If you’ve ever pondered the virginal conception, you’re not alone. The first person to ponder the virginal conception was the virgin who conceived. Upon learning that she would bear a son, Mary’s response was, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” There was no precedent in Jewish history for such a biological feat, which is why the angel Gabriel, after hearing Mary’s question, didn’t strike her mute as he did Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.
When Gabriel told Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to conceive a son despite being past the age of bearing children, Zechariah asked a question similar to Mary’s: “How shall I know this?” Annoyed, Gabriel prevents Zechariah from speaking until the boy is born, at which point the first words Zechariah spoke were, prudently, words of praise to God. Unlike Mary, Zechariah should have known better. Abraham and Sarah, Manoah and his wife (Judges 13:2f), and Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1f) shared circumstances similar to his. Zechariah’s knowledge of these stories from his own faith tradition should have been proof enough of what was possible.
Mary had no such stories to draw from. Neither do we. What happened to Mary shouldn’t be possible. There’s no precedent for it in human biology just as there wasn’t in Jewish history. The unparalleled nature of the event points to its theological meaning: we cannot save ourselves. We cannot, all by ourselves, produce a savior of the world. We need God to step in, to stoop down, to “overshadow” us with grace.
The virginal conception isn’t a biological conundrum. Rather, the virginal conception confronts us with our need for God. When Gabriel explained to Mary that God would enable her to conceive, Mary had no idea how all that was going to work, but she did know that she, her people, and the world needed God. And so she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” In other words, yes, God, we need you.
The virginal conception is without parallel in human history. We, however, can ensure that the virgin’s response to it is spoken and lived every day.