“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Virgins don’t have babies. It’s impossible. But this particular impossibility is not unique to Christianity. Several other religions have claimed miraculous births for their prophets.
Zoroaster, Mithras, Perseus, Horus, and Krishna were all born miraculously. Krishna’s mother Devaki wasn’t a virgin when the god Vishnu visited and impregnated her, but her pregnancy was nonetheless miraculous. Buddha’s mom, Maya, had a similar experience:
The “Great Being” chose the time and place of his birth, the tribe into which he would be born, and who his mother would be. In the time chosen by him, Maya, his mother, fell asleep and dreamed that four archangels carried her to the Himalayan Mountains where their queens bathed and dressed her. In her dream the Great Being soon entered her womb from her side, in the form of a white elephant.
Zoroaster's mother, Dughdova, was a virgin when she conceived Zoroaster by a shaft of light. The mother of the Sufist poet Kabir was both a virgin and a widow when she gave birth through the palm of her hand. A rock gave birth to Mithras. He emerged from the stone, already a young man, nude, and carrying a dagger and a torch. And the Egyptian god Horus was born to the goddess Isis after she retrieved all the dismembered body parts of her murdered husband Osiris (except his penis which was thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish), used her magic powers to bring the rejoined pieces to life, and fashioned a gold phallus to finish the job.
All these miracle birth stories shouldn’t be surprising. After all, origins seem to mean something. And if you’re making up a good story about supernatural powers, a miraculous birth is a good plot element to throw in — it’s supernatural and unassailable. It can’t be disproven; at least not thousands of years after the fact.
These stories sound outlandish to us, of course. They seem too unlikely to be true. But let’s be clear: rocks have as good a chance of giving birth as virgins. The origin story of the Christian Messiah doesn’t do us any favors in the believability department.
This, in itself, is both a paradox and a proof. The paradox is that Christianity espouses conflicting goals: it wants more people to believe, and it insists on creating the hardest doctrine to believe. And the proof is in the unlikelihood of this fantastic story being fiction. If you’re creating a religion of your own making, and you want people to believe it, this isn’t the way you start. As theologian Ben Witherington writes,
Evangelistic religions, like early Christianity, grounded in the life of a historical figure, Jesus, were unlikely to make up stories about their hero that would leave them wide open to the charge that Jesus was the offspring of an unholy union of man and woman.
Like so many paradoxes of faith, the birth of Jesus is too unbelievable not to be true. That’s what happens when the ineffable becomes terrestrial; when the eternal Word becomes temporal flesh.
This is the unbelievable and undeniable miracle of Christmas.