The sign was defaced by a paint-wielding vandal just hours after it was erected Thursday outside the St. Matthew-in-the-City Anglican church in Auckland, and triggered passionate and sometimes angry debate on talk radio and the Internet.
Church vicar Archdeacon Glynn Cardy said the billboard was intended to challenge stereotypes about the way Jesus was conceived and get people talking about the Christmas story.
"This billboard is trying to lampoon and ridicule the very literal idea that God is a male and somehow this male God impregnated Mary," said Cardy, who described his church as having very liberal ideas about Christianity.
"We would question the Virgin Birth in any literal sense. We would question the maleness of God in any literal sense," he said.
On the billboard - painted to mimic the fresco style commonly used in church murals - Mary and Joseph are in bed side-by-side. Joseph is looking down. Mary, looking heavenward, appears sad. The caption reads: "Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow."
Auckland Catholic Diocese spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer said the billboard implied the Virgin Mary and Joseph had just had sex and was inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive to Christians.
"We would see a billboard like that being used by an anti-Christian group to actually poke fun at the divinity of Christ," Freer told National Radio.
Christ's conception was a profound theological question and the billboard would not "give rise to any intelligent discussion on the birth of Jesus," she said.
Many messages on the church Web site attacked the image, while others defended it.
"This billboard and your 'sermon' is a sacrilege," one visitor, identified as Karen, posted.
Another, identified as Andrew M, wrote: "I for one think this is an excellent billboard. Challenging and thought-provoking. Just what it was intended to be."
Cardy said he understood that some people were upset by the image but said he was disappointed the billboard had been defaced. He said he did not intend to take it down.
Online at http://www.stmatthews.org.nz.