I confess that most of the time I am a horrible believer. I doubt things all the time. Like St. Thomas, I am a “wet-paint” kind of guy–I need tosee the proof in order to fully grasp what I’m being asked to believe. It’s not a great characteristic for a preacher, I know. I try my hardest to apply reason to my belief (of all the four parts of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, this is my favorite one), but reason doesn’t always play in my favor. What about the concept of a child being born to a virgin? How could God become human, and how could Jesus be both fully human and fully divine at the same time? These (and other) questions haunt me, and as a preacher/teacher/pastor/chaplain, when someone comes to me and admits that they have these same doubts, it brings up two feelings within me:
1. Whew! I’m glad I’m not the only one!
2. What an honor to be asked to accompany a fellow doubter/believer on this journey.
Mostly, I am able to reconcile my doubts with the fact that faith is a gift, and a great mystery, and that there are those within the faith comunity who are able to believe fully what I can neither believe nor fully comprehend (thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for that little gem!) I am comfortable living with a little bit of ambiguity in my faith, and with some measure of doubt, as long as I can honestly say that I believe in God, and that Jesus is my savior and Lord, which I believe I can say. This ambiguity, I believe, binds me with the great majority of my fellow Christians throughout the history of the faith, even though my admission of this ambiguity once led a stranger to tell me that she would pray that I never became a minister.
Something happens at Christmas, though–something that I can only describe as a miracle. At Christmas, and particularly on Christmas Eve, something happens to me–maybe it’s the candlelight and the soothing familiar carols, maybe it’s hearing the words of the story that I’ve heard hundreds of times before, maybe it’s an outright work of the Holy Spirit. Whatever it is, the effect is real and palpable. To put it succinctly, I believe. Not in the academic sense, where I believe that the essence of the story is true even if the words on the page don’t accurately reflect the reality of what happened at Jesus’ birth. When I say that I believe, what I mean is that in that moment, usually in the church, surrouded by my fellow candle-toting Christians, I believe!
Forgetting the historical and source criticism I have learned, forsaking the theological constructs I have built up to protect my healthy sense of skepticism, and laying aside the burdens of years of reason, in that simple fleeting moment, I believe. This belief is usually accompanied by tears–inexplicable floods of tears that would rival those of the ancient mystics, who would often sit through the Mass openly weeping. These tears often made it difficult to get through Christmas Eve as a pastor. It is much easier now when I am no longer in charge of things, and can experience the delicious flood of belief in the relative privacy of the third pew of the center section of the Centrum. In that moment, I am like Scrooge, freed from the shackles of his money-counting for the first time, “as giddy as a schoolboy,” and my heart overflows with the firm belief that:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,
who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary…
My epiphany of pure belief is typically brief, and will sometimes last as long as until the morning, especially if I have a Christmas Day service I can attend. I can occasionally recall this gift at other times during the year, particularly during Holy Week and Easter, but for me, it has always been most powerful on Christmas Eve. What makes that night so magical? I know in my mind that this isn’t even the actual date of Jesus’ birth. But there is something about the recollection of God’s coming among us–Emmanuel–that brings it out of me every single time. And I am most grateful for that, because it gives me hope that there will be a time–even if it is not until I reach the life that waits for me beyond this life–when I will be given the full gift of faith (or, more accurately, that I will be able to accept faith fully)–and I will be able to weep and rejoice at all times. Until that time comes, there is always Christmas Eve, and for now, that is enough.
May God bless you with the gift of faith this Christmas,