Tis the Season…

Christmas just isn’t so much my season. I’m not a Scrooge exactly, but maybe just his first cousin once removed. In sum, I hate the whole thing, except for the Christian part of it. But every time I lay claim to the beauty of holy nativity, I sound to myself like one of those annoying, holier-then-thou, put Christ back in Christmas folks whom I dislike more than I dislike the whole secularized mess itself. What it all finally boils down to, in candor and honesty, is that I fall down into the liturgies and narratives of the Nativity like they were a deep down comforter and then wrap myself there with all the quiet and ease of safe retreat.

This Sunday–11 December, 2011 — is the Third Sunday of Advent and, every year, my favorite of the four Sundays leading up to the Nativity. It’s Mary Sunday, and all week-long will be Mary week, in a manner of speaking. We’ll light the pink candle in the otherwise purple circle of the Advent wreath, and I’ll remember what it was like all those many years ago to be with child and know it. But I’ll remember as well that my dearest and clearest bit of theology came into my ken because of Mary and the controversy that, for many years, swirled around whether or not her bearing of God was indeed an immaculate conception.

I’ve told the story so many times now that I should be ashamed to continue its re-counting; but I can’t light the Mary candle without posting it one more time here. It was a number of years ago–early 90’s–when the historicity of the Virgin Birth was a hot, hot issue. I was asked by a group of good middle-aged, middle-class Christians to address the subject in terms of its history as both a doctrine of the Church and as a controversy. 

The event was a dinner meeting, and the young people of the parish served the food and then, as I began to talk, started the clean-up process back in the kitchen. From the podium, I could see through the still-raised serving window, the teens as they scraped and stacked plates. One of them, in particular, caught my attention, because I or the chosen subject had clearly captured his.

He began to scrape and stack more slowly until, finally, he just gave up trying and came into the hall to take a seat on the back row. When all was said and done, the meeting dismissed, and all the adults gone, he still was sitting there. As I turned to gather my own things to leave, he came up toward me and said, “Please, may I ask you a question?”

“Certainly,” I said. “What about?”

“It’s about that Virgin birth mess, ” he said. “I don’t understand.”

My heart sank. Leading teenagers into confusion is not my idea of good form or responsible activity. With some temerity, I took him on by asking, “What don’t you understand?”

Very carefully, as if he were still feeling his own way into the whole matter, he said, “I guess I don’t understand what their problem is with the virgin birth,” and he waved his hand over the recently-emptied chairs. “I mean,” he said quietly, “the whole thing is so absolutely beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not.”

As good a bit of Emergence living and believing as ever I have heard or ever shall hear. Even the angels rejoiced that night, just as they will rejoice every night from now til Christmas when I light the Mary candle in the Advent wreath on our kitchen table.

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  • For me, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the virgin birth story is really true. I affirm it when I recite the Apostle’s Creed at church, but I have no way of going back in time and giving Mary a physical examination to see whether or not it really happened. For me, I’m more in awe with the fact that the King of Kings got His start sleeping in a feed trough.

  • Tanya

    Ah, love this. Thanks so much for writing.

  • Lon Marshall

    Phyllis, I love this story. It brings tears to my eyes every time you tell it. I especially like in your book, Prayer is a Place, when you add in the young Jewish man and his relationship with his father. I think somehow this story touches something deep inside me that is transcendent and only the Holy Spirit knows fully. Thank you.

  • Phyllis, I’m so glad you told the story again. This was not the hot topic for everyone in the 90’s…for some of us wiggling our way out of the tight cocoon of evangelicalism it’s a new question. I’ve been on this road for a few years now (I’ll not say too much, my blog post will come out a few days after Christmas) but this year the question of Mary’s virginity sprung up yet again for me begging me to believe one way or the other. I can’t. Thank you for making me feel like I haven’t failed because of that. I’ll hold on to the beauty of the story and the mystery a little more tightly.

  • I can relate. I didn’t fully begin to appreciate Christmas until I started celebrating it with people who lived on the streets. Then, the idea of Christ being born in a trough came to life for me.

  • It’s hard for me to describe how much I love Phyllis’ work. When I get to Heaven I’m going to follow her around.