I went for a drink with a good friend of mine who was a fellow student when I was training to be an art therapist.
Emma* is a superb artist; she has a brilliantly insightful mind and has done a lot of work on the sociological and cultural history of the role of women and how their bodies are perceived. I still have the blanket she made for her project on the history of women and mental health that she left with me by mistake. It’s a remarkable object depicting the female reproductive system in textile (I don’t currently have it on display as it’s not quite in keeping with my décor).
I asked her for some technical advice regarding the painting of the Annunciation that I am attempting and she was interested in the story. So I gave her a quick summary of the events; Mary, a young teenager gets a visit from an angel to tell her she’ll have a baby etc etc. It’s strange how, when told in a different context a story can feel so different. At the children’s nativity play it’s a rather endearing tale with blue tea towels and tinsel halos but as I told the story in the busy pub I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable and Emma seemed more and more unsettled.
“What a horrible story” She said when I’d finished.
I reviewed in my head whether I’d told it right because it had sounded horrible to me too – but no, I’d said pretty much what the Bible says.
I’m grateful for the insight that someone who comes to the story afresh can bring. The Christmas story is so overlaid with cultural assumptions and church baggage that it can be hard to get to the raw narrative underneath.
So why so horrible?
Firstly the notion of God impregnating a young teenage girl (and Emma recalled talking to people in the middle east who’s mothers had been 12 or 13 when they’d given birth). From the perspective of 21st century westerners this really seems quite sinister.
Secondly the equating of virginity with holiness and purity as if a woman is sullied by having sex. I guess this reflects a patriarchal society involving concepts of ownership and inheritance etc. Some of the original texts in the Bible do contain just about enough ambiguity so that we can genuinely ask the question of whether Mary really was a virgin. Nevertheless, over the centuries, the Church has elevated this to an important article of faith – forever preserving Mary’s purity by insisting on her virginity (and it’s men on the whole who have done this of course).
I think the first problem can begin to be met when we see that Mary had a genuine choice – she really could have said ‘no thanks’. There is no coercion and her ‘yes’ is a freely giving over not only her whole life but also her body in its most intimate parts to the bringing of life and hope. But even so the story is still unsettling.
The second problem is harder to answer, and I tend towards Emma’s view on this. Is there any reason why, in the 21st century it is appropriate to use a story that conflates virginity with purity? I wonder whether those of us who would see this story as an important aspect of our faith need to explore it for different symbols of holiness and ask the question: does it really matter whether Mary was a virgin at all?
I’m mulling these things over as I begin some preliminary work on my painting of the Annunciation which I will post about tomorrow.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.