Come, abide within me;
Let my soul, like Mary,
Be Thine earthly sanctuary.
-Gerhard ter Steegen (1729)
How many December sermons did I sit through thinking (or trying not to think) about sex? Year after year, I would ask myself if I would have been willing to be God's surrogate womb. I would sit at my piano singing the hymn above and imagine Jesus taking shape deep inside me until he was ready for me to reveal him to the world. Because the ultimate proof of God's favor would be motherhood. Children are his reward.
Spirit and flesh get all mixed up in Christianity, especially at Christmas. Christmas is about sex and procreation, an observation Alice Wendleken tries to avoid with pursed lips in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Considering the brevity of the Biblical nativity story, the number of lines devoted to the reproductive organs is quite astounding.
Luke starts the story with the tale of an elderly priest, Zach, wordlessly impregnating his wrinkled wife, and not speaking to her for the next nine months (a punishment from God for questioning an angel). I don't know whether to read that as maddening or darkly comedic. Luke specifies that this couple is "very old". I try not to imagine a post-menopausal arthritic granny pushing a healthy boy out of her pelvis because the story says she considered pregnancy an honor, but my acquaintance with birth makes the picture all too vivid. A miracle, perhaps, but what was God thinking?
With one pregnancy accomplished, next God sends Gabriel to find Joseph's fiancee at her home in Nazareth. Mary is creeped out at being called "highly favored", but Gabe assures her that God approves of her so much that she is going to conceive a boy who will be king. Strange because the Jews don't have kings anymore.
Mary has had some sex education, and she already knows Joseph doesn't fit into this narrative. Gabriel's message is confusing to her. "How--?"
"The Holy Spirit's shadow will come over you, and the baby will be called God's son."
The Holy Spirit's shadow. That's some slang she hadn't heard before. She'll look it up in Urban Dictionary later. Right. "Well, I'm God's servant girl. Sounds good." Gabriel's work is done. He disappears.
(I always wondered if Mary had an orgasm when God impregnated her. I knew I shouldn't wonder that, but... And then when I was 21, I watched mesmerized at the Sight & Sound Theater's "Miracle of Christmas" show as they used music, colored lights, and a bit of drama to portray Mary having an ecstatic moment of, um, intimacy, with God? At least I wasn't the only one.)
Mary must have been ovulating when Gabe visited. And as soon as she misses a period, Mary leaves, too. Teenager or not, she takes off on a road trip to Judea to visit her aged but pregnant Cousin Lizzie for a few months. Cousin Zach never says a word.
And then Mary hikes back up to Galilee with God's son. Apparently before Lizzie gives birth to baby John. On the day all the friends and relations gather to celebrate cutting off a piece of John's baby penis, old Zach gets his speech back again. The story goes all over Judea.
We aren't told exactly when conscientious Joseph hears that his fiancee has cheated on him, but Matthew tells us he's pretty shaken up. They should probably break up.
But another angel shows up, this time in Joseph's troubled dreams. "Don't be afraid to marry Mary. The baby's from the Holy Spirit." Joseph takes his dreams seriously, as we find out in the next chapter, so when he wakes up, he brings Mary to live with him. But, and Matthew is explicit, they still don't have sex. Call it married, call it engaged, call it cohabitation, there is no intercourse going on. No orgasms till well after Jesus makes his debut. I can only hope Mary wasn't as horny as I was during my first pregnancy. Maybe Joseph knew he simply couldn't compete.
And then, they're traveling back to Judea--Mary's third cross-country trip this pregnancy and supposedly an 8-10 day walk. And you thought Jesus suffered for our sins... Small wonder the woman's ready to pop when they arrive! The New Testament doesn't mention a donkey, though he eventually became part of the legend. Maybe because worshipers couldn't handle Christmas, picturing a woman in her third trimester trekking across Palestine with a shy carpenter from Galilee who hadn't made it past second base yet.
Pastors always try to make the stable seem romantic. Behold the Savior's humble origins! But it wasn't a baby whose stretched-open vagina and torn perineum was exposed to the dust and dung. It wasn't a baby whose breasts swelled hard and hot, whose nipples cracked when her milk came in. Was squeamish Joseph her only companion? An observant Jewish husband isn't permitted to look at his wife's intimate parts during labor. He's not allowed to so much as hold her hand while she is niddah. Holy fucking mother of God!
(One pastor actually preached that Mary experienced no pain during Jesus' birth. He based this belief on an obscure verse in Isaiah. I adored that pastor, but I just couldn't believe him, even though I wanted it to be true, for Mary's sake as well as my own.)
We leave Mary still bleeding and cramping in a barn with her infant in a feed trough (attachment parenting wasn't in vogue that year!) and move on to shepherds hearing angels, Magi seeing stars, and all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem being gruesomely murdered thanks to some rabbis who told Herod what their old scrolls said. Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men; Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
The next part of the story is in the "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" style. According to Matthew, the new family escapes to Egypt to live as refugees until King Herod dies. They come back later to settle in Nazareth. In Luke's version, they cut off a piece of the baby's penis the week after his birth, and name him according to the angel's instructions. Mary is still niddah for several more weeks. When the flow of lochia finally stops, Luke has them go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice some birds. He concludes,
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.Now do the newlyweds finally get to have sex?? Roman Catholic teaching, of course, holds that Mary remained chaste for the rest of her life, which is good for teaching abstinence but doesn't jibe with other New Testament references to Jesus' siblings.
I can't help thinking that the Church was spinning the story from the first. If Theotokos (an Eastern Orthodox title for Jesus' mother) is portrayed as the ideal woman--perfectly submissive, chaste yet available, uncomplaining and undemanding, Joseph is also the perfectly faithful man: conscientious, magnanimous, trusting and self-disciplined to a fault.
Interestingly, Luke and Matthew are the only New Testament writers to say a word about Mary's sex life. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult while John speaks in esoteric language about light, flesh, and "the word". The Apostle Paul never mentions Mary, saying merely that Jesus was born of "a woman". As if he could have been born any other way...
Have a Fucking Merry Christmas!