately so that it would not create a scandal. It was at this juncture that the angel of the Lord appeared to him and completely satisfied him. That is the point that I would stress, namely that Joseph, who was the most interested person in the virgin birth, was completely convinced, and that he took Mary to him, and that he acted as guardian for the child who was born, taking Him into his household, raising Him exactly as though He had been his own child. At the moment when the Lord was born Joseph was with Mary in Bethlehem, but they were not actually married until after the Lord had been born. Later they had a family of their own. The brothers and sisters are mentioned in the Gospel story. (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3)
Thus, Joseph, the person who was most deeply concerned, and who was nearest to the situation, and who undoubtedly knew the most about it, was fully convinced that that which was born of Mary was indeed conceived of the Holy Spirit.
And now let us look at the virgin birth from Mary's standpoint. The first person to doubt the possibility of the virgin birth was Mary herself. Mary was alone somewhere when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. We are taught in the Writings that the angel Gabriel represented a whole society of angels, and was what Swedenborg calls the "subject spirit" of that society of angels. That is not a hard thing to understand. We have ambassadors to the various countries of the world. Each one is a representative in that country of the whole United States. We might say that they are subject spirits of the United States. It was the same with the society that was represented by Gabriel. He represented those in heaven who looked forward eagerly to the fulfillment of the prophecies that the Lord would come into the world, prophecies like the one in Isaiah 9:6, "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace." Whole societies that looked forward to the fulfillment of this and similar prophecies were represented by Gabriel, who was sent by the Lord to Mary to announce to her that she should be the blessed woman through whom these prophecies should be accomplished.
"And the angel came in unto her and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou has found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call His name JESUS. . . . Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be seeing I know not a man? And the angel said unto her, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:2835)
After the angel's reply Mary no longer questioned the virgin birth, but replied in these beautiful words: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." (Ibid. 38) Utter humility was hers. She made herself completely receptive of the idea that indeed the Lord could bow the heavens and come down.
And now let us see, if we cannot understand very, very clearly, how this is possible. It is certainly clear, if you believe the Writings of Swedenborg. It is clear, from the comparison of the birth of the Lord with the birth of every other child that has been born into the world, and I shall try to explain it as I understand it from my study of the Writings. The Writings teach us that men and women are not equal in the sense that they are the same. We cannot compare men and women and say that man is superior to woman, or that woman is superior to man. We can contrast them and say that together a man and a woman are meant to make one angel, so much so that a conjugial pair in the celestial heaven, when viewed from afar, appears as one person. They are made to complement one another; each can perform uses that the other cannot possibly perform. They are so made that when they are conjoined God can give through them the greatest of all gifts to mankind, He can give new life; He can send new life into the world. But man is not so conceited as to think that the wonderful gift of life is his or that he originates it, or that it comes from him. In attempting to create new life in the laboratory, for instance, man has not succeeded in producing even the simplest possible living protoplasm. The best that man can do is to keep alive something living which the Lord has already created. The miracle of new life coming into this world is the miracle of creating receiving vessels, and by receiving vessels I mean something which is so built by the Lord that it can receive and hold life. Just as a storage battery can receive and hold electricity, because it has been built into a receiving form, so man has been designed and created by the Lord to receive and hold the gift of life from Him.
Electricity is a marvelous force. We have never seen it. We can sometimes feel it in the form of a shock. We can see the motion of a motor that is run by it; we can see the light of a lamp that is lit by it; we can see the effect of it in a hundred different ways, but the thing itself we cannot see. Yet a storage battery is a form so built that it is able to hold this invisible force. Again the steam boiler is a vessel so formed that it can hold the power and pressure of steam, and make that steam available to perform uses. Similarly the Lord has fashioned the soul of man so that it is a vessel capable of receiving and holding life, and He has fashioned man's mind into a vessel capable of receiving and holding love, and receiving and holding wisdom.
The Writings tell us that the inmost of the male is the love of growing wise. That is the inmost essence of the man and therefore he is the aggressive partner. He goes out and is seen in the world. In general, it is the man that goes out and earns the living; he goes after things; he goes after knowledge and he goes after wisdom. The husband earns the living, brings home wages, is interested in the competition of life, the struggle with other men. For all that is typically masculine. But the wife is typically the home-maker. She takes the money that her husband earns and converts it into all the comforts of a home. The Writings say that a woman is inmostly in the love of her husband's wisdom. That is why men love women, because men are in the love of growing wise, and women provide the form that clothes that love, being relatively passive, while the man is active.
According to the Writings, the inmost vessel of life which is to be passed on to the next generation is conceived in the mind of the man. The mind of man is capable of being animated by life from the Divine, and, through man's love of growing wise, there are formed and provided vessels which can actually receive and hold the gift of life from God. So that the inmost, and first vessel that holds life from God is to be found in the mind of the husband. Through fluids produced in the brain, coverings from the finest things of nature are given to these first forms of life, which then proceed into the body to form the soul of the masculine sperm.
