Describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “an unwed teenage mother” has become too common to escape critique. A former governor of Arkansas made the comparison on national TV last Christmas eve.
Painting of the “Annunciation” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
But his comparison was more cute than critical in focusing on superficial similarities at the expense of deep distinctions.
No doubt the governor was sincere in making the connection, but do unwed, pregnant teens really have much to do with the true meaning of the virgin birth?
Casting Mary as unwed teen mom could of course be one way to illustrate the difficulties she experienced in explaining herself to those around her. Matthew and Luke, however, aren’t very interested in that angle– Joseph is the only one who matters and he only in Matthew– no time is spent on any others.
Another motive might be to commend young, unwed mothers who choose not to abort their children.
Image possibly copyrighted. User here in critical commentary is fair use.
That’s certainly worthy of some praise; but if that’s the intent, then Mary would be “the unwed mom who kept her child,” which just doesn’t work very well from a sentimental standpoint.
In any case, the notion of Mary as “an unwed teenage mother” assumes Mary’s unwed pregnancy is somehow commensurable with the pregnancies of today’s unwed teenagers.
It is not.
The insinuation of “unwed teen mother” into the biblical account of Jesus’ birth takes that story in a direction its author never intended to go and where the similarities between then and now are largely superficial. Important distinctions are overlooked in the process. Here are a few:
First and most obvious, Mary was a virgin– today’s pregnant, unwed teenagers are not. Virginity was a status symbol then. Today it’s not.
Mary’s existing “engagement” to Joseph was a formal contract that included major features of marriage; e.g., sexual relations between Mary and another man during her betrothal would have been considered adultery; death of Joseph or Mary during the betrothal would have rendered the other a widow or widower. The biggest differences were (1) no sexual relations during betrothal and (2) the woman remained with her parents until marriage. The terms “husband” and “wife” may even have been used for betrothed couples. Mt 1:20 could thus be translated “take home Mary your wife” versus “take home Mary as your wife”– the “as” in the latter being added by the translator.
While much is commonly made of Mary’s shame in the whole matter of Jesus’ conception, it appears that Joseph either absorbed or deflected that shame. Needless to say, none of this applies to today’s unwed, pregnant teens– not the existence of a formal bond with the father of the child nor the action of the father to rescue mother and child from public humiliation.
Mary was not a teenager. Teenagers did not exist in the ancient world. Thus the casting of Mary as a teenager is anachronistic in imposing a modern-day development on the past.
As an adult, Mary would have been held fully accountable and stigmatized for her situation. Unwed teenagers today are not.
Mary’s unwed pregnancy was in accord with God’s purposes. Unwed teenage pregnancies today are not.
Mary’s unwed pregnancy was blessed. Unwed pregnancies today are not– an unfortunate thing has already happened and that misfortune will most likely cascade into other misfortunes.
And on and on . . . .
Perhaps the most interesting point of agreement between Mary and at least some of today’s unwed, pregnant teens is that neither wound up marrying the true father of her child. Here again though, the difference is more important than the similarity.
Other points of similarity would include that both Mary and today’s unwed, pregnant teens “brought it on themselves” by their choices in life while at the same time also being captive to an inherited way of life they could not control or fully understand. Both were subordinated to the “pleasure” of the one who “impregnated” them. Once again though, differences dominate the comparison.
So the description of Mary as an unwed teenager is cute but not kind. It may sound deeply insightful, but it is profoundly unhelpful in its diversion away from needed truths into gratuitous and inept sentimentality– gratuitous in its irrelevancy to the meaning of Jesus’ birth and inept in its attempt at making something better while actually making things worse.
Deviancies that continually go unchallenged will eventually be celebrated. At the risk of sounding harsh, unwed pregnancies used to be understood as deviant. They no longer are. Rather, they are fast approaching celebration. The conflation of Mary’s pregnancy with the pregnancies of unwed teens goes with that flow. Mary’s pregnancy, however, was something to celebrate. The pregnancies of unmarried teens are not.
None of the above is meant to say that the birth of any child is unwanted. Rather, it is to object to an insidious form of moral confusion that subtly operates to increase the number of children born into difficult circumstances.
*Revised and reposted from Dec 25, 2008.