The Christmas story of course lacks any basis. In his customary zest to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, the author of Matthew's Gospel cites Isaiah 7. But while the Greek Old Testament, in a mistranslation, says "virgin", the original Hebrew has no such connotation.
This is not a harmless myth. Young children will, this Christmas again, enact nativity scenes. There are shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, a father. Only one woman is present, and she qua mother. Each year a baby boy is born. An Anglican priest tells me his eight-year-old daughter enquired: "Daddy, did God have a daughter?"
The male myth forms the lynchpin of a complex sexual symbolism, in which the female represents the secondary, subordinate term. Thus Mary, who represents humanity, is "female" in relation to a "male"God . Likewise the Church, or the people of Israel (who sin and go astray), is cast as "female". Letting Mary stand for humanity, the Protestant Karl Barth speaks of "this non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign, merely ready, merely receptive, virgin human being".
Indeed, the Christmas story exaggerates God's "maleness". The Catholic theologian Michael Schmaus writes: "What is otherwise achieved through the action of a male, was done to Mary by God's omnipotence." God and Mary become a fertile couple, who conceive a child long-distance. Mary is humble - and obedient. It is a male father-son genealogy, in which woman forms the necessary intermediary.
Doubtless it comforts men. God is father, while the mother is wholly present for the boy child, the actual father off the scene. In Christian symbolism woman is never portrayed as the equal of man. You don't see Mary with her mouth open, talking or laughing, a sexual being who desires her husband.
It may well be that, in his religion, man explores what he names his "feminine" side. In his imagination he regains the mother; or else attains to a mystical oneness with the "father", now endowed with nurturing qualities. He may even cast himself as "female" in relation to this God. But such moves scarcely aid women!
Nor is a wholly male Protestantism necessarily an improvement over such Catholic symbolism. A religion of brothers simply excludes sexual diversity. Why should women wish to join sons who, through the Son, find reconciliation with the Father? Why was reconciliation needed? Why indeed was God ever absent, requiring incarnation?
In rejecting this myth women have not necessarily become atheists. On what had my new-found friend at the party been discoursing? The banal materialism of the American mid-West society from which she came. Most women I admire and treasure have about them a marked spirituality. Some of us indeed hold more explicitly religious beliefs, myself included. It seems to be the case that prayer is powerful, that quiet, loving concentration on another brings about miracles. When others think of us our lives are changed and healed.
Christmas equals many things. How badly - in our frantic lives - we need to "centre" ourselves again. We reknit human relationships, rekindle life. If "God" is love, joy and peace, our blighted world could do with that! The Christians, wanting to reverse a paganism in which the oak symbolised winter, the holly summer, crowned the holly. We should not desire to go back behind Christianity, nor can we. Nevertheless with Christian symbolism Western culture has been skewed. There is much to unravel.
Holly trees - I learn at that party - come male and female: to be fruitful they need one another. Could it be that women long for men to leave their myth behind in a new and equal future?
After Christianity is published by SCM Press, pounds 10.95