Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from Jane Schaberg's book, "The Illegitimacy of Jesus."
The virgin betrothed and seduced or raped is, in the great Matthean paradox, the virgin who conceives and bears the child they will call Emmanuel. His origin is ignominious and tragic. But Matthew's point is that his existence is divinely willed and even predicted. That although-- or even because-- he was born in that way, the claim of his messiahship was not thereby negated. It was, rather, in some strange way strengthened...
The wording in which the conception story survives is, as Vermes says, "when scrutinized closely, curious and equivocal." That is due, I think, not to the desire to be enigmatic, nor to the theological stress and strain of presenting a novel notion of divine begetting without human paternity... It is due rather to something I judge harder: the effort to be honest, delicate and profound, in dealing with material that resisted-- and still resists-- in great part the theologians' arts and tools: the siding of God with the endangered woman and child.
In my blog-reading leading up to Christmas I came across an interesting discussion of the question of whether Mary and Joseph were married at the time Jesus was born. One blogger was insistent that Mary was not an "unwed mother" and couldn't understand why some (she accused them of being Protestants) seemed to take a 'perverse' delight in labeling her so. I think the blogger probably didn't have an understanding of the ancient Palestinian Jewish customs of betrothal and marriage, in which betrothal was covenantally akin to being married, the only feature lacking being the "home-taking" of the bride by the groom. I have never been much perturbed by Mary's status one way or the other, wed or unwed, virgin or no. I realize many folks seem to have a lot invested in the notion of the virgin birth, and I don't doubt God could have done it that way if God had so desired-- perhaps that is exactly what happened. I have always felt that, once one is willing to posit a supreme being, God, that all the rest is pretty easy to go along with. If there is a God, I have no doubt God can perform any miracle at all.
But something in me resonates with Schaberg's analysis, and I think the upset blogger has helped me pinpoint just what it is. The more fully fleshed out Mary's "low estate" (the word thus translated in the Magnificat more typically means "humiliation"), the greater God's salvific action. If Schaberg's thesis is correct, and in Mary we have the stunning story of reversal described above (a woman raped/ traumatized is redeemed by God's intention to make of this child God's own son in an unprecedented way), then the glorious work of God is that much more glorious. If Mary is an unwed mother, God's mercy is that much more vividly displayed. If God chooses for the messiah to come of this "ignominious" origin, we have all the more evidence of God's love for and solidarity with the "least" of humanity. All the more reason for Hallelujah's, Hosanna's and Gloria's.