The Virgin Birth — Merely Symbolic, or Does It Express a Deep Truth?

The Annunciation, Paolo de Matteis.
The Annunciation, Paolo de Matteis.

Two little boys were notorious troublemakers in their town. If there was mischief, people would always point to them first.

The boys’ mother, driven to distraction, decided to send them to the priest, hoping he could persuade them to behave.

The older boy went in first.

The priest said, “Where is God?”

The little boy didn’t know what to say.

The priest said again, “Where is God?”

The little boy dashed from the room, grabbed his brother, and ran all the way home and hid under the bed. When his little brother asked him why, he said, “God is missing and they think we did it!”

I’ll have to stretch to connect the story to my theme for today. And yet, doesn’t the joke describe our situation? We think we understand what our life is about, and then we find, again and again, that we didn’t have a clue.

An aspect of the Christmas story that has always fascinated me is the virgin birth. Did it actually happen? And if so, what lesson is it intended to give us? Like the little boys in the story, are we misunderstanding the message?

I grew up Jewish, so I didn’t hear the orthodox explanations. Nor did I ask, because I imagined nobody actually knew, and that they would just give me their personal theories.

As far as I know, the only time Yogananda addressed the virgin birth was in a magazine article, where he referred to Joseph as “Jesus’ father.” And then he added, “whether in a divine or a human way.”

I asked Swami Kriyananda about this. “Why did Master refer to the virgin birth in such an ambiguous way?”

Swamiji said, “There were some things that even Master wouldn’t take on.”

There were other aspects of Christ’s life and teachings that Master wouldn’t talk about, including the idea, of which Swamiji became convinced at the end of his life, that Master had been Jesus.

Master never talked about this, although he did describe his mission as “the second coming of Christ.” He explained that this work is a renewal of the teachings of Jesus. And, really, that’s explanation enough. But when Swamiji asked him directly, “Were you Jesus?” his response was intriguing. He said, “What difference would it make?”

And there the matter rested. Swamiji said, “If Master had claimed that, even in private, it would have distracted from everything else he did.”

But it’s an intriguing answer: “What difference would it make?”

As Swamiji often said, truth simply is, unaffected by how we react to it. And this world is very different than we imagine it to be, based on the evidence of our senses and rational mind.

Returning to the question of the virgin birth, I had little to guide my understanding until I heard it explained beautifully by Nayaswami Devi.

She said, “The birth of God in this world, and the presence of God within us, has no cause. There is no logical reason for it. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to be good. We don’t have to rise to any standard, and it doesn’t follow any of the kinds of rules that the human mind is so fond of.”

We love to figure out “the rules” with our mind. But we cannot grasp divine realities with our reason.

In truth, it would be trivially easy for God to be born on Earth without human intercession, because all creation is an expression of the Divine in any case.

And isn’t it beautiful to think of the virgin birth as an expression of God’s consciousness?

Scholars argue over where the story came from. Some claim it’s symbolic, intended to suggest that Christ wasn’t born of man but was literally God’s son.

Others claim the story was created to portray Jesus as wholly above humanity, an incarnation of God who never lived in this world as an ordinary human being.

But a deep truth is implied in the story of the virgin birth – in spiritual matters we need to rely on direct, intuitive perception, and not try to fathom the Divine with the rational mind alone. If we try to grasp the divine reality with our minds, we may end up believing the first reasonable-sounding story that occurs to us.

Another favorite story of mine is about a little girl who writes a letter to God. She says, “I got some new shoes, and when I go to church on Sunday I’ll show them to You.”

I see the little girl sitting with her parents in church, and she’s lifting her feet to show God her new shoes. With a child’s heart, she wants Him to see her shoes, because she wants Him to know what’s happening in her life. And that’s the relationship that God wants to have with us.

He isn’t interested in how cleverly we reason about him. As Christ said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Master once had a discussion with a minister who believed that every word of the Bible is literally true.

Master said, “What about the story of Adam and Eve, when the snake talked to Eve?”

The man said, “In those days, snakes could talk.”

Once you’ve decided what you want to believe, you can invent all kinds of reasonable-sounding “facts” to support your ideas.

William James, the nineteenth-century philosopher, gave a public talk on the origin of the universe. Afterward, an elderly woman approached him.

She said, “You know, Dr. James, everything you said about the origin of creation is wrong. This world sits on the back of a giant turtle.”

Dr. James said, “And what is beneath the turtle?”

She said, “Well, another turtle.”

He said, “And under that turtle?”

She said, “You can’t fool me! – it’s turtles all the way down.”

Most of us are unaware of the spirit world behind this material plane. For much of his childhood, Swami Kriyananda essentially didn’t come out of that inner spiritual world. In The Path, he describes how, before he would fall asleep at night, he would see a beautiful light, and he would stare into the light until he was absorbed by it.

As a child, he had no context for the experience. He thought it was how everyone fell asleep, and he was blissfully happy in that experience.

There was a pure innocence about his childhood. He had parents who adored him, he was well taken care of, and he lived a life of almost perfect happiness. It was not until he grew older, at about nine, that he began to notice the difference between himself and his father. Where Swamiji was the philosopher, always interested in the spiritual side of things, his father was the engineer, with his feet firmly planted in the material world.

