What Did You Expect?

December 16, 2007




© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

December 9, 2007

Reading: Luke 1: 26 – 38

“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.”

According to the Christian calendar, this is the second Sunday in Advent. In case it escaped you, I thought I would remind you that the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the Immaculate Conception of our Lord, December 08. And just to insure that child was truly untainted by sin, on December 09, the church celebrated the conception of the Virgin Mary by her mother, St. Anne.

This is the season of expectations, as we read in Luke’s gospel. It is apparently not enough for us to know that a teenager failed the home pregnancy test and now must figure out a way to tell her boyfriend and her parents. We are to believe that this frightened teenager is supposed to be calmed and strengthened by the visitation of angels. Matthew reports that the Holy Spirit also visited Joseph. In our postmodern world I know that there are many people who will quickly dismiss these stories as either nonsense or fanciful literary devices. There are a greater number of people who will accept them as history. After all, this is the age of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

But the story does not end here. Before it is complete, angelic hosts appear to shepherds who are keeping their flocks by night promising them peace on earth. Cynics among us might not be surprised at what the shepherds report. They are often in their cups. But even politicians get involved in the story. Three kings arrive to pay homage. These wise men are astrologers, who are following a star, which they determine has settled over the manger scene. They are also supposed to report back to King Herod the birthplace of the new king. And when they fail to do so Herod murders all the children under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem.

Sex – or non-sex – astrology, political paranoia, extra terrestrial visitation, and the whole affair seems like an X-Files script. The life and fate of that pregnant teenager seem unimportant with all of the surreal and supernatural figures surrounding the nativity story. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for the birth of saviors to be surrounded by supernatural events. These were meant to attest to the divine origin for the new Lord. Such stories are found in Egyptian, Grecian, Roman, and far eastern birth narratives. The real human drama is lost under the literary devices used by religious editors to pay homage to Jesus Christ. The story of two young people caught up in a personal and ethical dilemma is overshadowed by the spectacular. That is a loss we cannot underestimate.

While the Virgin Birth, Immaculate Conception, and other supernatural events may have been persuasive to the ancient mind, they fail miserably in the minds of modern women and men. They diminish the dignity of ordinary people named Mary. The very efforts that were meant to heighten the expectations of an audience become the very means of disappointment. That is often true with expectations. The higher the expectations, the greater they fall.

The entire holiday season seems to be a dance between expectation and disappointment. Children have high hopes for the visitation of a resplendent Elf and the gifts he will bear. But kids will have to reconcile the inconsistency of gifts asked for and gifts received. Adults chase after the ideal family celebration that reunites the family in harmony and health. But families will have to take into consideration the skeletons that come out during the yuletide, including the drunks, recalcitrant children, and unruly pets. And, is it not interesting how much stress parents feel when their children grapple with the “reality” of Santa Claus? What is that about? It is about expectation and disappointment.

How do you manage the eleven-year-old child that has studied the physics of livestock on rooftops and the load bearing capacity of pressed wood, two-by-four studs, shingle, and eight inches of insulation? That same child is most anxious to enlighten the four-year-old sibling who never questions the fire retardant material that Mrs. Claus used to make Mr. Claus’ red jacket so that the good saint could safely jump down fireplace chimneys.

I submit to you that many things are lost when the church and her scriptures adorn its primary story line with flights of supernatural fancy. And perhaps the first thing that is lost is the difference between fantasy and imagination. The Immaculate Conception of Jesus is to religious truth what the X-files are to science. Fantasy is about the realm of illusion, mental invention and association; it is a visionary world, a distorted vision that is either capricious or whimsical. When we say that something is fantastic we mean to imply that it is bizarre, unreal, strange, and unbelievable.

Imagination is also a mental function. It too is associated with creative and visionary thinking. But the root word, image, has to do with the reproduction of the appearance or someone or something, such as a sculptured likeness. An image is a reproduction that has some foundation in reality. Imagination is the creative and visionary thought that is rooted in life.

It is an act of fantasy to say the Holy Spirit of God impregnated Mary. It would be an act of splendid imagination that would claim that the illegitimate child of this teenager would become the Son of God. It would be a greater act of imagination for the young man Joseph to take Mary as his wife and bear responsibility for the raising of the child Jesus, even if he were not the father of the boy. It is an act of fantasy that brings singing angels to shepherds in the fields. It is an act of creative imagination that an innkeeper would declare his inn too full and a stable would allow a birthing mother more privacy anyway. An inn in first century Palestine was a large room where everyone slept together. Families would cook their foods over a common fireplace, which undoubtedly made the room smoky and filled with such odors that a delivering mother could hardly tolerate.

