UK - In much of the Christian world, 8 September is recognised as the birthday of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Which, as a Mormon, was news to me. Compared with many other Christian sects, Latter Day Saints don't appear to pay much attention to Mary. We revere her as the mother of Christ, celebrate her sacrifices, and honour her as we do Eve or Sarah or other heroines of the scriptures, but we don't worship her.
The Book of Mormon teaches of Mary's sacred calling as the mother of Christ, referring to her as "a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins" (1 Nephi 11:15) and "a precious and chosen vessel". (Alma 7:10) Around Christmas time, congregations around the world host nativity festivals as we celebrate the birth of Christ and her role in it. She is special to us, but we do not believe in much of the Mary worship of other Christian faiths, including the immaculate conception of Mary, her perpetual virginity, or the assumption.
The first Article of Faith reads: "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." Unlike many other Christian denominations, Mormons do not believe in the Trinity, but that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are three distinct personages with their own roles in eternity. This difference in belief ripples out into many other areas of doctrine, but it has important ramifications for Mary. Much of her worship stems from being the mother of God, an intercessor in prayer to her son on our behalf. But Mormons believe that we pray to the heavenly father, with Christ being our only intercessor. Without using her in that role, Mary no longer has grounds for worship, although retaining our reverence and gratitude.
The doctrine that really gets other Christians offended on Mary's behalf is our belief in an embodied God. Mormons believe that God "has a body of flesh and bone". (D&C 130:22) You combine that belief with the belief that God is the literal father of Jesus Christ, and after putting two and two together and arriving at sex, other Christians have been morally outraged for decades.
The idea of God having physical sex with Mary is repugnant at best and blasphemous at worst to many Christians, but to the early leaders of the LDS church this idea was not only common sense but a sacred act. To a generation viewing polyandry as the highest form of marriage, sex was not degrading or base, but a holy rite. Throughout the whole history of our church leaders have unapologetically declared God to be the literal father of Jesus Christ, but have left the specifics of that union up to our individual imaginations.
The imagination of modern Mormons are a little more grossed out by this speculation than those of our ancestors. The thought of a heavenly father having physical sex with one of his children is disturbing, no matter how sex-positive you are. As a result, we rarely explore this line of thought among ourselves, usually only talking about it when an anti-Mormon confronts us with the theory.
The arguments against the issue include not only a squeamishness about sex siring Jesus Christ and disgust at spiritual incest, but the logical argument that if Mary had sex resulting in Christ, then by definition it wouldn't be a virgin birth. Leaders have spliced semantics trying to make sense of this dilemma, but usually ended up straining one definition or another, ultimately just leaving the conclusion up to the mysteries of God.
But the Mormon concept of God is one that is bound by laws. Rarely have LDS writers used the descriptors of omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent to describe God. Instead, the Book of Mormon references ways that God is obligated to behave lest he "cease to be God". For this reason Mormonism has fewer conflicts with science than other faiths, as we view scientific laws to be the mechanics of eternity. Church prophet Joseph F Smith said: "A miracle is not, as many believe, the setting aside or overruling of natural laws. Every miracle performed in biblical days or now, is done on natural principles and in obedience to natural law."
All manner of assisted reproductive technologies would look like miracles to anyone born before the turn of the 20th century, just as cloning would have looked like a miracle to us before Dolly the sheep. In our modern understanding, we should appreciate that fathering a child is not necessarily the same thing as having sex with the child's mother, finally offering an alternative explanation to sex or mystery. While the church still declares no official explanation as to the manner of conception, scientific advancement allows us somewhere else to place our mysteries, allowing us to continue to venerate Mary and the miracle of the virgin birth, despite the other differences in Christian ideologies.
Personally, Mary has significance to me far beyond other women in our scriptures. She is the closest avatar we have to our heavenly mother, and proof of the love and care Christ had towards the women of his day. In stark contrast to how religions have treated women throughout time, her life shows that God knows women are powerful enough to bring forth his most mighty miracles.