The annunciation of Jesus’ birth is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. It tells us of the humble maiden kneeling before the angel of God unburdening himself of the message for which the Jews had been waiting for many long centuries. Mary’s puzzled question, “How can this be?” met the angel’s explanation, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called ‘the Son of God.’ ” This is one of the most touching stories in the Gospel, and it is one to be read with a profound mixture of wonder, gratitude, and praise.
One of the things that Gabriel says to Mary towards the very end of this exchange is that nothing is impossible with God. Now Mary needed to hear that, of course. She was being asked to believe things that, from a human perspective, were impossible. The first thing she was being asked to believe was the virgin birth. The angel had also spoken of a birth to her cousin, Elizabeth. But Mary understood that her situation was entirely different from that of Elizabeth. Elizabeth was old, and she had been barren, but she had a husband. And that was a contrast with Mary’s situation. She had no husband, she was not married, and, as she said to the angel, “I am a virgin.” She was being asked to believe in conception without intercourse. She certainly understood what was involved.
The second impossibility was the matter of the incarnation. Incarnation means that God himself became man. That was particularly difficult to believe in that Gentile age because the philosophy of the Gentiles had been formulated for the most part by the thinking of the Greek philosophers half a millennium before.
The Greek philosophers made a distinction between God and man, and the chief point of the distinction was this: God was Spirit, pure Spirit, and man was a combination of spirit, or soul, and matter. Now according to the Greek way of thinking, spirit was good, matter was bad; spirit was holy, matter was evil. The problem of Greek philosophy was that it made an incarnation impossible. Why? Well, you have to think it through. What would it mean, in the framework of that kind of philosophy, for God to become man? It would mean that God would have taken on evil to himself, because if God took on flesh, and flesh was evil, then God would have to become evil. God would have to become bad. That is impossible, of course, if God is to remain God. So the Greeks rejected the idea of the incarnation. That is why, when Paul went to preach to the Greek world, he said, “This matter of the Gospel is foolishness to the Greeks.” They just didn’t understand how such a thing could be possible. For the Greeks, salvation consisted not in God becoming man in order to die for man and be the Savior, but in man becoming God. In order to be saved, they thought that man had to get rid of bodily existence. That impossibility lingers on today in various forms of modern thought. That is the second impossibility.