When the sperm enters the ovum of the female there at once begins a devolution, and all the coverings that have been given to life in the male are one by one removed until in the last analysis the naked soul that is, the spiritual which has been contributed by the father, stands ready to serve as the architect that is about to direct all the marvellous growth of the embryo. The True Christian Religion states that everything that the father actually contributes to the child is spiritual, and that all of the material of the body with which it is born into the world is taken from the mother. (TCR 92) No scientist can answer the question: "What directs the growth of the child in the womb?" They can say, of course, that Nature does it, but that is only begging the question. We can all see that there is an architect that orders the growth of the babe in the womb. There is no doubt about it. When the ovum has been fecundated the cells begin to divide and thus to multiply. Some of them form the neural canal. Some form the primitive heart and brain, other cells go to form all the manifold organs of the body, together with the muscles, the skin, and the bones. What is the mysterious force which directs all this? If we saw piles of wood, stone, cement, sand, and other building materials lying around we would not expect them to turn into a beautiful house unless there was the direction of an architect. No more could the cells form a perfect body unless there was an architect. This something, which is the architect, the Writings tell us, is the soul from the father. This soul is a spiritual substance, above the plane of matter, and it weaves for itself an immortal covering from the purest things of nature, and through these elements it constructs the body of the child from the nutritive spheres which are offered in the mother's womb.
From this description we are able to understand how the virgin birth was physically possible. In the beginning of Genesis we read that God created man in His own image and likeness. Man is man because the Creator was Divine Man before the creature was ever created. That Divine Human, the Writings tell us, is the soul of what is called the Grand Man of heaven. This is the organized society of all the men and women who have ever lived in this or any other world, and who have died and gone to heaven. The angelic heavens are organized into a human form; not a human shape, but a form of human uses; and the force that organizes them into that human form is the Lord's Divine Human.
Just as the soul from the father, in the birth of an ordinary child, is the architect which builds the body for itself out of natural substances contributed entirely by the mother, so the Lord bowed the heavens when He came down and, as it were, formed a Divine seed of good clothed with truth taken from the very Divine Human which makes the heavens and holds them in this perfect truth which contains within it the Divine Love itself. He bowed the heavens, and there in the heavens took on sufficient finite coverings to enter Mary's womb, just as life is clothed in the brain of the father, and then puts on covering after covering until it is given to the mother. So in passing through the heavens, though the Lord did not take on anything of the proprium of the angels, this Divine seed, or life, was tempered until it could effect that unique and miraculous conception which Gabriel had predicted. In that case the soul as the architect had no human heredity taken from a human father, but it had the Divine heredity taken on from the Divine of the Lord which makes the heavens; and when she said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word", Mary made herself completely receptive to that Divine Influx which should cause the birth of God Himself into this world.
The soul of the new-born Lord Jesus Christ was therefore the Infinite Divine Itself the Supreme Jehovah from eternity, of whom Solomon said, "The heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee, how much less this house which I have builded?" When the Child Jesus lay as a helpless, innocent, ignorant babe in His cradle, the Divine Soul was the ruler not only of that earthly body but of the entire universe, as before. The Divine, the Writings tell us, is in all space apart from space. The concept is quite difficult. God is everywhere, yet we cannot think of Him as a giant whose head is in one part of His universe and His feet in another. The Lord is in all space, but space is not in Him; so, ever since He created the universe there has never been a space where He was not. He is omnipresent; He is everywhere. When the Holy Babe was born in Bethlehem, no human father interposed and caught the life from the Divine, but since it was the life of the Divine Itself that created that baby, therefore the Lord's soul had no partitioning wall cutting it off from the Infinite, which was already in Bethlehem, and had been since the world was created.
God cannot be divided. We cannot cut the Infinite and say: "Here is a part and there is a part." The Infinite is a continuous substance, and since it descended into Mary's womb, the Infinite Itself, the whole Infinite, was the soul of the body which was born of her. That does not mean that the Infinite was withdrawn from the universe, but it does mean that the inmost of that child was God Himself, the Father of eternity dwelling in a body of its own creation. As the Lord grew up, He put off the human taken from Mary little by little; put it off, with the tendencies to evil and its infirmities, put it away, never to take it on again. He glorified Himself, as He said, "Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine Ownself, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was." (John 17:5) What could He have meant by that? He meant that the Divine Wisdom, the Word which was in the beginning and became flesh and dwelt among us, and whose glory we beheld. should in the end contain nothing of merely human inheritance through Mary. It is amazing that the Catholic Church in our day should teach just the opposite, saying that Mary was born without sin so that the Lord might be born without hereditary evil, and that Mary rose as to her whole body just as the Lord did!
The New Church doctrine is that the Lord was born of Mary that He might take on through Mary all of the hereditary evils of the world, and that they should form the basis for the infestation of the hells, so that He the Savior might meet the hells on this plane of human life, and by conquering them reduce them into order and obedience to Himself. Without such hereditary evil, the whole incarnation would have been fruitless. But gradually, as He met evil and conquered the hells, FIe put off one human state after another until, when He rose from the tomb on Easter morn, He was all Divine, and there was nothing at all from Mary clinging to Him.
There is a beautiful passage in The True Christian Religion, No. 102, which reads, "To the above I will add this, which is new: Once it was granted me to speak with Mary the mother. On a certain occasion she passed by and appeared in heaven above my head in white raiment like silk; and then pausing a little she said that she had been the mother of the Lord, who was born of her; but that He, having become God, had put off everything human that He had derived from her, and that she therefore worshipped Him as her God, and was unwilling that anyone should acknowledge Him as her son, because in Him, all is Divine." I would like to close with the words of Mary when she met the expectant Elisabeth. Mary and Elisabeth were cousins. Elisabeth was old and well-stricken in years and had never had a child. Now she was to be granted in her old age this greatest gift to mana child. You recall that Mary went to see her, and when she entered Elisabeth said:
"Whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" And Mary replied: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done to me great things and holy is His name. And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation. He hath showed strength with His arm. He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent away empty. He bath helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy; as He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to His seed forever." (Luke 1:46-55)