Christmas is a deeply spiritual time for many. Religious or not, they see it as a time to feel closer to other people — family, friends and strangers — and perhaps even to their chosen deity.
But Christmas has a dark side, which anyone who was in a mall last weekend can see. Anxiety, stress, and depression drive some to commit random acts of rudeness that are truly shocking.
It was in this atmosphere of pre-holiday high feelings that a church in Auckland, New Zealand, decided to weigh in on the true meaning of Christmas with the billboard above.
According to Glynn Cardy, admittedly progressive priest at St Matthew in the City Anglican Church, the ad was intended to “lampoon literalism and invite people to think again about what a miracle is.”
“Progressive Christianity is distinctive in that not only does it articulate a clear view, it is also interested in engaging with those who differ. Its vision is one of robust engagement.”
St. Matthew's is known for its cheeky approach to advertising its mission, from an Easter billboard that said "This billboard will rise again. (Next Easter probably.)" to promoting their podcast sermons as "iGod".
The Christmas ad was designed by M&C Saatchi "with the brief that it had to be sufficiently provocative to keep most other churches from allowing it."
And provoke it did.
From Bob McCoskrie, Director of the group Family First New Zealand:
“The church can have its debate on the Virgin birth and its spiritual significance inside the church building, but to confront children and families with the concept as a street billboard is completely irresponsible and unnecessary”
From the The Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Auckland, the Right Reverend John Paterson:
“Discussion of theological perspectives and diversity is encouraged in a respectful way, but this approach is insensitive to communities across the Anglican Church as well as other denominations.”
And Lyndsay Freer, Spokeswoman for the Auckland Catholic Diocese:
"Our Christian tradition of 2000 years is that Mary remains a virgin and that Jesus is the son of God, not Joseph. Such a poster is inappropriate and disrespectful." (Mrs. Freer also called the billboard "non-Christian".)
As often happens, unfortunately, in matters of faith, the controversy soon erupted into violence as the ad was painted over, stolen, and slashed by angry Aucklanders. The final assault ended in the arrest of an elderly woman, but St Matthew in the City refused to press charges.
Glynn Cardy remained unapologetic over the incident, though, and was proud of his aspproach:
“No doubt on Christmas Eve when papers print the messages of Church leaders most of them will serve up ‘middle mush’. Jesus will be born in a palatial sanitised barn and every king and crook, religious and irreligious, will be surrounding him saying ‘Merry Christmas my friends!’ No reader will be asked to do or think anything risky, no reader will be offended, and no reader will write a critical response. They’ll just yawn and turn the page.”
Regardless, the church says they ran out of money to replace the billboard yet again, and are concerned that things could get even more out of hand. Cardy added that they'd made their point anyway:
"The topic is ... something the church has talked about for centuries, but what is new is that we have the audacity to laugh at something quite so ridiculous as a male god sending sperm down to impregnate Mary. Obviously we can't keep replacing it and there may come a time when we will have to take it down if the vandalism continues. But by then people would have known about it, laughed at it or even be offended by it and the billboard would have served its purpose."
The final destruction of the Mary and Joseph billboard exposed the church's previous billboard, which advertises something a bit less controversial: A Noah's Ark scene encouraging gay couples to come to church.