In the novel “Holy Masquerade,” by Olov Hartman (translated from the Swedish by Karl A. Olsson), Mrs. Svensson, wife of a minister in the Church of Sweden, is a non-believer. She sets out “to test the quality of her husband’s faith and that of his flock.” The author skillfully contrasts her searching unbelief with her husband’s compromised profession hidden beneath mere professional acceptance of the creed of his church. The material here reprinted by permission of the publishers, the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, is especially pertinent during the Christmas season since it deals with the Incarnation and with the Virgin Birth of our Lord.—ED.

Annunciation Day is a strange bird in shimmering colors settling down in the midst of gray Lent. If I were a Christian, I would love that day. Seemingly Albert has nothing against it, but that is probably because he makes it something else than Annunciation. He preached about motherhood but did not say a word about the problem that every thinking person listens for with both ears. Does he really mean that it happened as the day’s gospel indicates? Was Christ really born of a virgin? Just think if there were angels who came and made things clear instead of talking like Albert about something else. When he came home I attacked, of course. I asked him what he meant when he recited the Apostles’ Creed. He said that naturally he believed in the incarnation. God has indeed revealed Himself in the man Christ, he said. It is the whole life of Christ that is the miracle and that miracle is not made any greater because one tries as formerly to explain how it happened. Furthermore, the explanation is only a literary form for the truth of the incarnation. For that reason one can use the archaic words without lying. One really means the same as the old biblical authors.

I said that the Confession did not talk about the life of Christ so generally. It talked about a foetus in the womb of a woman, and Albert answered, “That’s right, that’s right. The miracle was already present in Mary’s womb.” Archbishop Söderblom had expressed it in that way on an occasion. The whole question is not very germane today, he continued. Theology has disposed of it a long time ago.

And he thinks that people know all about this? And that I shall be satisfied with this explanation?

I asked him why he never told the old ladies what he meant when he said “conceived of the Holy Ghost.” They at least believe that he considers it in the old way. I told him it wasn’t honest to let them believe that. But Albert was not without answer. He took out his lighter and said, while lighting his festal cigar, that, on the contrary, it would be dishonest to indulge in the sort of explanations that I wanted and they could not understand, and thus turn their attention away from the spiritual message of the day to a physiological story without the slightest religious significance. The result would be, not that they went home and thought about Christ, but that they went home and thought about two entirely different things, the virgin birth and the orthodoxy of the pastor.

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So I got mine. If you can ever get Albert to break the seal on his secret documents, it becomes clear that he has thought through more things than you give him credit for. I had to hunt around a while before I found the real source of my difficulty. It was just this: he limited the miracle to the spiritual. What had happened or had not happened physiologically is not at all insignificant for everyday people. It was quite meaningful that Albert gladly talked about miracles as if they existed far beyond all the realities of ordinary people. This is without risk. It doesn’t antagonize anyone. It doesn’t concern anyone. And it’s really this way with everything that is preached. You ask: Does it really exist? Do people become conciliatory through Christianity? Does it make any difference in business or politics? Does it have any consequences in the psyche of the hypochondriac?

And then I asked, “Would you be different if you were not a Christian?”

Albert said that this was not relevant but his face got red and he spilled ashes on the floor.

But then he counterattacked. He said that I myself believed in the right and the true as if they were eternal verities. In this way I had crossed over into the world of miracles, that is, to that which is beyond time and space. But this faith did not, he said, mean that I believed in divine healings. In fact I limited my belief in miracles much more than he.

I reminded him that I did not belong to the teachers in Israel. I press my lips together during the Confession. I do not preach sermons on the Annunciation; not even on motherhood. I …

“… thank God that I am not like other men,” Albert continued. “Like church women or dissenters or like this minister.”

I was silent. I did not know what to answer. He was right, of course, that in some sense I sit in judgment of him. But I do it to get out of a desperate situation. It is an act of defense. Furthermore, I make no pretension of being anything. I have no Christian symbols on my chest. I do not even pretend to be an honest person even though I should like to be.

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But after a while, and then the coffee was ready—the drinking of coffee seems to me in retrospect a ridiculously idyllic frame for this deeply serious conversation—after a while I asked Albert what it was that prevented him from believing in the virgin birth. Wasn’t it quite simply that the dogma is not considered decent among cultured people? The obstacle for him could not be the scientific world-view since he had already disposed of this through his faith in answered prayer—if he now truly believed in this.

