Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4 - Year A

Today’s gospel reading sounds so ethereal, so airy-fairy that we might forget how much dirt soiled Mary’s sandals.

At least that’s how I usually hear the story. Stained-glass versions of this story tend to forget just how earthy this encounter between Mary and the angel is.

Who could blame folks for wanting to spiritualize this story? It has all the ingredients of a really cool movie: an angel calling a young, unsuspecting, unassuming woman to bear a divine child. An angry fiancé. A mysterious dream saving the young woman from certain death. It’s so fanciful that it can’t possibly be true, right?

And that’s what some folks have said.

I have a book on myself called Born of a Woman by John Shelby Spong. Those familiar with Spong’s writings probably know where I’m headed with this.

Spong has made a career of making Christianity [quote/unquote] “intelligible” to refined, urbane, overly-educated modern sophisticates. His philosophical assumption is that, if something can’t be scientifically proven to be true, then it can’t be true at all. Including faith and what we believe as Christians. And he mocks those who affirm traditional doctrine, calling them “primitive” and “childish.”

In Born of a Woman he unleashes his theological inventive on the Virgin Birth. He cites other virgin birth stories from the same era as Matthew to demonstrate how Matthew borrowed from another tradition and applied it to Jesus. He notes that Paul doesn’t mention Mary’s alleged virginity; Paul simply says that Jesus was born of a woman; no miracle reported or required. Spong surveys historical treatments of the Virgin Mary, outlining, rightly in most cases, how they were oppressive to women and dangerously suspicious of human sexuality. So, he says, since the Virgin Birth can’t be scientifically and historically proven, and since this doctrine has been harmful to women, we need to dispose of such a fairy tale.

Directly opposite Spong’s book, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant sits in counterpoint. Well, sort of. Fr. Ignace de la Potterie goes in the other direction, outlining the evidence, historical and theological - even scientific - of the veracity of the Virgin Birth. Like Spong, de la Potterie’s book suggests that the Virgin Birth has to stand up to scientific scrutiny and historical examination for it to be true. But, for him, the Virgin Birth meets those requirements.

Both books leave me cold. So much for miracle or mystery. And I wonder if they’re missing the point of the Virgin Birth by needing scientific affirmation.

Anglican theologian Phyllis Tickle was speaking at a large cathedral in the southern US. About 500 people, mainly baby-boomers and older attended her lecture, she says. During the Q and A after her lecture, someone asked her about the Virgin Birth. As such questions invariably do, this one devolved into a debate of whether the Virgin Birth was a matter of scientific, historical fact or simply the product of an imaginative story teller using a well-know literary device and applying it to Jesus.

“It’s heresy to deny the truth of the Virgin Birth!” one side screamed. Then someone else on the other side popped up and shouted, “We need to put away these childish things and that includes all this silliness about a virgin getting pregnant without the obligatory physical act!”

And on and on, back and forth it went.

As the debate wore on, Tickle noticed a young man, about 17 years old, who was helping set up refreshments in the back of the room, had stopped to listen. She could see him on the steps leading to the balcony, listening intently to the exchange. When Phyllis closed her lecture, the young man came up to talk to her privately.

“Ma’am,” he said politely, “there’s something I don’t understand.”

“What is it you don’t understand?” she asked gently, ready to expound upon the theological complexities of the Virgin Birth.

His response, however, stopped any explanation in its sneakers. “I don’t understand why everyone is so upset about all this,” he said, “I believe in the Virgin Birth. It is so beautiful that it just has to be true – whether it happened or not.”

It is so beautiful that it just has to be true – whether it happened or not.”

Phyllis later said that she felt as if the universe had shifted. “It is a whole new world,” she said. “[This young man] had moved beyond mere facts to [an] understand[ing] based on apprehending beauty.” (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, pp.208-209)

We can talk about the young man’s understanding of truth. We can argue about modernism vs postmodernism. We can say that the young man needs remedial catechism or we can applaud his creative mind.

But I think that young man was on to something. There IS beauty to this story. Not a stained-glass beauty, but a stained-soul beauty, still, a beauty nonetheless.

The Virgin Birth is about an unwed pregnant teenager. And her fiancé KNOWS that the baby isn’t his. There’s nothing sexy or spiritual about this. This is a capital crime. Mary could be put to death for this. And it wouldn’t be a sanitary needle in the backroom of a jail. This death would involve rocks, lots and lots of rocks.

Joseph could have led the charge, rock in hand. That would have been his right as the injured party. Or he could have grabbed the first bus out of town. “Why should I be saddled with someone else’s kid?” A perfectly legitimate question.

But instead of exacting revenge on this helpless young woman by crushing her under the full weight of the law, he was going to cut off the engagement quietly so Mary wouldn’t be punished. At least not by any legal means; she still had to deal with the baby. But then the angel in a dream tells Joseph that the baby is God’s child, so Joseph just shrugs his shoulders and marries the girl.

That’s the story of the Virgin Birth. Bare bones: a scared young woman, an angry, but compassionate man. It’s so earthbound it bleeds. To my ears, it makes the high minded theologizing sound silly.

If you rub the polish from this story and grab a magnifying glass, you might see it isn’t about Mary, Joseph, or an angel. Ultimately, this story is about us. It’s about a God’s Spirit stirring within us and God’s new world being born among us.

Now we can set aside all of the silly speculation that has gone on about biological transactions – the nuts and bolts, the history and the science - and notice instead that this newness comes because God's Spirit stirs among us. After all, isn’t that what the Bible is all about? A reflection on how God's Spirit makes all things new?

- It is God's Spirit in Genesis that creates the world, heaven and earth, and all that is.
- It is God's Spirit, God's wind that blows the waters back in Egypt and lets our ancestors flee from slavery.
- It is God's Spirit that calls prophets and apostles and martyrs to dangerous acts of faithfulness.
- It is God's Spirit that came upon the disciples in the Book of Acts and created a community of obedience and mission.
- And, now, it is God's Spirit that begins something new when the world is exhausted, when our imagination fails and when our lives are shut down in despair (Brueggeman).

It’s God’s Spirit intruding on our lives, impregnating us with God’s story, giving birth within us. God is Emmanuel – God is with us. God’s story is in us. And it’s growing.

First cry,
first smile,
first words,
first steps,
first day of school
first job
first love
first loss
through to last breath--

Emmanuel. God is with us. Not just a word or a symbol; not just a story or a doctrine. but flesh and blood. Alive. God is with us.

In church, in the street, in the school, in the hospital, in the funeral home, God is with us. When our lives are falling apart. God is with us. When diseases eat at us, when loss overwhelms us, God is with us.

In the shadows around us, in the darkness within us . . .

"Emmanuel" is heard. God's Spirit rings. God is with us!



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