We lose a tremendous sense of hope when we give up our imagination to fantasy. Imagination is essential if human beings are going to be able to take the stuff of life and make it life enhancing. Imagination is essential if human beings are going to be able to take their own clay and render new images of dignity and compassion and community.

When the Bible creates such high expectations through the rage of fantasy, it also dehumanizes the very savior it is trying to promote. None of us would believe the Holy Spirit impregnated our daughter if she told us that, and I doubt St. Anne believed it either. Indeed, if the Christian idea of the incarnation of God is to be taken seriously, then it must take seriously the human condition by which children of this world are conceived. If Jesus was not conceived as any other child on this planet his very humanity is in doubt. It was an act of fantasy on the part of Judas Iscariot that Jesus would and could lead a successful rebellion against Rome. In the entire history of the Roman Empire not a single slave or peasant rebellion ever succeeded. It was an act of imagination on the part of Jesus of Nazareth to raise the possibility of an alternative empire where human beings were fed, healed, forgiven, and cared for.

You see, it is a radical act of imagination to suggest that we take Mary seriously and as she is, and declare her part of our family. Like any young mother she fervently believed that the life she bore would be hope for the world. I think she wanted her child to be loved and accepted, and at no point in this story are we ever led to think that Mary was anything but a nurturing and caring parent. Whatever else you want to say about her, she was faithful. Whatever else you may or may not think about her hymen, the most important part of Mary was the fidelity of her soul. Maybe this society would be a little saner if we paid less attention to membrane and more attention to nurturing and caring relationships.

And speaking of relationships, if Joseph told the truth – that he had not had sexual intercourse with Mary – then we are faced with an imagination that is far superior to the fantasy of the Virgin Birth. In Joseph’s time a young woman who was betrothed to one man and then conceived another man’s child could be stoned to death. Joseph took Mary as his wife and raised the child as his own. His act of generosity saved two lives, Mary’s and the fetus she bore. Now that is an amazing story and far more capable to inspiring human virtue than a fantastic tale about the Holy Spirit.

Removing Jesus from the very nest of human creativity discredits the idea of the “Word becoming flesh,” it dehumanizes Jesus, and it dehumanizes paternity. I think that we are all diminished through such flights of fantasy. And, by the way, I am not sure that God comes off very well in this business either.

Any theological effort to discern the relationship between the sacred and the ordinary requires imagination. But as soon as such theological enterprises remove themselves from the human scene and its natural environment, it becomes the stuff of fantasy.

I am suspicious of those who deny the earthly paternity of Jesus in favor of the Virgin Birth story. What is it about human reproduction that they consider unclean? What is it about human sexuality that such stories must deny, and what is the foundation for such condemnation? I submit that even after the “fall” of Adam and Eve the goodness of the creation is never denied. The earth may suffer at the rebellion of human activity, but the earth is not fallen. At no place does Yahweh condemn human sexuality in the judgment of Adam and Eve. And though two fallible human beings whose motives can always be questioned may join together in sexual union, the act of human union is not under judgment.

I think it might have been a more credible story had Luke declared, “And the Holy Spirit of God rejoiced that her faithful daughter, Mary, conceived and bore a child, whom she named Jesus. And like Mary, the Holy Spirit pondered all of these things in her heart, and called this child, “Beloved.”

You see it has always been the role of wisdom to seek truth in the affirmation of the human condition. Authentic wisdom is always found searching out the original goodness of creation. Where that goodness in life is found hope prospers, and direction is given to the future.

Yes, this is the season of hope. Let us sing carols of joy at the sound of an infant crying life into the dark coldness of winter. Put candles in the window and announce the power of innocence over the principalities and powers of death. Raise up the Yule tree and declare life eternal when all else seems bleak and barren. Bless young people named Mary and Joseph who struggle to find dignity in their lives and bear the consequences of humanity with gentleness and love.

Let us repair the human imagination during this holiday season. Do not be afraid to recover the stories, the songs, and the poetry of our religious heritage.