I did not wait for his answer. Suddenly it flashed upon me, and I told him that the reason why many ministers doubt in what Gabriel said to Mary and declare it non-essential is a massive, masculine self-sufficiency. They cannot digest the fact that God has restored Eve, since during thousands of years men have blamed her for all transgressions. And anyway it was a costly restoration. But suppose it were true. Suppose it were true that one could become pregnant through a miracle. Suppose it had happened to me.

“Don’t blaspheme,” said Albert.

“You have no right to talk about blasphemy since you don’t believe in it,” I said. “You theologians never want to hear about reality. You claim that it does not mean anything or that you cannot believe in it or that it is blasphemous to air it. But suppose, Albert, that the miracle had taken place here and now in time and space. Suppose it had been I who had become impregnated through a miracle.”

My voice failed me. It was as if a knife had stabbed me when I said it, although I did not give myself time to think why.

“What do you think they should have said at home,” I continued, “if I had been living like her with my mother and father? What would my betrothed have said when he discovered the state of affairs? Not to mention Fru Karlsson with the tongue and all the leering boys at the street corners. To talk about being with child through a miracle—even rather nice people would have shaken their heads and said that it was a fantasy, perhaps a fantasy brought on by lunacy or wild despair, but in any event a fantasy. The world does not believe in miracles. I know that well who am myself a world-ling.

“But I go to the minister. Here comes the woman who carries the Son of God in her womb. She rings the doorbell and asks if Pastor Svensson is at home. And you, Albert, receive her in your office. I am allowed to sit in the hard chair and you sit opposite me in your adjustable chair. If I were a woman student you would offer me a cigarette, but you notice that I am only a backwoods girl from Forsby and that I am already beginning to be heavy-footed. You consider that the statistics on illegitimate birth are rather high for this year. You prepare yourself to deal severely with the father of the child, who is not showing himself responsible.

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“But I look at you with confidence and with joy for I feel that you will really understand this, you who are a pastor. I tell you that I have had a visitation by an angel and you think to yourself, Aha! she is a Pentecostal or a peasant. As you sit with your back against your well-ordered filing cabinet, you find a place for me. You put me in folder five: Ecstatics. But you don’t say anything; you pretend to understand for you don’t want to disturb my childish faith with non-essentials.

“And so I tell you the story, that which is beyond all understanding. But you look at me with psychoanalysis in your eyes. You query a little here and there, and by and by you try to worm out of me what are the true facts about my condition. I begin to be frightened. Just think if not even a pastor can understand. But then I remember that I myself couldn’t understand anything when Gabriel said that I was to bear a child through a miracle. And so I try to tell you that it has pleased God to send His Son into the world through my insignificant being. I can’t quite understand this but I assume that you who are a pastor.… With the world as it is, I say, it will probably take a miracle if God is going to become one of us. But you say that if God wills, He can send His Son into the world through a spiritual miracle. The idea behind the two things is really the same. And why do we need miracles when we have theology?

“The last part of this you don’t tell me because you don’t think I would understand, but you give me a nice little speech about motherhood. You say that it is a great responsibility to be a mother. A heavy responsibility, especially in our day. You say that it is important to be worthy of this holy calling. But I get no answers to my question and I find no place of refuge for my secret. I look at your rationalized office, everything gleaming steel and lacquer and varnish and efficient cleverness, and I say to myself, there can’t be any angels in this world of card files and punches and scissors and rulers. How can there be any miracles in the land where the ministers wear shiny black office coats? So my own faith deserts me. It is probably true what the pastor says and I stand up to go.”

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I actually got up. I curtsied a little for him and walked a few steps toward the door. It wasn’t theater and it wasn’t insanity. I thought in actuality that I was the Virgin Mary, an incredibly poor and concrete present-day Mary on her way to a social welfare agency. But when I got to the door I felt that the child leaped within me and I thought, “And so at last I am experiencing what it is to be pregnant.” And I was in heaven and hell at the same time. But then the fiction burst and the tear in it went down into the flat reality. I stood leaning against the door lintel and wept so that my whole body shook. And Albert sat pale at the coffee table with cold coffee in his cup. He looked at me terrified and his forehead was sweaty. At last he murmured, “You must understand that I can’t help it; it is impossible for me to believe.” But then everything came to an end for me and I shrieked at him, “But then say it and say it so everybody hears it!”

And I ran away from him up to my bedroom and threw myself on the bed. Why was I in such a turmoil? What does the Virgin Mary mean to me?

I began to understand that the worst thing for a skeptic is not faith but self-evidence. It is terrible to doubt when there is no real faith to doubt in but merely beautiful words. Oh, to live in a time with clear colors, when the ministers believed in angels and devils and atheists were burned at the stake just as if they had been martyrs of the faith.

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