The church has received considerable ridicule over the centuries for proclaiming the perpetual virginity of Mary. This is a doctrine which has been seen as promoting sexual repression and as having forced women to strive after the impossible goal of being both virgins and mothers.
Yet, despite all the scorn the church has received for this doctrine, it continues to insist on both its truth and its importance for our lives. Why are we so hung up on Mary's virginity?
In fact, Mary's virginity is not about sexual morality, but about grace, about how God comes to us in our lowliness.
Mary's virginal conception needs to be seen in the context of other miraculous births in Jewish history. It must be seen in the tradition of the birth of Isaac to Sarah (Genesis 12), the birth of Samuel to Hannah (1 Samuel 1-3), the birth of Samson (Judges 13) and the birth of John to Elizabeth (Luke 1).
In each of these cases, God does the impossible thing — he blesses an elderly, barren woman with a child who will do great things among God's people. Each of these women was a woman of great faith, faith which persisted in spite of the lack of a sign from God. But because of both their faith and the gratuitous action of God, their barrenness became an abundant source of life.
These biblical stories were literally true. But their greatest significance is as signs of how God's grace can transform times of humiliation into occasions for rejoicing. We must look deeper than the physical facts to find the symbolic truth.
The doctrine of the virginal conception was never questioned in the early church. The doctrine was seen as a sign of Jesus' divine origin, a sign that the initiative in Jesus' conception lay totally with God. God reaches out to a woman with an offer of the greatest gift possible — to bear the Son of God. This holy offer is given to Mary because it is she who has the deepest sense of unconditional receptivity, of humble acceptance of this offer.
Indeed, we need to be constantly reminded of this: we do not make our own salvation; we receive it as a gift from God. Grace always enters humanity this way, as totally unearned. We need a listening heart to receive it. Such a listening heart requires an acceptance of our lowliness, a renunciation of the human will to power.
But the church also asserts that Jesus was born virginally. In a way we don't understand, Mary's virginity remained intact through the birth of Jesus. Some see this doctrine as evidence of a male-dominated church's obsession with female virginity. Viewed from a purely secular outlook, that objection is understandable.
The Eastern churches, however, especially emphasize the virgin birth as a sign of the new creation found in Jesus Christ. They draw our attention to the symbolism of Mary as the new Eve whose obedience overcame the punishments wrought by Eve's disobedience.
They point to Genesis 3:16 — "To the woman, the Lord God said, 'I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing, in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."
In that statement, they see the punishment God gave to women which is shattered at the Nativity. The birth of Jesus anticipates our redemption and, as such, Mary was freed from the pangs of birth and from patriarchal domination.
The early church also saw the virgin birth as a symbolic anticipation of the resurrection in another way. Christ's birth from the unbroken womb was symbolic of his emerging from the closed sepulchre. In the virgin birth, we thus see a sign of Christ's ultimate triumph over death.
Finally, the church holds that Mary remained a virgin forever. Certainly, it cannot be reasonably held that Mary could have given birth to the Son of God and have remained unchanged as a person. We believe that her commitment to God was always total. But with the Annunciation, she was transformed further — she became the spouse of the Holy Spirit. So we can understand Mary as freely choosing to remain a perpetual virgin out of love for God.
St. Augustine maintained that Mary had made such a choice even before the Annunciation. He pointed to her statement to the angel — "How can this be, since I am a virgin" (Luke 1:34) — as an indication that she had already committed herself to remain a perpetual virgin.
The church does hold Mary up as a model for women especially to imitate. On the feast of the Assumption this year, Pope John Paul said, "In Mary, virgin and mother, femininity finds its full expression, because in her the personal qualities that distinguish women from men were manifest in all their splendor.''
But the church does not expect the impossible — it does not condemn women for failing to be both virgins and mothers. Nor does it maintain that virginity is necessary to sanctity. Indeed, the church holds marriage and childbearing in high esteem.
Mary, moreover, is also the prime example for men. All Christians are called to act out of an awareness that we are the unworthy recipients of salvation, made possible by the death and resurrection of God's Only Son. Mary shows all of us the way to Jesus.
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