Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas blame: sex and the incarnation: updated

Last year, the leadup to Christmas found me in a rather bizarre bus stop conversation. The essence was a stranger telling me that Christmas was God’s fault, for not using a condom. At the time, I wondered how widespread was this rather crude notion of sexuality and the human/divine connection.

This year the conversation has returned. This time, starting not on the street, but from a church, with the following billboard going up in Auckland.

For St Matthews it is an:

ongoing effort to provoke conversation about spiritual matters … a Christmas billboard … that lampoons literalism and invites people to think again about what a miracle is. Is the Christmas miracle a male God sending forth his divine sperm, or is the miracle that God is and always has been among the poor?

Well yes, but only if you are trading on a crude notion of Incarnation as a God sleeping with a woman. It’s certainly not orthodox Christianity, in which the Creeds affirm Jesus as begotten, not made. Words designed to avoid the notion of Incarnation as literal male God sleeping with Mary. So I’m not sure what “literalism” St Matthew’s think they are lampooning. Perhaps the crude notion I encountered last year.

The Catholics are angered, claiming that “for a church to put up a poster which implied the Virgin Mary and Joseph had just had sex was disrespectful to the church.” Well there is no timeline on the poster, so it’s a silly comment. It also continues the vague disquiet that the church seems to have with sex.

I couldn’t help reflecting, as I looked at the billboard, on the fantastic annunciation art that through history the church has produced: Botticelli, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Henry Tanner. In the 21st century is the best we can do a billboard commenting on male sexual anxiety?

It makes me glad of the Christmas journey here at Latimer Square, offering peace amid the stress, open-ended meaningful amid the tinsel.

Updated: In the last 24 hours, the billboard had paint splashed on it, and then overnight was stolen. The spokesman for St Matthews is disappointed, surprised that some people can preach love, but not act in love. Which of course demands a mirror be raised: if for St Matthews, the standard is love, how does that stack up with there self-professed motive: to “lampoon literalism” (Dictionary definition “harsh satire usually directed against an individual”). I don’t condone theft. And two wrongs don’t make a right. But me thinks it’s a bit rich for St Matthews to claim the high moral ground that is love on this one.

Posted by steve at 11:48 AM


  1. Good post, i’m quite traumatised by that poster!

    But the RC church teach that Mary remained a virgin, Jesus’ “adelphoi” in the synoptics could be translated brothers or cousins, so the RC jump for counsins. Hence the poster is disrespectful to their church, because it contradicts their teachings. The timeline is irrelevant.

    That said, it does generally lack taste, i wouldn’t want a picture of my parents post-coital on a billboard in town . . . *shudder* (Christmas blessings :-D)

    Comment by Jonathan Robinson — December 17, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

  2. thanks jonathan. so in your understanding of RC theology, Mary is always a virgin, ie even through they get married, Joseph and her never “do it”?


    Comment by steve — December 17, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  3. Interesting poster. It is obviously designed to grab some attention. I agree with you, Steve, about St. Matthew’s not quite grasping what ‘begotten’ means and for an Anglican Church too! But in our disquiet is also a lot of uncertainty about the role of Joseph in all this. Just a good step dad is how we tend to view him but what about the genealogies from Matthew & Luke – why bother? I also think the poster provokes us to think about the relationship between Jospeh and Mary. In our haste to get the human characters (& sexuality) out of the way we tend to want to focus on the real events of the Christian story – God, cross (Salvation & me), Resurrection and eternal life. ‘Born to die’, I hear in some circles, but what about everything in between? Perhaps, the poster, albeit a bit tawdry, provokes us to think about how Jospeh might have felt about his proximity to the ‘incarnation’ and invites us, also, to think about how we might father ‘the word’ which is not really of us.



    Comment by Chris McLeod — December 17, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

  4. Chris,
    I think there’s huge milage in the humanity of Joseph, esp in our world full of step-dads. To them, Joseph becomes the welcomer of the “illegitimate” child, giving dignity and shelter. A real man in that sense, as you express so well “father of the word which is not really ys.”

    Which to me makes the ad even more tawrdy. It frames maleness in terms of sexual performance (or lack thereof), which is surely a Western, self-obssessed understanding of maleness.


    Comment by steve — December 17, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  5. Without commenting on the offensiveness/crudeness/other things being said about the billboard it strikes me as a moment of deju vu. Last year many churches complained about the Tui billboard: Let’s take a moment this Christmas to think about Christ – Yeah Right! This year a church takes the lead in sparking conversation, in some times meaningful conversation around the birth of Jesus, the one many claim is the ONLY answer to the problems of we face … and we hijack the conversation and make it less about the intention and more about the delivery!

    A steak served on a rubbish bin lid is every bit a steak as the very same one served on the finest bone china. But to a hungry person all they see is food! Regardless of whether you want to eat steak from a plate or a rubbish bin lid, let us take the opportunity to serve food to the hungry and not criticise (well not publically anyway) the plate it is being served on.

    Jesus is the only answer I have, so the chance to have conversations with people who don’t know him needs to be grabbed with both hands. Considering who Jesus is (not was, but is), the sooner he is out of the manger the better!

    Comment by Mark — December 18, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  6. appreciate the thoughts Mark. lets not forget that part of putting this post up is about a conversation.

    and that there are lots of churches who every year have conversations, (hence my link to the Christmas Journey)

    and lots of churches who last year applauded the tui billboard.

    i’m still left a little unclear on what type of conversation st matts is after. if it is about who Jesus is (and not was), then why not a billboard about that, rather than a “was” in bed billboard?


    Comment by steve — December 18, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  7. yup, in RC theology, the virgin Mary is still a virgin, Jesus’ brothers were just cousins, and Joseph never consumated the marriage. It is very important to them that the womb that bore Christ did not get sullied by anything, even her husband! And also subsequently important in their veneration of her. As you hint at in your article this view of Mary was formulated in a climate where sex was considered “dirty.” Interesting huh?

    Comment by Jonathan Robinson — December 18, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  8. very sad. i thought sex was a gift from God. “sullied” part of the Genesis reproductive intent and the intimacy that is some (anthropomorphic) imitation of triune love.

    which makes the ad incredibly unPC (unpoliticallyCatholic).


    Comment by steve — December 18, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

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