This Christmas, my church in Moscow has been singing an upbeat synthesized version of ‘The First Noel’ in Russian, with Santa hats dotted around, and the word «Рождество» in orange lights in front of the drum kit. For the first time in 1400 years there were no Christmas celebrations in Nineveh. A lockdown was declared in the north of Sierra Leone. A plane went missing. Indonesia remembered the 2004 tsunami, and floods hit Malaysia. Tim Schmalz’s statue, ‘Jesus the Homeless’, is so far without a permanent home. And one evening on the metro I was asked, rather as if a gauntlet was being thrown down on the muddy floor, what I thought about the virgin birth.
There is a lesson here for all Christians who like to encourage each other to ‘Always Be Prepared to give an Answer to anyone who asks you to give the Reason for the Hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15): it is very possible that your non-Christian friends and acquaintances may never ask you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but they may one day want to know how a more-or-less intelligent and educated person like you can still believe in the virgin birth. And this may happen on the metro when you’re stupendously tired, and when it does, if it does, you’ll glance around at the mud and your miserable-looking fellow passengers and the dank dirty evening, and feel, in all that weary ordinariness and the never-ending rumbling onwards of metro trains, the complete impossibility of believing anything very much. Question: what do you think about the virgin birth? Answer: I don’t think. Not after a long day at the end of the working week, anyway. Think? What thinking? What? I never know what I am thinking. I think we are in rats’ alley, where the dead men lost their bones.
In one sense, the answer is easy. What do you think about the virgin birth? Well, what do you think about the virgin birth? If it seems implausible to you, dear interrogators, then it probably seems implausible to us as well. I can’t quote statistics, but I suspect that credulity and cynicism, wild imagination and level-headed reasonableness, all crop up amongst Christians in about the same proportions as they do in the world generally. Like people in general, sometimes we feel hopeful, sometimes we don’t dare hope. Sometimes we’ll swallow whatever seems attractive and convenient; other times we’ll cling to whatever seems most unattractive and inconvenient, just out of sheer bloody-minded pessimism. Some of us are firmly, dazzlingly convinced that Christ was born of a virgin, that the glowing orbs in the digital photos are literally angels, and that people’s legs are sure to grow back to identical length if we pray over them with faith. Others of us are convinced of nothing except that the children really shouldn’t be encouraged to worship so close to the booming speakers. ‘Welcome to the dysfunctional family of Yahweh.’
No: the big difficulty about the virgin birth isn’t that it’s impossible, or even that it’s just one of a whole series of impossibilities which apparently we persist in believing despite education and the Enlightenment, to avoid losing face, or to annoy Richard Dawkins, or for whatever the reason is.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty…
This is part of Mary’s Magnificat, and I’d planned for the rest of this paragraph to thoughtfully explore the very striking contrast between these words and the way the world actually looks, but the contrast seems to be striking enough to have struck the whole paragraph into the ground, and I can’t get it started.
This is a place I arrive at over and over and never know how to describe. The world is full of rulers very firmly settled on their thrones, political thrones, financial thrones, thrones in the media and in homes and in the churches. The rich are still rich. The hungry are still hungry. Globally, locally, those who have power keep their power and abuse it, and mighty deeds performed in mercy to scatter the proud in their inmost thoughts are not in any way obvious among the headlines on the BBC news website.
And even to make these generalizations is an insult to every one of the individual people who suffer. To each of the 3,500 Yazidi women and girls still being held hostage by Islamic State. To every Indian woman for whom a trip through the fields to go to the toilet is dangerous. To every victim of human trafficking. To every woman and girl affected by FGM. To every beaten wife. To every girl put to shame in any way by her community. To make these generalizations is an insult to them. The Magnificat, the song of an unmarried pregnant first-century teenager in the hill country of Judea, insisting that the Mighty One has done great things for her, for all the little people, for the oppressed – this might be an even worse insult, if it doesn’t turn out to be something else.
There are women in the Old Testament who could have sung of God’s mercy the way Mary does. In the Old Testament, it is a barren woman, or a woman past child-bearing age, or who for some other reason has begged and longed for a child, who has the child who will be the next hero: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Hannah. God lifts up the humble, and brings something beautiful where it was most desperately wanted. But the virgin birth is a new thing: life comes, holiness comes, beauty comes, where it was not expected, perhaps not even really appropriate. The birth stories claim that the most sacredness is where you would never expect it, or even want it, if you had any sort of investment in the status quo of a self-respecting society. Because this sacredness doesn’t care much about its own reputation. It keeps close company with shame, with anyone scorned. It doesn’t mind a bit of embarrassment. It doesn’t mind the ordinary. It says that God is never on anyone’s side when the sides are powerful, and always only on the side of the humble and the hungry. It says that a metro carriage where everyone looks miserable and someone in a dirty jacket sleeps or begs for small change might turn out to be a holy place.
Which is where one crashes again into the cold murky feeling that there is a huge divide between these ideas about Jesus turning things upside-down on the one hand, and on the other the day-to-day reality in which one seems to be unable to do anything very useful for anyone, and the problems in the world are huge, and the church seems well-meaning but insufficiently angry and disproportionately interested in flashy lights, and it’s hard to imagine anything being very different. It’s hard to see a metro carriage as a holy place. But that would be Christianity: not, as such, the magical ability to believe several scientific impossibilities before or after breakfast; not what we say we believe about stuff as the metro rattles along; but if we see the people in the carriage with a new pair of eyes, see sacredness in, for example, a teenage mother and her unborn baby, or a homeless person sleeping, or whatever other life, whatever other person, happens to be in view. We may be no better than anyone else at doing anything about what we see. But any time we briefly succeed and that person knows his or her own preciousness because of what we said or did – that is – would be – the idea that that might ever happen is enough of a hope to make this paragraph stumble in its tracks as well.
What do I think about the virgin birth? Wrong question. Do I act as if the most broken, most low-down people and things were to be most cherished? Better question. But scary. Do I treat people – do you feel, Oh Gentle Reader, that in the way I have written this post I have treated you the way I would treat Jesus himself? Terrifying question. Time to stop writing. Tomorrow there will be people on the metro who need to be seen as the treasures they are.