Getting our ten- and twelve-year-olds to sit down and watch an entire movie is nearly impossible. Their tastes in entertainment are vastly different from each other and much of what they enjoy is loud and noisy and ridiculous enough to drive me closer to the edge of holiday cheerlessness. When it comes to evening entertainment, Dad controls the remote so that I don’t go to bed with my blood pressure too high and I’m often frustrated that they are not interested in my choice of what I would consider family fare.
Last night, though, it happened. I turned on “The Christmas Chronicles: Part 2” partly because I continue to find the pairing of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell adorable even though they’re both (slightly) older than I am. Neither the story nor the quality of acting are relevant to this particular illustration, though I must say the animated elves are rather impressive. What matters is, miracle of miracles, the kids watched it. They not only watched it, they enjoyed it. They had both left the room, as they typically do, but gradually eased their way back until both were sitting as close to the television as I’d let them, bouncing up and down and laughing as the bad guy was converted, the protagonist was given a chance to say good-bye to someone she loved, and, once again, Christmas was saved.
It’s a bit frightening, looking through the scores of cinema, how often the existence of Christmas has been threatened over the years, but that’s a discussion for another time. What matters is that I had two pre-teens sitting in the living room deeply, emotionally involved in the same holiday movie. The impossible became possible and when it did, there was peace across the living room, at least for an hour or so.
You see where this is taking us, don’t you? Committing to the possible in the face of the impossible is at the core of Advent and the whole account of Mary and Joseph’s first offspring. And while the details of that pregnancy are futilely debated, what is important for us is that the two people who mattered bought into the possibility of the impossible in hopes that there would be peace, at least for an hour or so.
Standing in the pulpits of Christian churches around the world, pastors will reference “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and then proceed to disassemble that story in order to make whatever point suits their interest best. What the prescribed reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us, however, is that every good story comes with a back story and this one begins in the Old Testament book of Second Samuel, chapter 7.
Israel’s King David is chilling in his palace, which smells fantastic and is completely moth-free because it’s made of cedar. He conquered all the enemies he needs to conquer for a while, so he has time to think, and as he thinks he realizes, “Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!” So he calls in the prophet Nathan to counsel him about building a temple to hold the Ark of the Covenant, ostensibly so the Nazis can’t get to it so easily when 1942 rolls around. Nathan’s response is a stereotypical dismissal, “God loves you, do what you’re going to do.”
That night, though, God skips the middle man and tells David, “I don’t need a temple. Simple faith is good.” Right there, the stage is set for everything that takes place in the first two chapters of Luke’s second-hand gospel. Simple. Humble. Exciting. Impossible.
One of the challenges I have in watching anything with the kids is that while they’re willing to accept flaws in a film if the story appeals to them, I tend to be more critical. I want the acting to be good. I want the story to make sense. I watch the cinematography with a critical eye. I’m too often too willing to point out all the flaws and miss out on the pleasure of sitting down with the kids and watching a movie.
We do the same thing with the story of Mary and Joseph. We get hung up on Mary’s young age (between 13-16 years old). We obsess over the obstetrics and physics and biology of whether a virgin can conceive (yes, they can) and some get into this whole thing of Assumption and Immaculate Conception to the point of building whole theologies around their point of view. A popular Christian song (written by a comedian, interestingly enough) asks the question, “Mary, Did You Know?” and the more I read Luke 1:26-38, I’m not convinced Mary cared. What was going to happen to her child was, at that particular moment, not at the front of her mind. Here, take a look at the passage:
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Highest,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
There aren’t nearly as many nuances to this story and some would have us believe. Luke obviously wasn’t there when this happened. More likely, he got the story from Mary herself after everything else was over and done and she tells the story rather matter-of-factly. Gabriel shows up (which happens occasionally and is not always pleasant), Mary questions the biology of his announcement, and then, translating Luke’s highly-academic Greek text to a more common vernacular, Mary’s final response is, “Cool, I’m down.”
Her response is the product of the same willingness to believe in something that my kids show when watching television. She embraced the possible of the impossible, despite being a bit afraid by both the fact that a) there’s a freaking ANGEL in her room, and b) she’s going to be pregnant out of wedlock, not a socially popular move at that particular moment in time.
All the religious rhetoric around this passage tends to completely miss the point of what is happening. Nothing here implies Mary is perfect. Nothing here says Mary was the first choice. And while Mary doesn’t admit to being freaked out, what teenager, ever, wouldn’t have been? Maybe that part of the narrative didn’t fit with Luke’s storytelling style. Ultimately, though, none of that matters.
The whole purpose of recording this conversation, the whole purpose of this extraordinary and somewhat unbelievable event is summed up in these few words: “Nothing will be impossible.”
If we are going to celebrate Christmas, even if it is only on a purely superficial basis with a complete absence of anything sacred, we, like Mary, have to believe in what’s possible. We have to believe in peace and when we believe in peace what we get is not a gentle wind blowing casually through one’s hair, but struggle and pain and despair and agony and disappointment and betrayal and death on our way to peace.
What does that mean? How do we, sitting here in the middle of this pandemic at the end of one of the most horrible years we can imagine, believe in what’s possible? How do we believe in peace? How, when there is so little substance, do we celebrate Christmas?
To celebrate Christmas means to believe in what’s too good to be true. To celebrate Christmas means believing that anti-racism can happen. To celebrate Christmas means believing that vaccines work even if they were developed in record time. Celebrating Christmas means believing that we can let go of sexist, gender-specific tropes. Celebrating Christmas means believing that unqualified love can be normalized. Celebrating Christmas means believing we don’t have to be special, or perfect, or well-employed or even well-bathed to be loved.
This has been what Deity has been trying to tell us all along. Buildings and social structures and government bureaucracies are not important. God was just fine with the Ark being in a tent. What mattered was, and remains, the possible in the impossible: feeding the hungry without asking where they were born, tax structures that benefit the poor over the rich, schools that are equitable, healthcare not dependent on anything other than one’s existence, business that puts people’s needs before profit.
I know, it all sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Kind of like the story of a guy in a red suit consistently saving a winter holiday from perpetual attack. Impossible? Don’t tell my twelve-year-old that. He’s done the math. He believes in what’s possible even if he’s not totally sure of the reality.
And when we believe in what’s possible, we can find peace. At least for an hour or so.