Through the years, Swamiji began to believe that he was the one who was out of step, and he began to bring his consciousness down more into this world.

As we grow up, we put on a costume, and we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the role we think we have to play. But in some part of us, we’re always aware that we’re only playing a part.

In The Path, Swamiji describes how he always remembered the joyful freedom of his childhood. In his late teens, he realized how dry he had become, always thinking and analyzing and intellectualizing. And when he came to Master, he recognized in him that same pure, childlike quality of consciousness.

When we released Finding Happiness, the movie about Ananda, I gave workshops to try to help people understand how they, too, could find more happiness.

When I prayed for inspiration, I got the idea to talk about time, and how the source of our greatest misery is our wholehearted immersion in this present moment.

Each moment looms so large for us that we forget we’re living in the eternal now. Do you remember how the days seemed endless when you were a child? Your mother would announce, “We’re going to the seashore next week.” And you had no concept of time, because you were completely focused in the moment. “Is it next week yet, Mom?”

The son of a woman in our congregation was playing basketball with his friends. He was nine, and he kept coming into the house and asking her for the time. It was about eleven in the morning, and he was very eager. Finally, she said, “Honey, why do want to know the time?” He said, “One of the boys said puberty starts at twelve.”

He was eager to grow up, and he thought that as soon as it turned noon he would become a teenager.

There’s a great difference between our ordinary consciousness and the awareness of a saint. We’re joyous because we’re involved in each moment, and then trials come and the happiness ends.

Swamiji had so many challenges, especially in being rejected by his own gurubhais, to the extent that their antipathy toward him never abated, even to the end of his life.

There was never a reconciliation, or even a softening. From age twenty-two to thirty-six, they were his fellow disciples and dearest friends. And then for fifty years, from thirty-six to eighty-six, they considered him the greatest enemy of Yogananda’s work.

His response was to put forth a constant stream of joyful energy, faithfully serving his Guru, while always trying to heal that relationship.

In his Last Will and Testament, he wrote: “If it is at all possible after I am gone to create harmony, let it be known that it is my dearest wish that we should do so.”

Many times, I asked him, “How can you hold that attitude?”

He said, “Why lose twice? You lose once when someone hurts you. You’ll lose twice if you allow that bitterness to grow in your heart. I am simply happier when I love.”

Now, that is true wisdom. It may sound naïve to respond to other people’s spiteful rejection with pure love. But it’s an innocence that is very different from the uninformed happiness of a child. It’s a wisdom born of tremendous experience.

And that’s the kind of happiness we’re seeking, a happiness that can remain unshaken, as Master put it, “amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”

God is interested in the long story of our progress through many lives. Like a good shepherd, He guides us through countless experiences, until our soul can finally enter its true home in His perfect bliss and love.

Christmas is when the world passes through the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. We return to this time again and again in the yearly cycle. And the only way to escape the endless turning of light and dark is to live in the eternal now.

In that perfect oneness which Christ enjoyed, we are able to stand unmoved at the center of all things and watch the endless rising and falling of shadow and light.

We can remain untouched by the turning of worlds, so long as we refuse to let ourselves be drawn outward by the alluring rays of cosmic illusion, and as long as we refuse to identify ourselves with that outward reality.

In his beautiful poem, Samadhi, Yogananda wrote: “Myself, in everything, enters the great Myself.”

The “myself” that will someday enter the great Myself looks a lot like the face in the mirror. It doesn’t look at all like the infinite light, until we succeed in transforming ourselves. And yet, the causeless birth of divinity within us, which doesn’t have to be earned, and which isn’t affected by the endless ups and downs of many lives, is offered to us freely, as God’s priceless gift.

Swamiji said, very casually, “The only purpose in life is to transform our consciousness, to overcome ego, to know ourselves as the Infinite, as we truly are. Whether that process is pleasurable or painful doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t matter to us at all in the end.”

Joseph and the Christ Child, Guido Reni
Joseph and the Christ Child, Guido Reni

We look to the past with longing, and we tremble as we contemplate an uncertain future. Or we look forward with wild anticipation, hoping that everything will improve. But this is how we make ourselves crazy – by clinging to the edge of our consciousness, instead of realizing that there is a virgin birth, a completely separate, constant appearance of the light at the deepest center of ourselves, fully outside of anything we can know in this world.

The more we can learn to hold onto the inner light, the more we will know that there is no other answer.

Through many lives, we’ve tried about all that this world has to offer. With each new birth, we’ve thought, “Finally, this is the life where everything will work out. This time I’ve got this world under my control – this time I’ll make it unscathed to the end.”

Swamiji tells us – and it’s a fairly grim thought – that every least bit of our karma has to be neutralized. Each wave that goes up has to be balanced by a wave that comes down.

There is no external expectation that does not have to be balanced, its karmic waves erased – no hope that this world will finally hold true, that this life will be for us the final answer. It cannot, because the true birth of divinity is outside of this world. It is causeless, a pure virgin birth of the God who loves us, gives to us, enlightens us, and finally frees us, because He has never been far from us. He has always been our own.

So embrace the tiny baby Jesus with everything you are. And, more than that, take that symbol and bring it into your heart and nurture it with everything you have, for it is the only true source of joy.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on December 21, 2014.)


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