‘Immaculate’ Shows the Dark Side of the Virgin-Birth Story | Sojourners

‘Immaculate’ Shows the Dark Side of the Virgin-Birth Story

'Immaculate' / Neon

The virgin birth is one of the most well-known Christian doctrines. The idea that Mary had never had sex when she became pregnant has captivated the minds of artists and storytellers for the last two millennia. Films like Children of Men and TV shows like Jane the Virgin explore both the hope and fear of impossible pregnancies. But in the wake of the 2022 overturn of Roe v. Wade, new horror films are finding fertile ground in the way religious institutions — and the men who typically run them — seek to control women’s bodies. No wonder Mary is an image at the heart of this battle. 

Immaculate tells the story of Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney, cementing her scream-queen bonafides), a novitiate from Detroit who moves to a convent in Italy to take her vows as a nun. Despite the fact that she’s never had sexual intercourse, Sister Cecilia finds herself pregnant. Though her fellow sisters and Father Tedeschi (a charismatic Álvaro Morte) — the priest who oversees the convent — immediately embrace her pregnancy, Cecilia is less sure her pregnancy is so blessed. Despite some, let’s call it “theological flexibility,” Immaculate offers a terrifying depiction of religion that seeks to control women’s bodies. 

 The film wants us to understand Cecilia’s pregnancy as a riff on Mary’s miraculous pregnancy. Cecilia is wholly obedient to God and, at least early in the film, to religious authority figures. She is unfailingly kind and humble, even in the face of sisters who abuse and berate her. She tends to the dying nuns in her care without fail. When she becomes pregnant, she is more confused than anyone. But after the doctor who serves the convent has declared Cecilia’s hymen to be intact, a cardinal announces, “This child was conceived without sin.”

This is where the film derives its title: Immaculate. Though many believe the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus’ conception without a human father, the term actually refers to the belief that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. It’s a concept linked closely with another Marian doctrine: her perpetual virginity. In church tradition, Mary has become a woman conceived without sin, dedicated to the temple at a young age, who became pregnant though she never had sex, and who remained a virgin until her death. 

Immediately after the cardinal declares Cecilia’s conception “immaculate,” the film cuts to Cecilia garbed in Marian blue and posed beatifically before her adoring sisters. Cecilia is a pregnant virgin. This must be a miracle, right? Isn’t her virginity proof that the child she carries is the Messiah returned? 

The Christian — and Islamic — theological insistence that Jesus was born of a virgin goes all the way back to Augustine, who saw sex as inescapably sinful. He developed the doctrine of original sin in part based around the fact that every human is conceived by an inherently sinful act (which is why the cardinal in Immaculate declares Cecilia’s baby was “conceived without sin”). Others insist the virgin birth matters because it is proof Jesus is both divine and human, another sort of genetic argument. In any case, Mary’s virginity — at least at the time of Jesus’ birth — was enshrined in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds.  

That might have surprised some of the earliest Christians. Paul, whose letters are the oldest Christian documents we have, never mentions Mary at all, let alone the virgin birth. And of the four gospels, only two — Matthew and Luke — tell the story. Though Mary appears in the gospel of Mark and plays an important role in John’s gospel, her sexuality is not part of her gospel characterization. And even Matthew and Luke deploy the story of Jesus’ birth for reasons that differ significantly from the way churches today deploy the doctrine. 

Matthew famously quotes the prophet Isaiah, insisting Jesus’ birth fulfills the prophet’s words: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Isaiah 7:14). 

Christians often treat Matthew’s words as a prooftext of Jesus’ divinity: Almost 700 years ago, a prophet predicted the future, and it came true — which should be impossible! — so this proves Jesus is God.

But treating Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s words this way creates several problems. For one thing, Isaiah wasn’t addressing a far-off event, but one in the near future. Isaiah meant to encourage the King of Judah to remain faithful to YHWH in the face of a military siege. The miracle of Isaiah’s sign is not that the young woman he references is a virgin (Isaiah used the Hebrew word “almah,” which is a more generic word for “young woman.” If the woman’s virginity had been important, he would have used the word “betulah.” The idea of virginity was added to this passage by the translators of the Septuagint who chose a Greek word that specifically means “virgin”). Rather, the miracle is that before her soon-to-be-born infant is weaned, the siege will be over and Judah safe. Obviously, if this text is only referring to a child who isn’t born for another 700 years, that doesn’t do Judah much good. 

