This insight into the ramifications of Christmas-reality comes from Barth’s lectures on the Apostles’ Creed, Dogmatics in Outline. Here he examines what it means to confess that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Ponder the startling implications of these familiar phrases lest they become only words: content-less sounds vainly rehearsed, signifying nothing, tedious and tawdry. One of the weaknesses of evangelicalism (particularly fundamentalism) is the way verbal orthodoxy can be enforced and maintained without disciples ever learning or being offered glimpses into the realities they’ve been told to orient their lives around and towards; too often I’ve heard believers unable to unpack what these things mean so as to penetrate to the heart of the matter: “It means he was born of a virgin…” This lifeless orthodoxy of the letter must be transmuted into a lively union of form and content primed for awe and adoration, and Uncle Karl can help us:
If we wish to understand the meaning of “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary”, above all we must try to see that these two remarkable pronouncements assert that God of free grace became man, a real man. The eternal Word became flesh. This is the miracle of Jesus Christ’s existence, this descent of God from above downwards- the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary. This is the mystery of Christmas, of the Incarnation. At this part of the Confession the Catholic Church makes the sign of the Cross. And in the most various settings composers have attempted to reproduce this et incarnatus est. This miracle we celebrate annually, when we celebrate Christmas.
If I to grasp this miracle should will/So stands my spirit reverently still.
Such in nuce is God’s revelation; we can only grasp it, only hear it as the beginning of all things.
But there is no question here of conception and birth in general, but of a quite definite conception and a quite definite birth. Why conception by the Holy Spirit and why birth of the Virgin Mary? Why this special miracle which is intended to be expressed in these two concepts, side by side with the great miracle of the Incarnation? Why does the miracle of Christmas run parallel to the mystery of the Incarnation? A noetic utterance is so to speak put alongside the ontic one. If in the Incarnation we have to do with the thing, here we have to do with the sign. The two should not be confused. The thing which is involved in Christmas is true in and for itself. But it is indicated, it is unveiled in the miracle of Christmas. But it would be wrong to conclude from that, that therefore “only” a sign is involved, which therefore might even be deducted from the mystery. Let me warn you against this. It is rare in life to be able to separate form and content.
“Very God and very man.” If we consider this basic Christian truth first in the light of “conceived by the Holy Spirit”, the truth is clear that the man Jesus Christ has His origin simply in God, that is, He owes His beginning in history to the fact that God in person became man. This means that Jesus Christ is indeed man, true man, but He is not just a man, not just an extraordinarily gifted or specially guided man, let alone a super-man; but, while being a man, He is God Himself. God is one with Him. His existence begins with God’s special action; as a man He is founded in God, He is true God. The subject of the story of Jesus Christ is therefore God Himself, as truly as a man lives and suffers and acts there. And as surely as human initiative is involved in this life, so surely this human initiative has its foundation in the fact in Him and through Him God has taken the initiative. From this standpoint we cannot avoid saying that Jesus Christ’s Incarnation is an analogue of creation. Once more God acts as the Creator, but now not as the Creator out of nothing; rather, God enters the field and creates within creation a new beginning, a new beginning in history and moreover in the history of Israel. In the continuity of human history a point becomes visible at which God Himself hastens to the creature’s aid and becomes one with him. God becomes man. In this way the story begins.
And now we have to turn the page and come to the second thing expressed thereby, when we say, “born of the Virgin Mary”. Now the fact is underlined that we are on earth. There is a human child, the Virgin Mary; and as well as coming from God, Jesus also comes from this human being. God gives Himself an earthly human origin, that is the meaning of “born of Mary the Virgin”. Jesus Christ is not “only” true God; that would not be real incarnation- but neither is He an intermediate being; He is a man like us all, a man without reservation. He not only resembles us men; He is the same as us. As God is the Subject in the life of Jesus Christ, so man is the object in this story, but in the sense not of an object to be acted upon, but of a man who is in action. Man does not turn into a marionette in this meeting with God, but if there is genuine humanity, here it is, where God Himself makes Himself a man…
What is the meaning of “conceived by the Holy Spirit”? It does not mean that the Holy Spirit is so to speak the Father of Jesus Christ; in the strict sense only the denial is thereby asserted, that the man Jesus Christ has no Father. At His procreation it was not as when a human existence starts, but this human existence starts in the freedom of God Himself, in the freedom in which the Father and the Son are one in the bond of love, in the Holy Spirit. So when we look at the beginning of the existence of Jesus, we are meant to be looking into this ultimate depth of the Godhead, in which the Father and Son are one. This is the freedom of the inner life of God, and in this freedom the existence of this man begins in A.D. 1. By this taking place, by God Himself beginning quite concretely at this point with Himself, this man who of himself is neither capable of this nor willing, may not only proclaim the Word of God, but Himself be the Word of God. In the midst of the old the new humanity begins. This is the miracle of Christmas, the miracle of the procreation of Jesus Christ without a father. This has nothing to do with myths narrated elsewhere in the history of religion, myths of the procreation of men by gods. We have not to do with such a procreation here. God Himself takes the stage as the Creator and not as a partner to this Virgin. Christian art in earlier times attempted to reproduce this fact, that here there is no question of a sexual event. And it has been well said that this procreation was realised rather by way of the ear of Mary, which heard the Word of God.
“Born of the Virgin Mary”. Once again and now from the human standpoint the male is excluded here. The male has nothing to do with this birth. What is involved here is, if you like, a divine act of judgment. To what is to begin here man is to contribute nothing by his action and iniative. Man is not simply excluded, for the Virgin is there. But the male, as the specific agent of human action and history, with his responsibility for directing the human species, must now retire into the background, as the powerless figure of Joseph. That is the Christian reply to the question of woman: here the woman stands absolutely in the foreground, moreover the virgo, the Virgin Mary. God did not choose man in his pride and in his defiance, but man in his weakness and humility, not man in his historical role, but man in the weakness of his nature as represented by the woman, the human creature who can confront God only with the words, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according as Thou hast said”. Such is human co-operation in this matter, that and only that! We must not think of making a merit of this handmaid existence, nor attempt once more to ascribe a potency to the creature. But God has regarded man in his weakness and in his humility, and Mary has expressed what creation alone can express in this encounter. That Mary does so and that thereby the creature says “Yes” to God, is a part of the great acceptance which comes to man from God.
(Dogmatics in Outline [New York: Harper & Row, 1959], pp. 96-97, 98-100)