Mary’s Perpetual Virginity: Why Does It Matter?
by Mark P. Shea
The first thing to note about the perpetual virginity of Mary is that it’s the natural extension of the dogma of the virgin birth. Many modern people assume that, at its core, the virgin birth was basically a stunt. That is, the common modern assumption is that the meaning of Mary’s virginity is pretty much exhausted when somebody says, “Wow! She had a kid without the assistance of a man! Cool! He must be God Incarnate or something! Let’s check him out!”
The problem is that this approach to the miraculous is constantly repudiated by Jesus:
Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” (Mt 4:5-7)
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (Mt 16:1-4)
God does perform miracles, but He does them in His own time and for His own reasons, not because curiosity seekers like Herod Antipas want to see nifty stunts as though God has to prove Himself to them. Those people are met with silence, as Jesus met Herod Antipas’s requests with silence (Lk 23:8-9).
So if the virgin birth is not a stunt to prove that Jesus, being born of a virgin, must be one amazing guy, what is the point of it?
The point is that the virginity of Mary is a sign, not a stunt. Stunts merely draw attention. They often don’t mean much beyond, “HEY!” And, at any rate, Jesus’ virgin birth drew no attention at the time it took place. But signs – and especially divine signs – are crammed with meaning. That is, signs signify. So the question becomes, “What did the virginity of Mary signify?” And the answer of the Catholic Church is that Mary’s perpetual virginity signifies crucial things, both about the “person of Christ and his redemptive mission” and “the welcome Mary gave that mission on behalf of all men” (CCC 499). And since, like all divine signs, this one goes on signifying long after its immediate time, Mary’s virginity is appropriate, fitting, and significant on a perpetual basis.
God Is in Charge
The first thing the perpetual virginity of Mary makes clear is that the entire project of salvation is God’s initiative, not ours. That’s not me talking. That’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church – the Catholic Church that, as an Evangelical, I had often been told denies God’s grace and teaches “salvation by works”:
Mary’s virginity manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. “He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed . . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures.” (CCC 503)
Jesus, like all of us children of God who call Him our older brother, is born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13). Jesus has God as His Father not as a stunt, but because this is the deepest truth about Him. And because it’s true of Him, it becomes true of us when we’re adopted by God through His grace.
Because of this, we are, so to speak, made members of a new human race headed by a New Adam (1 Cor 15:45-50). But that New Adam has a corresponding figure: the New Eve whose “yes” to God allows life to enter into the world, just as the “no” of the first Eve brought death into the world. And that “yes” is the fruit both of God’s predestining grace and of her own free assent:
Thus, giving her consent to God’s word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God’s grace:
As St. Irenaeus says, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.” Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert . . . : “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.” Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary “the Mother of the living” and frequently claim: “Death through Eve, life through Mary.” (CCC 494)
All of which means that Mary is identified with the family of the New Adam just as much as the old Eve was identified with the family of the old Adam. Therefore, Mary’s virginity is a sign of joy that echoes down the ages even more than the weeping from the fall of Eve.
Virginity and Consecration to God
The notions of consecration and virginity have always been part of the Christian tradition. Indeed, as we have seen, pre-Christian tradition (both pagan and Jewish) also recognized at some instinctive level that the two went together. For virginity entails self-denial and, in some mysterious way, new life in God. It is a kind of sacrifice and, contrary to modern notions, it’s the sacrifice of something supremely good, not of something “dirty.” As David said, he would not offer “burnt offerings which cost me nothing” (1 Chr 21:24). The entire principle of sacrifice rests upon the reality that something really good – not a piece of trash – is being offered to God.
Whoever offers the sacrifice recognizes that God is the author of the very gift being offered back to Him – a gift that is (like the offerer himself) next to nothing in comparison to God. Our Father receives such gifts gladly and pours out on the worshipper abundances of grace and glory absurdly beyond the value of the sacrifice. And so, says St. Paul, we go from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).
The great exemplar of this pattern is, of course, Jesus Himself, who is both God and High Priest – and a virgin totally consecrated to God. The power of such virginity is indisputable. And so our culture still recognizes the “fitness” of virginity in someone especially close to God. That’s why The Da Vinci Code irritates the devout and titillates those who delight in attacking the gospel. Both sides recognize that the idea of a Jesus with an active sex life is a jab at the notion that He was specially consecrated to God. Yet though we feel this instinctively, we still need to ask why virginity is so bound up with the idea of consecration to God.
