Adrienne, a super cool lurker posing as her husband Dave, asked a great question after this post on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. After discussing the "why" of Mary's sinless nature, she wanted to know the "why" of Mary's perpetual virginity.
Here's the key that starts to unlock the "why" of it:
God speaks to us in terms of marriage. Our relationship with Him is a nuptial relationship, as Christopher West explains beautifully:
Okay, so you got that? It's astounding, really!! In fact, the Church teaches that the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, as glorious as it is, is merely a reflection, or a preview if you will, of the ultimate union we will have with the Trinity in Heaven one day. Earthly marriage points us toward "the Wedding Feast of the Lamb" which is how our Heavenly consummation with God is described in the Book of Revelation. Yep, God wants to marry us!
Chris West continues:
Holy moley, think about that!! Seriously try for a moment to wrap your brain around that truth. It should make you fall over! Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit. The rest of us have to get to Heaven before we can hope to have such a profound union with our God. But for Mary, her union with God came on earth, and it was a union so powerful that she conceived Jesus Christ -- the Second Person of the Holy Trinity! -- in her womb! Hello??!!! I mean, who does that??
Okay, let me collect myself and get to the point: Marriage is a reflection of the union we will one day have with God. Mary achieved that union, that consummation, on earth. Even the words of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation ("The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" Luke 1:35) echo language in the Old Testament which implies marital relations.
We will "marry" God in Heaven. Mary "married" God while still on earth. She, in essence, "skipped over" earthy marital union and went straight to where marriage points us, which is union with God! (And as an aside, that is why priests and nuns remain celibate as well... There is a lot of nuptial imagery in religious life. For example, women religious have Jesus as their spouse, wear wedding rings, etc.)
Mary as "spouse" of the Holy Spirit is a common and ancient understanding of the Church, and you'll often hear Mary's unique relationship to the Holy Trinity described this way:
Mary is the Fairest Daughter of the Father,
the Chaste Spouse of the Holy Spirit,
and the Blessed Mother of the Son.
Soooooo.... what was St. Joseph, then, chopped liver?
Quite the opposite! Though not sinless himself, he was a profoundly holy man and a faithful Jew. He lived his life in humble obedience to God, and God had a very special role for Joseph in salvation history. As one of my favorites, Brother Anthony Opisso (Jewish doctor turned Catholic monk!) put it:
Joseph knew that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit! She was now the Holy of Holies made flesh, the Ark of the New Covenant who carried within her the Word made flesh! (Remember the Old Testament Ark? It was made of purest gold, and if you touched it you would die! How much more worthy and precious was Mary than a golden box!)
And now let's get very real here. Many of you know deeply holy and devout men of God. If a holy man knew from an angel that his virgin betrothed had been overshadowed, espoused and impregnated by GOD ALMIGHTY, do you think that man would go ahead and have relations with her? Ummmm..... not likely!
And yet, Joseph followed the instruction of the angel, and took Mary as his wife. He knew he was to care for her and the Baby as a husband and a father. They lived as a true, real family, in true, real love, but Joseph abstained from relations with his wife, as anyone with his understanding would do. There was precedent for this in Judaism (again from Brother Opisso):