Next week, on Christmas Day, we can tell sweet stories of babies in a manger with the animals gathered around, and go home to wade into tinsel and presents for the children. With any luck we are blessed with a family like Tim Minchin and his baby daughter, and will be “drinking white wine in the sun.”
Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
Whenever you come
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes…
But this week’s reading is an impossible story. We are told the birth of this child will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. Indeed the text implies this has, in some sense, already happened! A moment’s clear thinking dismisses that idea as a fantasy.
Especially since the sign of this vision— let’s grant that it is a poetry speaking of what could be— the sign of this vision is an impossible birth. We know the vision is trustworthy and of God, according to the author, because the man whose life will bring the vision to be was born to a virgin mother.
We know that virgin births do not happen. Two parents are a biological necessity for Homo sapiens. We also know that having the gods involved in a human birth is a widespread motif in ancient literature; it didn’t ever happen, it’s just a way of saying the person is special in some way. So let’s drop the superstition, and go back to white wine in the sun, while it is still cold, and enjoy the love of family or whoever is dear to us while we may. Next week after the Boxing Day test, we can go back to the grind and make the best of the reality in which we find ourselves.
Soldiering on like this does not work for me. This is not because I can’t face the reality; it’s because the “soldier on and make the best of it” approach to life sells us so short. The deep love of which Tim Minchin sings cries out to me of a depth of being which can do better than soldiering on, and can rise above realpolitik. He and I recognise something transcendent with in us. We are beings whose fulfilment will only come in a world where the powerful have been brought down from their thrones, and the lowly have been lifted up, and where the hungry are filled with good things, as the old song we call Magnificat promises. (Luke 1:51-53) The radically just world of this poetry is the future his daughter, and mine, deserve. It is who we could be.
When we plumb the depths of our love, and when we have a sense of the transcendence which means we are more than mere animals or “meat machines,” then stories of human births with the gods involved make more sense. They speak of the experience of something transcendent coming to birth in us. They are a poetry struggling to comprehend, at the same time as they celebrate it, the wonder of our consciousness and our love. They sing our amazement that we are more than selfish genes in a power struggle to reproduce.
But why does the church hold on to all the archaic language and poetry? Wouldn’t it be better to update things, and stop talking about the virgin birth? Wouldn’t that be simpler? Let’s take in on the chin: sometimes “the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are dodgy.” Any church that cannot “translate” the words of the hymns into current and coherent jargon and make sense of them, really does have dodgy lyrics, as Minchin says. Some of yesterday’s lyrics belong there, and we ought to have grown beyond them.
But some of the other lyrics remain necessary. The language of virgin birth, and the impossible poetry of the Magnificat, are beacons to bring us home for Christmas. They call us to aim high in our humanity, to remember always the transcendence which we sense within ourselves. They steer us away from naïve hopes of quick political reforms, or from being cheaply satisfied with poor compromise. They are, in a sense, designed to make sure we fail when we seek to live by them! They prevent our love becoming complacent. They are vision, always saying to us that we can be more than what we have been.