Certainly not because there’s something wrong with marriage. Indeed, it’s one of the great paradoxes of the Church that, while she exalts virginity as a higher estate than marriage, she simultaneously understands that Jesus established marriage – not virginity – as one of the seven sacraments.
Yes, you read that right: Virginity is a higher estate than marriage. That’s not some bitter anti-human enthusiasm left over from the Dark Ages. That’s Paul of Tarsus, who sums up the Catholic picture succinctly: “He who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor 7:38). St. Paul is just repeating the teaching of his Master, whose disciples once shrugged at His teaching on lifetime fidelity in marriage by saying, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Mt 19:10). Those disciples were surprised when He didn’t correct their wisecrack, but agreed with them, saying,
Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it. (Mt 19:10-12)
So the relationship between marital sex and virginity is not “bad/good,” but “good/better.” And the proof of it is Jesus Himself, who lived a life of earthly virginity so He could live a life of heavenly marriage with His bride the Church. It’s the classic pattern: Die to yourself and live to God, and you get back thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold more than you sacrificed (Mt 13:23). Jesus gave up the good of marriage for the greater good of the heavenly wedding banquet. That’s why the “first of His signs” was done at a wedding (Jn 2:1-11). John’s point is not that the sign was the first in a series of signs. He means for us to understand this sign as the archetypal sign, the sign that makes sense of all the other signs. If you want to understand what Jesus is about, John is saying, start here. And if you want to know who the real bridegroom at the real wedding is, says John the Baptist, then understand that it’s Jesus, the virgin who turns out to be the bridegroom of all bridegrooms (Jn 3:29).
Such nuptial language pervades the gospels. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast (Mt 22:1-14). Paul tells us that not just the wedding at Cana but every marriage is an image of Christ the groom and His bride the Church (Eph 5:31-32). The book of Revelation portrays the cosmic consummation of all things as the marriage feast of the Lamb (Rv 19:5-7). The ultimate love story is the story of Jesus and the Church, according to Scripture. All our earthly love stories are just dim shadows of that reality. But love stories require two lovers, not just one. And that leads to the question, “What does total consecration in holiness look like, not for Jesus, but for His bride?”
Happily, it’s a question that John has already answered. For, as we already know, the holiest thing in the old covenant was the Ark of the Covenant. And for John, as for Luke, the ark of the New Covenant is Mary, who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and who is the cosmic woman of the Book of Revelation, and who therefore is the icon both of the virgin daughter of Zion and of the Church. And that, in turn, leads us to the reality summarized in the words of Ambrose of Milan: “Mary is the type of the Church.”
Mary Signifies the Church’s Consecration to God
John sees Mary as a sign and icon of the Church, just as the early Fathers did. All of them thought her virginity, like Christ’s, was significant. For Mary is the model disciple whose sacrificial offering of virginity responds to Christ’s sacrificial offering, just as the disciple’s offering of the body as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” is the fitting response of worship to the Lord (Rom 12:1). More than anybody, Mary models the self-donating love of the disciple in imitation of Christ. For her face is, as Dante said, “the face that is most like the face of Christ’s.”
That’s more than poetry. For Jesus, we must remember, took His humanity from her. At the very level of physical appearance, it is quite likely that they strongly resembled one another. But even more profoundly, she was the disciple who spent more time in the direct presence of Jesus, loving and learning from God Incarnate more than anyone else who ever lived. And she didn’t begin her discipleship by crying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinner” (Lk 5:8), nor with the necessity of being knocked to the ground and blinded to get her attention (cf. Acts 9), but with immediate, complete, and loving submission to the will of God (Lk 1:38).
In every other case, the overture of grace is received imperfectly. But in one case – Mary’s – it received a perfect welcome on behalf of the whole Church, enabled (like all sacrificial gifts) by the power of God’s grace. Mary was the disciple who loved Jesus more deeply and lived with Him more closely than anyone, and the living sacrificial offering she made of her body was like nobody else’s. For Jesus Himself was the living sacrifice of her body and the very fruit of her womb. When the lance pierced His heart, it pierced hers, too (cf. Lk 2:34-35). No other disciple of Jesus has ever offered more to God than she offered.
“But,” says the Protestant doubter, “mere physical relationship doesn’t save! Remember when the woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Lk 11:27-28).
