The Real Mary

Sunday 18th December 2016
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Isaiah 7.1-14
Matthew 1.18-25

The first time I noticed Theresa May was when she made a Conservative Party Conference speech warning colleagues that some people thought hers was the "nasty party", an observation which caused a temporary policy adjustment to a softer focus; but the real story was her leopard print shoes; last week it was not Brexit terms but her leather trousers which made the headlines. The only near male equivalent was a short-lived campaign to get Chancellor Kenneth Clarke - or was it Geoffrey Howe - to stop wearing brown suede hush puppies with a formal grey suit. Mrs. Cherie Blair, who never held elected office, was systematically pilloried by newspapers for what she wore and so was Hillary Clinton when she was running for office, as if there is some way in which men - and it is mostly men - believe that they have some sort of authority over women in the matter of dress; but this is only a proxy for a much deeper assertion of ownership over the sexuality of women who can, at the whim of male petulance, be characterised as frigid or randy, as well as louche or frumpish in dress. The one thing you know for certain if you're a woman is that you will never be absolutely right; there will always be something for the male bullies to pick on.

So let me say straight out that, because it's in the Creed, I have no intention of saying anything against a belief in the Virgin birth; but I personally believe that the Christian Church's development of this dogma is all part of the same misogynistic stance I have just mentioned; compared with what she actually did, what, if anything, is the significance of her virgin conception?

Part of the answer to this question is that there is a long, shameful, Platonic inspired tradition in Christianity which improbably ranks the soul and the spiritual above the body and the physical. Setting aside the obvious issue of how the soul might function without the agency of the bodily senses, this most pernicious and persistent of our heresies, which we call dualism, seeks to divide God's creation into two, downgrading one aspect in favour of another rather than seeing all creation as "good", which is how God designated it. This dualist tendency was, you will not be surprised to hear, under-written by a clerical abhorrence of sex which makes you wonder where they thought they came from; but the third piece of this nasty little puzzle is that their abhorrence was much more for the sexuality of women than men, out of which grew most of the sexual evils of our time. There was the establishment of two stereotypes: the perfectly virtuous, chaste woman; and the alluring seductress. The first was to be admired above all else, but the inconvenient aspect of this perfection would be the extinction of the human race. The second stereotype transfers the blame for male lust to the female, a deliberate distortion which, again, causes great evil, epitomised in the idea that the figure of Eve in Genesis 3 was responsible for "The Fall" or, in any case, much more responsible than Adam. Whether or not there was a "fall" at all will have to wait for another day.

How different Christianity's attitude to sex would be if we believed that Mary conceived Jesus naturally because Joseph acted naturally under the agency of the Holy Spirit. Compared with creating the world, engineering a virgin birth is trivial in God's terms but, still, as a Church we have a lot to think about.

If I were a designer of Advent Wreaths I would reserve a blue candle for this Sunday by which we would remember Mary because, even as the centre of today's Gospel, she has not a single word to say; it's just Joseph and an angel who fix matters: Mary is cleared of adultery and the child she is carrying is of the Holy Spirit but we do not learn what she thought of that. If we did not have the Gospel of Luke, Mary would be no more than a cipher.

But without getting sentimental, let us see for what we have Mary to thank: first, she bore Jesus, the Christ Child; secondly, she bore him willingly; and, thirdly, she was prepared to risk her own reputation to bear him publicly. Fourthly, she never abandoned her wayward son, even in death and burial; and she stayed with his followers through all their hardship and doubts until Pentecost. She also, hopefully, enjoyed a relationship with Joseph which brought other children. Now I call that a full house!

At this time, we have to remember that we have seen the election of a self-confessed misogynist, who treats women as sexual objects, as President of the United States which has a global influence on film, television, publishing, lifestyle and, above all in this context, women's health programmes all over the developing world, and so we must be seriously on our guard. In our supposedly enlightened society the position of women has never been more than uncertain, relying upon male benevolence rather than recognition of intrinsic worth. But even though it is clear, from Luke more than Matthew, that Mary's intrinsic worth was incalculable in human terms she has become a doubtful role model because of Christianity's de-womanising of her so that she is no longer a woman in the sense that we would understand it; she has been made into a spiritual icon with none of the physical accoutrements of conception and childbirth such that in admiring her we are not admiring ourselves but something quite other.

And so, I say again; I would burn a blue candle, along with the two purple and the pink, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent to remind us that only one person in the whole of history has borne the Christ child; and that was Mary. Never mind what commentators say about the wickedness of Eve; never mind what the neo Platonic celibate Fathers of the Church decided; never mind what arguments radical Puritans in the 16th Century advanced for smashing statues of her; never mind her marginalisation after the Reformation; just keep her in mind for what she was and for what she did and for nothing else.

As a mere male, I say: that is quite enough.