Flipping through Bruce Sanguin’s collection of sermons, “The Advance of Love: Reading the Bible with an Evolutionary Heart,” I was opened to a new way of pondering the myth of the “virginity” of Mary in Sanguin’s sermon on Luke 1:26-38 entitled “The Future Calls.”
Sanguin writes, “What about the virgin birth? Despite being a mistranslation of a passage from Isaiah that speaks of a “young woman” and not a virgin, this story has tuck. But let’s explore if at face value. One of the most subversive meanings is captured in a single line from a Bruce Cockburn Christmas song: “Mary grows a child without the help of a man.” The assumptions of patriarchy–that men are favoured ones, that all good things must happen through the male gender, that men should hold all the power, and that women are naturally subservient–are overturned in this single detail. The virgin birth has nothing to do with concern over sexual impurity. The Jewish tradition affirms the body and sexuality as a gift of God. The myth of the Virgin birth is announcing the end of an age, patriarchy, and the beginning of a new creation in Christ. To be Christian is to consent to equality. We are now certain that one of the most radical features of the early Christian church was that women enjoyed equal status with men–unheard of anywhere in the world in the first century. It too men in the church a couple of centuries to wrest control back and exclude women. But the story stands in its affirmation that the world can run just fine without the illusion of the necessity of male dominance. In this story, Spirit bypasses patriarchy in the conception and birth of a new humanity, symbolized by the birth of Christ.”
Would that Sanguin’s reading of the gospel-storyteller’s intention were true! Sadly, whatever glimmer of hope for the end of the age of patriarchy may have been present at the turn of the first century, that glimmer was extinguished over and over again in the succeeding centuries. The slim flickers of equality do continue to burn. But that we need to continue to live in hope rather than the reality of equality is born out by the recent bad news of the downfall of cherished heroes like Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi. That men of such prominence in our society should have resorted to dominance over rather than equality with women, bears testament to the reality that patriarchy continues to haunt our lives together. The peace we all long for continues to be threatened by the violence of patriarchy’s firm grip upon the psyche of so many.
While Cosby and Ghomeshi are but puny players upon the stage our media has erected to exhibit the morays of our culture, they are indicative of our delusional insistence that we have defeated the horrors of patriarchy. In a world where young girls continue to be abducted and sold into the slavery of the sex-trade, where so-called honour-killings continue, where little girls are shot in the head for daring to seek and education and we in the West respond by wringing our hands or turning away, we should not be surprised that our celebrated heroes should believe themselves to be impervious to rebuke.
The crimes, indeed the horrors, which have been perpetrated and continue to be inflicted as a result of the continued inequality between women and men cannot all be linked to the church’s insistence that Jesus was born of a “virgin.” But the church must confess our culpability, for our structures and theologies uphold the delusions of the deranged who continue to cling to the power that patriarchy affords them.
So this Christmas, as the myth of Mary’s virginity continues to haunt us, listen carefully and hear the cries of the Daughters of Jerusalem as they bewail the plight of the One we call the Christ. Listen to that One who responds to their cries, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me! Weep rather for ourselves and for your children!” And when our weeping is done, let us rise up in unison and equality to tend the wounds that patriarchy has wrought upon the earth so that this Christmas the “birth of a new humanity can be symbolized by the birth of Christ.” We can begin by remembering that Jesus of Nazareth was, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “born of a woman,” a powerful woman indeed!