All true – which is why virginity matters as a sign not of deprivation and sexlessness but of faith. For “Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith ‘unadulterated by any doubt,’ and of her undivided gift of herself to God’s will. It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: ‘Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ’” (CCC 506). Mary was not blessed because she gave birth; she gave birth because she was blessed: blessed to be chosen by God and more blessed still to have the pure faith to respond with an unreserved “yes” to God’s call – a pure faith she never lost or tainted, all the way through the bitterness of Golgotha. It’s not just her face, but her love for God, that most resembles Christ’s.
The Significance of the Wedding at Cana
That’s why John is careful to note that Jesus’ first miracle (at Cana) is done in response to Mary’s intercession (Jn 2:1-11). Mary, the icon of the bride and the counterpoint to Jesus the groom, is exactly the importunate supplicant Jesus tells us He is looking for in the Parable of the Unjust Judge (Lk 18:1-8). She doesn’t take “no” for an answer but first taps Jesus on the shoulder and says, “They have no wine” and, after a seeming rebuff, goes with perfect trust to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.”
There is a strong tendency in Protestant circles to read this story as yet another example of Jesus “rebuking” Mary. But the longer I contemplated it, the more problematic that way of seeing it became. For instance, if Mary is being “rebuked,” the question is, “Why?” For her “faithlessness”? That makes no sense. She obviously expects Jesus to be able to do something about the wine. But such an expectation is clearly an act of faith in Him as Messiah, since there’s no reason, humanly speaking, to think a poor carpenter would be able to do anything. So she’s obviously expecting something supernatural here.
At this point, many an Evangelical replies, “Yes, she had faith, of a sort. But it was a worldly faith. She wanted Jesus to perform wonders, but didn’t understand the depth of what His mission would ultimately mean. That’s why Jesus rebuked her with the words, ‘O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come’” (Jn 2:4).
But this makes no sense, either. If Jesus is displeased with her allegedly worldly faith and her supposed hankering after mere publicity stunts, why does He grant her request? Everybody else who comes to Him with worldly demands and requests for publicity stunts is invariably refused. Whether it’s Herod Antipas (Lk 23:8-9), or the man who wanted Jesus to adjudicate an inheritance dispute with his brother (Lk 12:13-21), or a mob who wanted to crown Him king (Jn 6:15), or Pharisees seeking a cool special effect from heaven (Mt 16:1-4), or His own disciples wanting a dazzling display of divine artillery against the Samaritans (Lk 9:51-56), all such crude demands for worldly power and selfish stunts are flatly refused. Yet, according to a common Protestant take on this story, Jesus allegedly “rebukes” Mary’s supposed crude desire for a publicity stunt – and then capitulates completely and does the stunt anyway.
Once again, this picture of Mary as pushy stage mother and of Jesus as a sort of sullen young actor shoved – whining about His unreadiness – on to the stage of history tells us far more about some Protestant attitudes toward Mary than it tells us about the actual events at Cana. Once again, the specter of Mary as Mommy Dearest is conjured, but now with the added absurdity of an omnipotent divine Son too wimpy to stand up to His domineering Jewish mom. It is simply insupportable to anyone of common sense. So are there other alternatives?
Rev. Sam Harris at Evangelical John Ankerberg’s ministry offers a less harsh but still unsatisfactory take. After noting (accurately) that the address “Woman” (Greek: gunai) is perfectly polite and does not have the cold ring in Jesus’ native language that it has in English, he continues:
“What have I to do with you” was a common conversational phrase. Again, it meant no disrespect. Jesus answers Mary’s request, not because she is His mother, but as part of His work as the Messiah. According to a footnote in the New Geneva Study Bible, “This indicates that Mary’s special role as Jesus’ mother gives her no authority to intervene in Christ’s messianic career.” Barclay suggests that Jesus was saying: “Don’t worry, you don’t quite understand what is going on; leave things to Me, and I will settle them in my own way.” It must always be understood that Jesus was respectful of His mother, but He was beginning to distance Himself from His previous role as a dutiful son.
This reading also fails for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is difficult to see why Jesus’ first miracle, done in direct response to Mary’s request and even over His apparent protests, signifies Mary is powerless to intervene in Christ’s messianic career. It would appear, judging from the end of the story, that Mary’s intervention here had a rather pronounced impact on Jesus’ messianic career.
