Ave Maria

I can't let this Christmas pass without a post commenting on the Mary and Joseph furore that has been going on here in Auckland. The city is buzzing with reaction to a billboard posted outside a prominent Anglican Church. Some were incensed, some amused, and some just didn't get it. The image was of Joseph and Mary in bed together, Joseph looking dour, Mary looking beatifically skywards. The caption read: "Poor Joseph, God was a hard act to follow."

As I listened to the talkback radio callers and the water cooler conversations, I found there was a range of reasons why people were upset. Some were appalled at the depiction of the Holy Family in bed together. To many Christians, this indignation is mystifying, since we believe that Mary and Joseph were, at least after the Nativity events, husband and wife, with the physical intimacy that implies. However, some traditions exalt Mary as profoundly saintly and eternally pure, and for them it may be difficult to embrace the notion of her engaging in sexual relations. One early tradition not included in the New Testament claims that she had made and kept a vow of celibacy; however this idea is not found in the Biblical texts. Over the centuries, at least until Vatican Two, the liturgical (Catholic and Orthodox) streams tended to a polarised view, that virginity is good and that sex is dirty and shameful, a necessary evil to ensure the procreation of the human race. This Medieval view which claims that Joseph and Mary never engaged in sex, that the brothers of Jesus were his cousins, and that Mary remained perpetually "intact", led to practices such as priestly celibacy and prohibition on birth control. If that distorted perspective is the reason some viewers of the billboard are offended, then in my opinion it has achieved something positive, in challenging that view and portraying the couple as ordinary married people.

At the other end of the theological spectrum, I sense some were upset at the very suggestion of the Virginal Conception as having a place in our Christmas festivities. Nice traditional story about shepherds and wise men, coming to see the baby asleep in the hay, why complicate it with the suggestion that God was involved? Why introduce the notion of incarnation, of God amongst us, when we can just construct our own deity made up of a smidgen of Jesus, a heap of Santa and mostly Me?

But there was a section of the community who were offended for what I would see as an appropriate reason. That was the group who saw the billboard for what it was, a cheap shot at Bible-believing Christians by appealing to some pagan myths about demigods who were born of a union between a god and a human being. In the ancient world these stories circulated about people like Caesar Augustus, Romulus and Alexander the Great. Although the biology of human reproduction was not understood as it is today, in these legends there was more than the suggestion of a sexual act between the god and the woman. This is not what the Bible portrays with Mary's unexpected pregnancy. God is not said to have fertilised her egg, but to have intervened in the whole natural cycle. As a biology graduate, I would say he formed a gamete within her womb, and whether the babe shared her or Joseph's DNA - or that of both - is an open question. And so St Matthews snide dig, with Joseph's performance being compared with a "divine" sexual experience, has got both the theology and the science wrong. Following some acts of vandalism, the billboard has now been removed. Anglicanism's New Testment lecturer Derek Tovey offered a helpful critique in the Herald this week.

I often spend a little time on the Virgin Birth when taking catechumens through the Apostles Creed. I make sure we are clear it is the Virginal Conception under discussion, and that actual Virgin "Birth" was not what Protestants think the Church Fathers meant. My own view on it is that it is no big deal, if God had to enter this human world at some finite point, then via the womb of a Hebrew teenager seems a particularly imaginative way to do it. Such an incarnation is a message of value about humanity, womanhood, infancy and servanthood. And after all, there were the miracles of resurrection and ascension at the end of his earthly life, so why not at the beginning? But I also explain that for many Christians, this doctrine is a stumbling block, and that to not be able to swallow it is not a barrier to saving faith. (In the Presbyterian tradition, that means it is defined as "not being of the substance of the faith.") For myself, I believe it. I find it stretches the imagination more to think that this complex story, without parallels in Hebrew or Greek mythology, was made up, than to accept it at face value. Tom Wright and Marcus Borg have some good material on this; see chapter 11 of The Meaning of Jesus.

Borg recalls what the thirteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart said, that the Virgin Birth is also something that happens within us, that Christ is born as the Spirit of God is united with our human flesh. This Christmas season I pray that you too experience that transforming indwelling presence.

Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee.

Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.