Two days before Christmas seemed like the right time to visit Washington's National Gallery and its paintings of nativity scenes spanning the centuries. Even better: The gallery was giving a special tour of those works, led by art historian David Gariff. I didn't expect the tour to become yet another meditation on the role of women in the church. But it was.
The birth of Christ has always featured Mary, the mother of God.The gospels record the annunciation, when an angel visited Mary and told her of the plan for her to conceive and give birth to the Messiah.
It's always bothered me that the church only stresses certain aspects of Mary's conduct. The church makes a big deal of her acquiescence to the divine plan, but forgets that she pushed back initially and asked questions about how this would happen since she was a virgin.
The church also forgets about her amazing victory lap after the deal was sealed. Mary says that from this day forward "all generations will call me blessed." And her vision of what her son could accomplish was close to a social justice paradise, where income inequality would be addressed.
"He has filled the hungry with good things," she proclaims, "and the rich he has sent away empty." She was thrilled at the prospect of tyrants being toppled. If there were a Nation magazine back then, Mary would have made a good staff writer.
By dismissing the feisty side of Mary, the institutional church dismisses all strong women, emphasizing instead the virtues that male clerics like to see - docility and acceptance.
But what the nativity paintings brought out for me was another way the church had dismissed women - by making the birth of Christ utterly alien to any other woman's experience.
The institutional church's description of the birth of Christ emphasizes its unworldliness. And indeed, the church has done a good job extolling Mary's uniqueness, even insisting that she remained a virgin forever, even after she bore a son.
Saint Bridget of Sweden did not help matters. She was a 14th century mystic who reportedly had many visions, including one of the nativity.
I'm sure Bridget was very holy. But I'm not sure that her vision can be taken as - uh -gospel truth. Being Swedish, Bridget was sure the Virgin had golden tresses, which is difficult to believe of a Jewish woman born in the Middle East. She also claimed that the birth of Christ was painless. No labor. No mess. In the womb one moment. Out the next.
According to historical accounts, Bridget had eight children, and was widowed at the age of 41. Maybe her spiritual self could not reconcile her memories of what she endured with her mystical experience of the incarnation.
Her visions in the 1300s greatly influenced artists of that era and beyond. The artists did not portray a Madonna lying down, sweat pouring down her face, happy but showing the exhaustion of delivery. Unlike paintings from earlier centuries, these works don't even depict a reclining Mary, fatigued by what she's gone through. No, we get a saintly, gorgeous woman, with every hair in place, sitting or kneeling before their newborn infant.
It pains me to think of great artists through the ages, who followed the party line and gave us unruffled Madonnas kneeling next to the crib like disinterested bystanders - beautiful but lacking a more intimate connection to the lives of women.
This insistence on virginity seems a way for the church to get over its squeamishness about women and their sexuality. The one woman they extol somehow is not made of flesh and blood. And part of that narrative demands that Mary's labor and delivery be utterly outside human experience.
I can't believe that Christ, who we are to believe is truly man and God, would somehow give himself and his Mom a free pass when it came to birth. Delivery is a human's first struggle, a perilous process that challenges both mother and child. A literal rite of passage through the birth canal. It is like all human life - messy, and painful, and full of moments of exaltation.
The church talks a good game about motherhood. But really, it scares them - celibate men in their bubble. And so, with a little help from a Swedish mystic and generations of a male-dominated institution that really does not like or trust women - we get a sanitized incarnation.
Indeed, during the tenure of Pope Benedict XVI, the Nicene Creed, which is said at Mass, was changed to make the whole notion of Christ's nativity even more remote and clinical. The older version of the Creed replaced the plain spoken "born of" the Virgin Mary" to "incarnate of."
Notre Dame administrator and professor Gretchen Reydams-Schils was so exercised by the change that she wrote a letter of protest to the Catholic magazine, Commonweal. Reydams Schils called the new wording an "abstruse alternative" that may, indeed betray "a deep strand of repulsion at the female body in the Christian tradition."
I hope that someday, real women and their bodies and what those bodies experience - will be not only accepted by the church, but respected. Perhaps even revered.
I agree with Sarah Bessey, an Evangelical Christian and author of Jesus Feminist, who wrote: "the delivery of new life in blood and hope and humanity - this is the stuff of God."
Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).