Conceivable By the Holy Spirit

The That Is Every bit as Miraculous as the What

Jason Micheli / 12.17.21

This past Sunday I sat incognito in the second pew from the front and I watched as three- and four-year-olds portrayed the heavenly host to the best of their ability and kindergartners dressed shaggy browns and grays played the friendly beasts gathered at the bedside of the incarnate God. One of the sheep, righteously angry about being thrust into such responsibility, cried angry tears where the pulpit normally stands.

“Gosh,” the man’s voice behind me said, “if I could be her age all over again, I wouldn’t make most of the decisions I’ve made … I’d do my life different if I could do it over again.” Randy was homeless. I could feel his breath, smelling vaguely of booze, against the back of my neck. His honest, almost reflexive declaration struck me as the perfect distillation of what we mean by the word, church. His was a confession given freely, even winsomely, as a reaction to the gospel and in the trust that he was in a space made safe by grace.

Mary, played by a fifth grader and appearing virtually in a pre-recorded performance, appeared not only to be pondering the gravity of the annunciation but her next lines; meanwhile, the angel Gabriel delivered his glad tidings so fast you’d think there was an angel labor shortage and he had places to be. When Gabriel announced his goods news of great joy to the shepherd petting his cottony sawhorse sheep, I heard a different voice behind me whisper to the man, “Can you imagine getting a message like that from God? Wouldn’t you love it if God said something like that to you?”

Randy replied with the same astonished honesty, “If God spoke to me, I don’t expect I’d care much what he had to say to me. Just God speaking — to me — would be enough. Shit, that’d be a miracle.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel answers Mary’s bewildered question about biology (“How can this be since I am a virgin?”) by speaking of the power of the Holy Spirit. Matthew gives us the virgin foretold by the prophet Isaiah while John points back to the time before time and tells us that the one conceived in Mary’s womb is the Word who hung the stars in the sky. Whether the Gospels speak of the virgin birth or the Word made flesh, the claim is the same; namely, our knowledge of the true God is like anything else in creation. It comes into being ex nihilo.

From nothing.

The beginning of our knowledge of God is not a beginning that we make with God. It can only be the beginning that God has made with us. The God made flesh in Jesus Christ is not only conceived by the Holy Spirit; through the Holy Spirit God makes himself conceivable. Revelation refers not merely to the event of Gabriel invading the shepherds’s lives or Mary giving birth to her Maker. Revelation refers to our knowledge of this God. As Karl Barth puts it in Theological Existence Today, “In the knowledge of God, we have to do with God himself by God himself.” Or, as Gerhard Forde might put it, the sheer fact we know anything at all of this God born to Mary is proof that God himself has come down the up staircase. If God were not gracious, we would not be dealing with the true God at all, for we would not know him — at all. To say, as the Church Fathers said, that Mary bore God is also to say that God is the One who gives himself, graciously, to be known.

On most Sundays, with song and sermon, the Church focuses all its energies on the content of God’s Gospel message; however, there is no better time than the Feast of the Incarnation to marvel at the fact of God’s message. The that is no less miraculous than what. That God is a loquacious God, not only within the life of the Trinity, but with us is already grace before a single word is spoken to us. “The fact that God speaks to us,” Barth writes, “and not just what he says is always in all circumstances already grace.” In other words, what God says to us (“Your sins are forgiven”) is consonant with who God is (the God who graciously reveals himself).

It’s this miracle of revelation that makes the Feast of the Incarnation far more than what many children’s pageants and Christmas Eve services might lead you to believe. Christmas is not the recollection of an event in the past. Christmas is the celebration of a miracle in our midst. It’s true, as Jesus said at three on Good Friday, “It is finished.” Our redemption is over and done, accomplished once for all, through cross and resurrection, as uncontested as it is unconditional. But our knowledge of this redemption, our faith in the grace made flesh in him, is a miracle that abides into the here and now. As Martin Luther preached in many of his Christmas sermons, the nativity of our Lord happens again and again everywhere the Gospel gives birth to a believer.

Barth speaks of this miracle in Church Dogmatics II.2:

Revelation is the ground on which we stand, the horizon by which we are bounded, the atmosphere in which we breath. It is the life of our life. It is inaccessible and concealed just because it is so real— with a divine reality over which we have no control, but which controls us with a force with which none of the known and accessible elements of our life can even remotely compete. It is not in the sphere of our knowledge because it is wisdom itself, without whose light our knowledge would not be possible even in its limitation. We have no power over it because it is omnipotence, by which all our power is created, and without which it would be impotence. It does not exist as one of the facts which we seek and can discover because it is we who are searched and discovered in our existence by it.

“You know my favorite part of that story?” the man behind me said to the woman seated next to him at the pageant’s end, “The you. ‘This shall be a sign for you.’ That means me.”

I didn’t have to look behind. I could hear that he was crying.

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One response to “Conceivable By the Holy Spirit”

  1. […] The That Is Every bit as Miraculous as the What. — Jason Michelli, with help from Karl Barth, reflects on the miracle that God does anything at all for humanity, much less revealing himself in the Christmas story. Also: the Virgin Birth as divine judgment. […]

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