Advent Firesiders

Spirit (2008)

One of the serious problems with doctrine - as opposed to the interminable and intricate challenges of theology - is that it makes us glib. You know the sort of thing: "Was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary", we say, before rushing on to the next set of staggering propositions; which is curious in a sex-obsessed society. What actually went on between The Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary?

I'm not going to go through the arguments about the meaning of "virgin" in Isaiah 7.14 and I'm not even going to advance any justification for or against the concept of a virgin birth; interesting though these matters may be, they play into the hands of the doctrinal dicers and slicers; the relationship with The Holy Spirit, direct or through the agency of Joseph, is much more interesting.

Although there are times when starting at the end and going backwards - like Martin Amis's Time's arrow - is pure bravura, in this case we have to proceed in that way. After the death of Jesus The Holy Spirit fired The Apostles with a deep perception of Resurrection and incarnation. You can see it most clearly if you read Luke/Acts backwards. The Spirit of God, angel or no angel, moved Mary in a unique way which gave her precisely the same conviction about the incarnation that she and the Apostles felt after the Resurrection.

In order to understand this more deeply, we need to alter our choreography of The Holy Spirit and get away from the descending, mighty winds and tongues of fire; instead of thinking of the Spirit coming towards us we would be better off thinking of it coming out of us, literally, out of The Spirit's temples which we are. We might not want a caricature of her on the tree, say, in the form of a dove, to keep all the other major characters company - after all, the ox and the ass get more coverage than the heavenly progenitor - but we should surely give The Spirit a special mention at Christmas time, not only as the fire within Mary but also the fire within us which enables us to perceive the unique purpose of Mary and the product of her labour.

The idea of The Spirit has always been difficult but now we can grasp it more clearly; fire is a good image because of its light, warmth and continuity but electricity is a better idea; the Holy Spirit runs all our senses and keeps all our systems going. The problem is that we're still flirting with gnosticism in its Protestant form, thinking that The Spirit is something separate and external, far above the corruption of humanity. I suppose there's some purpose to light bulbs, wirelesses, fridges and computers without power but I can't see it myself

That's not all. I like to think of The Spirit being present at the birth, in the structure of the snowflakes, in the star, in the heavenly choir, in the gift wrapping of the kings. As a piece of history Luke's nativity just doesn't work but as a piece of theology, grounded in The Spirit - a tantalising paradox, that - it can't fail.