What would Christmas be without a little Down Under controversy? As idyllic creches of Mary and Joseph with their newborn babe enhance Christmas displays worldwide, there is another image of the holy parents that is not being as universally embraced this Christmas season.
Saint Matthew's Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand, has taken a bold step to shake up long-held theological views of faithful Christians by posting a billboard of Mary and Joseph in bed after what appears to be a postcoital encounter.
Employing a classical fresco style, the billboard depicts Mary and Joseph lying awake: Mary in blue veil gazing longingly heavenward, while her seemingly dejected, bearded and shirtless spouse Joseph looks downward. The caption above the image reads: "Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow."
Church vicar Archdeacon Glynn Cardy said that the intent was to get people to reconsider ingrained stereotypes and misconceptions about God, such as the virgin birth and the maleness of God.
"This billboard is trying to lampoon and ridicule the very literal idea that God is a male and somehow this male God impregnated Mary," said Cardy, who admitted that his church is theologically liberal. He went on to say, "We would question the virgin birth in any literal sense. We would question the maleness of God in any literal sense."
While the virgin birth has been a long-held theological teaching in Christianity and Islam, some claim it should be viewed more as metaphor with powerful mythic teachings.
Spiritual writer Beatrice Bruteau suggests that the virgin birth needs to be interpreted as a story of Christian identity and human possibility: "To recover the spiritual power of the myth (virginal conception), we have to understand that what it is ultimately doing is revealing the deep truth about ourselves. The stories are about us. It is to us that the angelic herald announces that through the power of the Holy Spirit we will bring forth from our emptiness divine life. Or, taking it another way, nothing has to come into us from the outside; the secret of divine life is already within us and needs only to be accepted and nurtured."
While that may be an interesting concept for the theologically probing, many see any suggestion that the virgin birth was not literal as blasphemous. Lyndsay Freer, the spokeswoman for the Auckland Catholic Diocese told National Radio that the billboard was disrespectful and offensive, "poking fun at the divinity of Christ." Her view was shared by at least two others, one who defaced the billboard with paint and another with a knife.
On face value, however, the billboard seems less to question the virgin birth and more to suggest that Mary was not necessarily "ever virgin." Many Protestants claim that according to Scripture, Mary bore children other than Jesus. They point to biblical passages that talk about Jesus' "brothers and sisters" (Matthew 13:55-56).
The possibility that Joseph and Mary had sexual relations after the birth of Jesus is attractive to some because it seems to indicate a more "normal" marital relationship and domestic life for the holy family. While this may be the view held by many at Saint Matthew's Anglican Church in Auckland, an admittedly more liberal congregation, it is not the official teaching of Roman Catholicism nor of some of the other more conservative traditions.
With regards to the statement of Archdeacon Cardy that the intent of the billboard was also to disabuse people of the notion that God is a male, it may succeed less in this regard. In fact, the poster would seem to suggest that Joseph can't live up to the sexual prowess of a far more potent male, God, "a hard act to follow."
It is in turning to the actual Scriptural account that one may more effectively banish the patriarchal notion of a male God. In the Lucan story of the Annunciation to Mary, when she questions how her pregnancy is to take place, the angel Gabriel replies, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you. ..." (Luke 1:35). The Greek (the language in which the text is written) word for "spirit" is "pneuma," neuter in gender, while in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, the word is feminine. Thus, the Scripture seemingly offers a more gender-free understanding of how this pregnancy is initiated than the controversial billboard.
Whatever your take on the New Zealand billboard, it has no doubt stirred theological conversation about deeply held beliefs about the Christmas mystery. If the conversations lead us deeper into that mystery, then perhaps the goals of the billboard's sponsors have indeed been met. However, enabling those conversations to continue in productive and perhaps less salacious ways may be the real hard act to follow.