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Christmas billboard of Mary St Matthew's in the City Auckland

Search for the historical Mary

Christmas billboard of Mary St Matthew's in the City Auckland
The editorial of this week’s NZ Catholic begins, “Okay, so the sun rises in the east and St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church in Auckland puts out another controversial Christmas billboard.” (image of the billboard is above)

Is the billboard really that shocking? Or is it actually: the sun rises in the east and whatever St Matthew-in-the-City does needs to be objected to…?

The NZ Catholic article about the billboard is entitled Billboard ignores ‘real’ Mary. “The latest St Matthew-in-the-City Christmas billboard depicting the Virgin Mary ignores the Gospel account surrounding Our Lady’s (sic.) pregnancy and the birth of Jesus, [Lyndsay Freer] an Auckland Catholic diocese spokeswoman says.” I’m waiting for Lyndsay Freer to similarly denounce the baroquely dressed Infant of Prague as ignoring the ‘real’ Jesus. [Please don’t let her comment on the Sacred Heart, or the Immaculate Heart].

Arthur Skinner, of the “Catholic Action Group”, came from Whangarei (that’s three hours away if you are wondering), vandalised the billboard, and removed the portrayal of the pregnancy test (some are suggesting that he will be comparing it for a match to the ones in the Catholic Action Group reliquary collection, but I find this unlikely).

The NZ Catholic editorial continues by listing titles one should ponder while viewing the billboard: “Holy Virgin of virgins,…Mother of divine grace, Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Mother inviolate, Mother undefiled,…Mother of our Creator,…Virgin most powerful,…Gate of heaven, Morning star,…Queen conceived without original sin, Queen assumed into heaven,…” This, I guess, must be the ‘real’ Mary of the Gospels being referred to…

What is objectionable about the billboard? The church got the date wrong – this should be in April? Mary being struck by the reality of what she has said yes to? That a Palestinian peasant is represented as a pakeha/European Renaissance woman? That the liberal/progressive parish priest, Glynn Cardy, holds to historicity in the infancy narratives, that Mary “would have been accused of having an illegitimate child

The parish’s motivation for putting up the billboard is to get people thinking and talking. They certainly succeed. By 17 December nearly 13 million had looked at their facebook page. That’s from USA alone! That was before its vandalism became world news.

But what about the ‘real’, Gospel Mary? The first written encounter that we have with the mother of Jesus is Mark 3:20ff. There his mother, brothers, and sisters are outside a house seeking to restrain Jesus, concerned that he has gone out of his mind. Mum doesn’t say to Jimmy, Joe, Simon, Judas, and those two or more girls whose names I forget, that there’s no way that Jesus is out of his mind because, children, there’s something I may not have told you…

Let us reflect on those names. Anyone who reads Richard Bauckham will have a deeper appreciation whenever we meet names in the New Testament.

Mary’s ‘real’ Gospel name is Miriam. She bears the same name as Moses’ sister. A strong woman. She is married to Joseph. The names of the rest of the family are also strong names recollecting their early history of liberation. Jesus (Joshua = “God saves/liberates/sets free”), James (Jacob), Joseph, Simon (Simeon), Judas (Judah), (Matthew 13:55).

My image of the Mary of history, as well as the Theotokos, Our Lady of my faith, is of a strong woman. At Christmas time, let us remember the words of St. Ephrem (d. 373), “In Mary God has grown small to make us great.”

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10 thoughts on “Search for the historical Mary”

  1. All over this country Churches are putting up billboards with Christmas imagery – some of them are kitsch, some are really good and draw us to The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

    One Church, a church with a history of sowing discord at Christmas and Easter, issues a press release when they put up theirs – just to ensure it gets as wide an audience as possible – and the media, lovers of controversy and no lovers of the Faith are only to happy to oblige.

    Thus unleashing a display of ugliness and Christian disharmony during advent.

    The parish’s motivation for putting up the billboard is to get people thinking and talking.

    You think? I see it as attention seeking using the techniques of a three year old child who doesn’t know better

  2. I enjoyed the billboard. Of course it was provocative – and the responses were all part of the theatre. It can be useful to bring some of the churches divergent perspectives out for some sunshine. I look forward to the next one.

