(This post is an excerpt from A Theology of Desire.)
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God.
(Luke 1:34-35 WEB)
Luke is the only gospel writer to capture this moment, and shortly after these words, the account fades to black. But God has given us the gift of imagination and invites us to populate the stories of scripture with sound, scent, and texture. Here’s what I envision:
Gabriel leaves. The Holy Spirit descends and God steps into time and space, sweeping Mary into the scenes of the Song of Songs:
How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
the fragrance of your perfumes than all kinds of spices!
(Song of Songs 4:10 WEB)
Most Christians sanitize this encounter, stripping it of the gorgeous sensuality it promises, as if a non-physical implantation of Jesus’ being is somehow holier than Mary being ravished by the Holy Spirit. But Jesus is like us in all ways. His humanity was physical, borne by Mary, born from the union of two.
Why doesn’t this story confirm the sacredness of physical intimacy, rather than demanding that none took place? God could have chosen to present Jesus some other way, say, by molding him from the muck like Adam, or poofing him into being fully formed, or replicating him from an idea like the multiplication of a loaf and some fishes? Instead, we are presented with a fully human God, begotten through union with a woman. Jesus was implanted, became a zygote, and developed into a baby whose birth we celebrate each December. We accept the rawness of the infant Jesus lying in a feeding trough, but reject the idea that his coming into being could have included passion.
Isn’t it more like a God of love to engulf Mary fully, satisfyingly, even mind-blowingly rather than engaging in some kind of spiritual artificial insemination? Is God more like the handsome lover described in the Song of Songs—comely and eager to rejoin the beloved—or like a lab technician wearing rubber gloves and a face mask, striving to retain as much distance as possible while performing an action of great intimacy?
If you present this idea to most Christians, they cringe and say that it couldn’t have been a lush, physical encounter for Mary because it isn’t described that way in the Bible. But the only way Luke would know what happened was through God’s whispers and Mary’s retelling of the story. And not many of us share the intimate details of our lovemaking.
We shouldn’t find it surprising that Luke’s story fades to black. The mother of God treasured many things in her heart.
God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them.