A controversial billboard set up by St. Matthew-in-the-city Anglican church in Auckland, New Zealand shows the Virgin Mary holding a pregnancy test, with a shocked look on her face. The result has been exactly what the sign was designed to do: get people talking. According to an online report by Kelsey Fletcher on stuff.co.nz, Vicar Glynn Cardy of St. Matthew’s has received 21.5 million Facebook visitors.
The World Wide Web has been abuzz with comments and discussions about this depiction of the Virgin Mary. Not surprisingly, Catholic groups are protesting en masse. The billboard has already been defaced by Arthur Skinner, a member of the Catholic Action Group. He slashed the picture with scissors. Skinner told reporters that he admits to the vandalism, but that it was worth the risk of arrest to protest this blasphemous mockery of the Virgin Mary. So far, no charges have been laid. The clergy at St. Matthew’s made this statement on their church website:
“We would rather bring attention to the world’s poor, the plight of women in too many countries, hungry children, the destruction of the environment, and the need to end violence rather than his religious intolerance.”
What do you think of this billboard? I have given it a lot of thought, and I have concluded that I don’t find it offensive. I find it Biblically wrong, but it has resulted in worldwide discussion of the birth of Christ, which is a good thing.
Most people in our day, whether Christian or not, see Mary in the nativity scene at Christmas and think of her as the Virgin Mary – sitting beside the manger, gazing lovingly at the Christ child, perhaps with a halo around her head. In the Catholic Church, Mary has long been venerated as a saint, elevated above ordinary humans, almost to the level of godhood. The doctrine of “Immaculate Conception” refers to Mary’s own miraculous birth, so that was born without the stain of original sin, and that she remained a virgin for her whole life
This reverence of Mary is not Biblically sound. The first of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Mary is not god. She was an obedient servant of God, a willing vessel chosen by God for the most incredible task that a human has ever been chosen to do – to allow her body to be the portal through which God the Son clothed Himself in human flesh to enter our world, the world that He created, as one of us.
The billboard at St. Matthew’s shatters the Catholic image of Mary as the sinless perpetual virgin. It depicts her as an ordinary human teenage girl who is shocked to discover that she is pregnant. The point was to get people to see Mary as someone young and afraid, someone we can relate to, but I contest the claim of the “progressive Christianity” of the Anglican Church that it doesn’t matter how Jesus was conceived. It is not “religious intolerance” to say that you cannot call yourself a Christian if you deny the virgin birth.
The conception of Jesus was a miracle. Mary did not have sexual relations with any man until after she gave birth to the Christ child.
Mary was young and afraid, but she was not guilty of any immoral behaviour. Even if she had access to a modern pregnancy test, she would not have been looking at a positive test result with a shocked look on her face.
But in her lifetime, there were few who knew and fewer still who believed that she was a virgin. In Luke 1 we read that Mary was sent in a hurry to visit her cousin Elizabeth in a town in the hill country of Judea. No doubt this visit was arranged to get her away from the gossiping tongues in her hometown of Nazareth.
When Joseph, to whom she was betrothed, found out that she was pregnant, he knew that he was not the father, and he knew the biology of where babies normally come from, so he assumed that Mary had betrayed him. He could have brought her before the Pharisees to be stoned for the crime of adultery. Betrothal in the culture at that time was legally binding. He planned to quietly divorce her. It wasn’t until he received a vision in which the angel Gabriel told him not to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife that he believed that Mary was innocent.
You know the Christmas story, so I will just mention the highlights: Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem to register for the census, there was no room at the inn, Jesus was born in a stable, the angels announced the birth to shepherds, wise men came from the east following a star, they went to the palace in Jerusalem in their search for the newborn king of the Jews. Israel at the time was occupied by the Romans, and Herod was the Roman assigned to be king of the Jews. When he learned from the wise men that a star was predicting the birth of a Jewish king, he consulted Jewish scholars who confirmed that the Scriptures prophesied this birth. He asked them where the prophecies said the king was to be born. They said Bethlehem, so Herod ordered his soldiers to kill all of the Jewish male babies born in Bethlehem in the last two years in an attempt to kill off the competition. But Joseph had been warned in another vision to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. They stayed there until Herod died, and then came back to Nazareth. (Dramatic pause here while I take a breath.)
Jesus grew up in Nazareth amidst the gossip that he was the bastard child of Joseph and Mary, conceived before their marriage had been legally consummated. After he began his ministry of going from town to town healing the sick, driving out demons, and preaching the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, he made a stop back in his hometown, where he could not perform many miracles because of their lack of faith. The people there were so offended at His bold claims that they drove him out of town and tried to throw him down a cliff. Luke 4: 30 tells us that he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Later in John 8:41 when he was confronting the Pharisees, they retorted, “We are not illegitimate children!”
Why do Christians make such a big deal about the virgin birth? Why do we protest when more “progressive” churches like the Anglican St. Matthew’s say that the way Jesus was conceived doesn’t really matter? The short answer is that Jesus fulfilled over 300 Old Testament prophecies so that we would be able to say with confidence that this man was truly God. Maybe it was a coincidence that he was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1), that his birth sparked an infanticide of baby boys in Bethlehem (Jeremiah 31:15); and that he would be called a Nazarene. The odds of one human being fulfilling 300 prophecies like these are slim but plausible. But throw in Isaiah 7:14 where it says that a virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and it is pretty hard to deny the evidence that Jesus was the true Messiah, Immanuel, God with us.