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.