It is the classic story. We all know and love the well-worn features of the beautiful Christmas narrative: the angels, the shepherds, the journey to Bethlehem, the star shining brightly, and the miraculous event of the virgin birth. Transcending all else, this is a paradox of child birthing child, of holy producing holy. It boggles our minds. What can we do but walk away perplexed—much as Mary herself was?
When I was about 13 years old – Mary’s age, at the birth of Jesus – my pastor preached on this text. If I were to be honest with myself, it was probably one of the first times I felt that nebulous “Call”, a moment in which a person feels inspired to serve outside herself, perhaps in honor of something bigger than herself, something divine.
Pastor Judith spoke of Mary’s youth, and she talked about what an incredible feat it was for a girl so young to be ‘chosen by God’ to perform this amazing task of bearing and birthing God’s own child. I remember feeling empowered. I also was only 13, but if God chose Mary to do something that important, surely I could be capable of something wonderful, too.
Some time later, in college, I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador. Nestled in the armpit of a smoking volcano, Quito is a city of nearly 2 million people. In the center of the city is a surprising hill, jutting up as quickly as it falls, on the top of which stands a statue of – who else? – the Virgin Mary. In this version, Mary is a winged goddess, standing on a serpent and reaching up toward the heavens. From anywhere in Quito, even from miles away, you can see her looking down over the valley. It’s hard to tell whether the Virgin or the volcano casts a greater shadow over the city.
I asked my new Ecuadorian friends what they felt growing up under that Virgin Mother. Despite their devotion, these young women admitted the difficulty posed by using her as a role model. How, they asked, is a human woman to be expected to both remain a ‘virgin,’ and yet also become a mother? What is the value in placing such societal importance on virginity? And why, when she herself is so powerful, does the figure of the Virgin Mary stand as the ultimate model of female submissiveness?
These are questions crucial to the way we understand the Christmas story. Have you ever stopped to wonder why it was necessary for Mary to be a virgin? Would it have been any different if God had caused the pregnancy of an already-married woman? To answer that, the reader must begin by understanding that the author of Luke was not writing in a vacuum. His words and thoughts, like ours, were influenced by the culture in which he wrote. And during his day, there were no DNA tests.
It may seem a strange point to make. But in a world in which there was no way to prove paternity, the virginity of a woman was everything: it assured new husbands that the child his wife just birthed was actually his own! This is why in the gospel of Matthew, we see Joseph struggling over whether or not to wed Mary after she becomes pregnant: Matthew is showing us that Joseph knows the child is not his. So Mary’s virginity in Luke is present as an agent to assure us that Jesus is God’s child.
The Gospel of Luke was also written for gentiles. Within the Roman Empire, virgin goddesses like the Greek hunter Artemis, or the Egyptian mother Isis, dominated the civic/religious scene, and this Christian movement was fashioned and defined by its new converts. So temples previously dedicated to Artemis were transferred to Mary. The feasts and festivals in honor of Isis, which celebrated all the fertility and promise that virginity symbolized, instead came to honor the Virgin Mary.
The tradition of Mary’s virginity when it first emerged thus meant something very different than what it means for many today: instead of an avoidance of sexuality, it rejoiced in the possibility of the new life that would emerge from her body. If anything, virginity in the ancient world was a promise of what was to come, not a preservation of purity, of things as they once were.
The Annunciation text describes how Mary became pregnant by God. At that time, it sounded to the gentile listeners a lot like Greco-Roman myths in which Zeus or Apollo descended to earth to mate with a beautiful mortal woman. Even in Genesis, we find a story in which divine beings—the nephilim—came down to impregnate human women. The idea of a god sleeping with a woman was not a new concept in the ancient world, and so this Annunciation was not nearly so sterile a story as we consider it today.
In fact, the Annunciation tells of a very charged encounter between Mary and the Holy Spirit. As the angel detailed, Mary was to be overshadowed (Gk: episkiazo) by God’s presence, an experience which ancient authorities such as Philo tell us was a union of a human’s soul with the divine, struck through with sexual connotations. Some ancient Egyptian texts even go so far as to speak of the seminal emission of the shadow of a divinity, so powerful that it could engender a woman’s pregnancy.
Have we really been missing, over the past 2,000 years, such blatant allusions to eroticism in the supposedly PG Christmas story?
What is fascinating to me about reading the text in this way is that it allows us to approach it in a way that contemporary American life rarely does: through the fusion of the spiritual with the sexual. So many representations of sexuality today only allow us to see it with our bodies: gyrations, appendages, flesh, and nothing more. Similarly, so many representations of spirituality today only allow us to experience it completely devoid of our bodies: emotions, logic, heart, and with restrictions on how we may use our bodies, and in what ways. Must the two be so separate?
Consider the sensation of reading a moving piece of prose, solving an elegant mathematical formula, hearing a piece music that transports you elsewhere. Is it really so different from the sensation of a good run, the warmth of sun upon skin, or the pleasure of clasping lover to breast? Listen to these words: wholeness, reverence, relationship, meaning, safety, transcendence, trust. Do they describe spirituality to you, or sexuality? Must they represent only one at a time?
So when I read Luke’s Annunciation text, I think he is playing with the boundaries between spirit and body, allowing the two to puddle together and intermingle. His logic might have been: if Mary encountered God and became pregnant, surely it was a spiritual experience, and also, inevitably, a sexual one.
This, then, is no story of a chaste and quiet virgin, the one whom we have always been told Mary must be.
Instead, this is a story of a brave young woman whose passionate, erotic encounter with God began a movement so powerful that it changed the world.
Rather than representing timidity and submission, Mary encourages us to step boldly into new possibilities, to live into our full selves, and to give birth to love and compassion wherever we go.
The world still thinks of Mary as perpetually a virgin, although the gospels themselves tell us Jesus had brothers and sisters. It still considers her asexual, as if this text were not imbued with eroticism and sensuality. And we make Mary’s role in the Christmas story about her virginity without even considering the text, or its implications for women and men in our world.
But the Christmas story is not and should not be about virginity. It is about that spiritual and bodily act of giving birth to the promise of life, and of love, for everyone.