A ‘Progressive Christian’ congregation, St Matthew’s in the City in Auckland, New Zealand, has launched a provocative billboard campaign for Christmas, depicting Mary and Joseph in bed, with the words: ‘Poor Joseph: God is a hard act to follow.’
The priest at the church told Ekklesia that the aim of the billboard was to spark debate about the meaning of the incarnation.
Anything that questions the stereotypical Christmas notion of a sanitised baby Jesus surrounded by swooning cherubs seems to me a positive step. But I am certain there is another view, that such ‘advertisements’ are inappropriate and needlessly offensive to sincere people who take the Christian faith quite seriously. I am guessing the advert could cause extra consternation among Catholics, as there is a belief within the Catholic Church that Mary remained a virgin her entire life. (My Catholic friends are often surprised to learn that most Protestants believe Mary and Joseph had children together after the birth of Jesus, and that some Protestants believe one of Jesus’ ‘half-brothers’ wrote the biblical book of James).
But to me, an interesting question is why would dedicated Christians be especially offended by this billboard? It could be that many Western Christians feel under attack from the ‘new atheist’ brigade led by Richard Dawkins, so they feel vulnerable when their faith seems belittled in public.
Or, perhaps it is because the billboard challenges some of the unquestioned assumptions that have been common among Western Christians about the incarnation. At Christmas, we hear much in church about Christ coming as a vulnerable baby to become a Saviour and King. Especially among Protestant traditions where the theory of substitutionary atonement is sacrosanct, Christ’s roles as Saviour and King dramatically overshadow what might be called his human qualities.
The billboard – with Mary and Joseph in bed together feeling the very human emotion of disappointment – is meant to get people thinking about the human elements of Jesus’ life on earth. His contemporaries probably considered him an illegitimate child. Shepherds, some of the most marginalised people of his day, received the divine announcement of his birth. Along with his parents, he was a refugee in Egypt. His profession, carpentry, was not the most prestigious. When he began his ministry, he said he was appointed to preach good news to the poor.
The priest at St Matthew’s said that he hoped it was ideas about the incarnation such as these that would be discussed. If these aspects of Jesus’ life inform my reflections on Christmas this year, I think I will be all the better for it.