All this should make us suspicious of those who insist Isaiah was talking about Jesus — and those who insist Matthew was trying to prove Jesus’ divinity. Matthew is working in his gospel to prove Jesus’ Jewishness — not in the sense that his audience is skeptical of Jesus’ ethnicity, but because Matthew wants to demonstrate how Jesus’ story is Israel’s story. So the gospel of Matthew makes link after link to various moments in the long history of God’s people. This virgin-birth story is one more way Matthew can say, “See? This new thing God is doing in Jesus resonates with how God has always been present to us!” 

Luke, on the other hand, is doing something very different. Rather than looking to the Jews, Luke looks to the Gentiles, those living under the thumb of the Caesars. Luke, schooled as he is in Hellenistic literature, knows the long history of virgin births and demigods (those born of human and divine congress). Both Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus, who ruled Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth, were said to be demigods — sons of Greek or Roman gods. Luke draws our attention to Augustus by naming him at the beginning of Jesus’ birth story (Luke 2:1). Luke wants us to remember there’s more than one person in this story he’s telling who claims to be both human and divine. Jesus, not Caesar, is the one who is truly human and divine, the one who truly brings God’s peace to the world. 

Neither Matthew nor Luke require the virgin birth to prove Jesus’ divinity. If they did, we’d expect it to show up in Paul’s letters and the gospels of Mark and John. Rather, they use the virgin birth as a useful tool to reinforce larger arguments they’re making about the kind of messiah Jesus is: He is the anti-Caesar, the fulfillment of all YHWH’s promises to their people. 

The gospel writers were not fixated on Mary’s sexual history; it’s the institutional church that objectified her — casting her as a perpetual virgin, elevating her sexual experience (or lack thereof) to be the most important thing about her. No wonder Freud, possibly thinking of Mary Magdalene whom the church transformed from first apostle and preacher of the resurrection to a prostitute, coined the “Madonna/whore” dichotomy. A culture that allows women to be only virginal or overly sexual limits female self-expression, defining women not by the wide, full scope of their personhood, but only by what they choose to do with their genitals. It produces the sort of culture wherein men seek to control women’s bodies and their reproductivity — a theme at the forefront of Immaculate.

The faithful Cecilia doesn’t question the nature of her pregnancy until it becomes destructive and oppressive. Her closest friend, Gwen, a fellow sister and former sex worker, is much less trusting. Played by Benedetta Porcaroli, Gwen is Magdalene to Cecilia’s Madonna: one the perpetual virgin and one the written-off as the so-called whore. When Gwen tries to advocate for Cecilia, Father Tedeschi gaslights her. Gwen spits back, “I know when a man is lying.” 

Gwen’s protests affirm Cecilia’s suspicions: Why won’t the men in charge take her to a hospital? Why don’t they care about the traumatic (and gruesome!) effects this pregnancy is having on her body? Why do they seem so untroubled by the chaos consuming some of the other sisters? Cecilia becomes convinced that whatever is growing inside her, it can’t be a blessing from God. But no one will listen to her. No one, in fact, seems to care about her as anything more than an incubator for this child. 

The real horror, in both Immaculate and Christian purity theology, is the objectification of women’s bodies. Cecilia’s sexuality is the prevue of every male in the film. Not only do the doctor, priest, and cardinal examine her before they’ll believe she is a virgin, but several men comment that her beauty makes her vows a “waste.”

Mary is also much more than her virginity. She is the first Christian — the first person to believe in Jesus. In parts of the global South, Mary has become a person who embodies resistance to the colonizing incarnation of Christianity, as in Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s almost as though Mary will not allow her legacy to be conquest and genocide.

No wonder some theologians find the virgin birth to be an archaic belief. Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, told The New York Times, “I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message. The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful. It also promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.” 

Theologian Emily Reimer-Barry argues that Mary’s consent is one of the most vital parts of Jesus’ birth story: Mary agrees to become the mother of the messiah. She is a full participant in Jesus’ conception. Reimer-Barry insists that, “If Mary is to continue to be a role model for Christians, highlighting her courage, integrity, faithfulness, questions, assertiveness, and free consent can mean that her story has much to teach us today, not only about purity of heart but especially about her strength of character and self-determination.” In a world of #metoo and #churchtoo, we need a figure like Mary to be a fully formed protagonist, not a two-dimensional trope. We need the Mary who sings the Magnificat, the Mary who is a full partner with God in the parenting of Jesus, something conspicuously — and intentionally — absent from Immaculate. 

It’s fascinating, then, in a day when those in power seek control over women’s bodies and their reproduction and they appeal to the Christian faith for justification, the specter of Mary appears again, this time refusing to be identified primarily by how she expresses her sexuality. Immaculate offers a nun whose faith is what enables her to resist the patriarchal forces that want to control her body and her reproductivity. 

for more info