Second, it is not at all clear that Mary “doesn’t quite understand what is going on.” Still less is it clear that Jesus thinks Mary doesn’t quite understand what is going on. On the contrary, Jesus’ response shows He thinks Mary knows perfectly well what is going on: He’s the Messiah, and she wants Him to manifest Himself to Israel.
And finally, it’s difficult to see in the text just what is compelling Jesus to “distance Himself from His previous role as a dutiful son.” The subtext of that statement is that Mary (again) has some sort of false or worldly notion of what “Messiah” means (i.e., military hero, or miraculous stunt man, etc.) and so Jesus must “distance Himself” from her false expectations to pursue His true mission. But, in fact, nothing in the text of the story justifies the assumption that Mary has false expectations of the Messiah. On the contrary, this assumption about Mary originates not with the text of Scripture, but with a prejudice brought to the text by Harris and the sources he cites.
A Catholic reading would urge us to move away from the assumption that Jesus and Mary are in conflict at all. Indeed, my former pastor, Rev. Michael Sweeney, O.P., now the president of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Oakland, California, has repeatedly remarked to me that it is legitimate to note a certain playfulness in their exchange. What we’re seeing here is not Jesus the Teenage Messiah hagridden by mom and her neurotic need to impress the ladies from the Women’s Auxiliary with “My son, the Miracle Worker.” Nor are we seeing Jesus politely trying to escape the false expectations of a well-meaning but dim disciple. Rather, we’re seeing a piece of conversation – almost banter – between two people who are both acutely aware of who Jesus is and what He is called to do.
Mary, after all, is no fool. She knows her Bible. She knows the meaning of the mission of Israel. And most of all, she knows her Son. A quick read of her Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55) shows that she has spent a long time pondering how, in the coming of Jesus, God “has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” Every word both Jesus and Mary speak is spoken in light of their shared awareness of that messianic mission and of the words of the prophets who taught Israel to await His coming. With all that as the backdrop of their conversation, Mary is revealed to be using language laden with double meaning to lovingly call Jesus to get on with His mission, not to impress the neighbors with a special effect or publicity stunt. Her point is not simply that the wedding guests have no wine; it’s that the whole nation has no wine. All Israel is waiting for the coming of the Messianic Son of David when
the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. (Is 25:6-8)
This image of the “new wine” of the messianic age is not unfamiliar to Jesus. He has read the prophets, too, and their imagery is His own. Indeed, Mary was one of the people who taught Him to read the prophets. And so He announces the dawn of the Messianic Age in language that once again links the image of a wedding with the image of wine:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. And no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Mt 9:14-17)
So Jesus acknowledges Mary’s messianic expectation by replying that His “hour” has not yet come (a reply that makes no sense unless He knows Mary is calling Him to begin His messianic mission). More subtly still, He acknowledges His messianic mission by calling her “Woman.” This is more than simply a polite address. It is, like all the rest of their exchange, as allusive to larger Old Testament prophetic realities as Mary’s request is. For in addressing her so, he is reminding us of another woman and the promise she and her seed were given long ago (Gen 3:15) to “crush the serpent’s head.” The whole conversation makes it clear that Mary believes it’s time for Jesus to announce His identity as Messiah and inaugurate the final decisive battle, not with Rome, but with “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9); that Jesus knows perfectly well this is what she means; and that she knows He knows it. Rather than some inane request for drinks all ’round followed by a meaningless “rebuke,” what we’re really looking at here is a profound conversation in which Jesus and Mary know and understand each other perfectly.
Which is why Mary doesn’t back down, and Jesus doesn’t expect her to. The bride – the second Eve confronting the second Adam – seeks the new wine of the kingdom. Indeed, she does so with just the brass and stick-to-itiveness her Son urges all His disciples to have. And the result is precisely what she sought: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (Jn 2:11). Mary, standing as a kind of icon of the whole Church in persistent and importunate prayer, chases Jesus until He catches her, and the courtship of Jesus and His bride the Church begins with Mary as the consecrated icon of the consecrated bride saying, in effect, “Maranatha! Show yourself, O Lord!” It is the cry of the Church down through history.
Which brings us, finally, to the other great image of Mary in John’s thought: not merely the virgin bride, but the virgin mother. Of which more next week.
- Part 1 – Biblical Evidence for the Perpetual Virginity of Mary
- Part 2 – Perpetual Virginity as Prophetic Sign
- Part 4 – Mary the Virgin Mother
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