Whenever I spend time reading the biblical story of Mary, the mother of Christ, I imagine her to be like me, a sincere believer who can still find a way to doubt, to say yes, then run. This Advent season, I haven’t been able to get past Mary’s doubt. It’s not that I can ever know she was a doubter, it’s just that I sort of hope she was. The more I know Jesus the more I grasp my need for what John chapter one calls “grace and truth,” a spiritual rescuing of those of us (all of us) who fail to live up to genuine goodness. I can’t imagine— knowing who Jesus spent his time with, who he chose as his disciples, who he ate with, associated with, designed his messages for—that in the choosing of his mother, he would have gone with the most beautiful, most gifted, most outwardly holy woman on earth. I imagine that Mary, a young girl, could hardly have known who she was, let alone who God was. I imagine her earnest faith in the midst of utter fear. The angel asked her to do no small thing. And her immediate answer in the angel’s presence revealed the reality of her heart: a love for God, a longing to obey, an obedience to her role in the coming of the Messiah. But, I can’t help but imagine all those minutes and hours and days and months following the angel’s visit, when she wished she could have taken a few days to think through the consequences of such a sudden obedience.
How could she have known what it would mean to be to the Virgin Isaiah wrote about, who would bear the One who came to save her people? Could she have envisioned the rejection of her friends, her family, and the utter embarrassment she would have caused Joseph, her betrothed, whom I imagine she respected (I’m sure he was much older) if not admired? And what about those images she must have had of her own death? Surely she considered that she’d be accused of adultery, the consequences of which were (still are, in some places) death by stoning. What is faith except the choice to act on a belief you can hardly grasp, despite that possibility that if you’re wrong, your life (and possibly the lives of those you love?) is ruined.
We love Mary because she is like us, unremarkable, yet asked to fulfill a task she could not help but complete, knowing if she was right, she’d live; if she was wrong, she’d die. We love Mary because she reminds us that faith is always courage.
Her story is extravagant. If it’s real it should be celebrated. We don’t celebrate Christmas because it’s necessary to get excited about something in the dark winter months, because we need to celebrate warmth in the midst of lifelessness and cold. If we want Christmas to be that for us than we should just celebrate Winter Solstice. We should bake warm cookies and give presents on the shortest day of the year. It would make a lot more sense.
Instead we’re invited to celebrate a story that has the power to change everything about our world. If we really believe in Christmas, we believe that God created a world and then came into it, to rescue it from itself. We believe that all our destructive patterns, from our individual inability to show mercy on the broken around us, to our collective craving for violence and war, can actually be undone by the reality of a God-given “grace and truth.” We believe that Jesus changes us, that he changes the world.
I feel like my life has often been like my imaginary Mary’s: moments of spiritual insight and power, my Yes, followed by my running, my fear, the torture of my brain’s accusations against the possibility of such power. Believing in Jesus is never logical. Since when do virgins become pregnant with God’s child? Since when does a man heal a blind man with a touch of mud on the eyes? Since when does God as man take our punishment through his own death, and then overcome it?
Logic has never been the point. We don’t come to God because of proof, because of mathematical equations lining up and pointing to heaven. We come to God because our souls ache for magic, for a love that greater than our half-hearted attempts at connection, for an undercurrent that can pull us through this world in joy.
I don’t believe in Christmas because it makes sense to me. I believe in it because it doesn’t, because only in its fantastic claim is there something worth celebrating extravagantly over. If God came to earth through Mary’s body, then my body has value as well. If God came to earth to rescue us, then my son’s longing for the magic of Santa is not simply child-like, it’s a picture of our divine longing for love, for laughter, for excessive giving and decadent feasting.
If God came to earth, then everything we think we know is up for debate. That’s sometimes called doubt. But I think we should call it faith.