  3. Bosco,

    Well said! Something like that reminds people that the real reason for Christmas was the birth of a child and nothing to do with the fat bloke in the red suit – something our society seems to have mostly forgotten or chooses to ignore.

    I found the list of “titles” given quite amusing :0)


  4. “Chill,” as “the kids” these days say, Andrei. This church did nothing more than, if in an unconventional and somewhat controversial way, remind us that Mary was a real human being, and thus was surely subject to the same fears, worries and concerns all us human beings are subject to. Remember these words of prophecy applied to her? “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). She was not immune from being human. How difficult her life must have been, following God as she did, by playing her part in what must have looked like an out-of-wedlock pregnancy to those around her.

    The hypocrisy and lack of reverence in Fox News playing pious defense in the so-called “War on Christmas” this time of year while touting political, social and economic policy that is utterly out of whack with the gospel of Christ Jesus is far more insidious, shocking and fret-worthy than any billboard Saint-Matthew-in-the-City puts out. Talk about ugliness and disharmony! But how many religious watchdogs raise a peep about that?

    As for “Catholic vandals,” rather than wielding their hands to destroy other people’s property, they ought to set them to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and visiting the jailed. That’s what Christ Jesus told us our judgment hinges on — he never said a word about vandalizing other people’s property, for any cause, as a qualifier for entry into his kingdom. And quite frankly, more converts are won by people putting the gospel of Christ Jesus into practice than by violence and destruction driven by foot-stomping, chest-thumping, fist-clenching “[self-]righteous indignation.”

    1. Thanks, Gregory, for your comment.

      I think, as we have docetist tendencies in our image of Jesus, Mary begins to fill the gap in our search for divinising our true, full humanity. I wonder, as we elevate Our Lady out of the human sphere, what/who there is that will be for us the embodiment of the Good News that our full humanity can be divinised. Surely that lies at the heart of the Christmas message.

      I was very intrigued by the NZ Rugby World Cup appropriating our Christian language and imagery – where were the protests or even the reflections from church people then? When Christians bring some agility and even playfulness to our images we see what happens. But when the great established religion of NZ (rugby) uses and abuses our (Christian) symbols and concepts – there isn’t even a whisper. I continue to be intrigued…


  5. It is one thing at some previous, vague and abstract stage, to consent and even to genuinely want something as momentous as children and parenting, that only come via pregnancy (with its discomforts, travails and risks), labor, delivery (with their pain and risks) and puerperium (with its demands and risks). [Nota bene: that all the risks, etc. are magnified at that time, when pregnancy, labor, delivery and puerperium bore broadly known high risk of maternal, fetal and infant death and disability. Now, add the ambiguous and precarious social contexts of the narrative.] It is quite another thing for a mere idea, even a welcome one, to actually come to pass, to become undeniably real, and in this case to become a reality that contains risks, and that changes lives. That’s all it says.

    Merry Christmas

    1. Thanks, Brian. The BBC 2001 Son of God series, which I still use in teaching, talks about the time around giving birth being the most dangerous in the life of a young woman at that time. A blessed Christmas to you also.

  6. Just last night I was reading this – in a book by Cyprian Smith (on Eckhart and Paradox): “… Incarnation is, so to speak, the “root mystery, the mystery of God coming into the world. … [Eckhart] is concerned above all with union, how God and man can come together and become one</i?. Now this happens in two ways. First God and Man are united in the historical event which took place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Secondly, they are united here and now in the mysterious event which Eckhart calls the Birth of God in the Soul, or, the Speaking of the Word in the Ground of the Soul."

    Cyprian Smith notes that these are "one single mystery" and that the mystery of ourselves and the mystery of Christ are mirror images. In that sense perhaps we all are "pregnant" – or seek to be – with the Mystery of God's indwelling.

    To me the billboard cheapens the mystery. Nonetheless, it's a striking and troubling image. For she did say "Yes!"

    1. I love Eckhart’s approach and insight. I think it is fair to suggest the billboard cheapens the mystery – but I think a lot of church stuff does. And more so. As I think my own response does. Blessings.

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