Saturday, June 19, 2010

Little Teachings from the Bubble: Mary's Perpetual Virginity

Well, you know I like to keep things simple and clear. No fancy schmancy theological jargon here. (If I fall into that, slap me.)

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:
The Bible, itself, uses spousal love more than any other image to help us understand God’s plan. It begins in Genesis with the marriage of Adam and Eve and ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Here we find a key for understanding the whole of Scripture: God’s wants to “marry” us – to live with us in an eternal bond of love that the Bible compares to marriage.
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:
But there’s more! God wants to fill us – or, to go with the analogy – God wants to “impregnate” us, his bride, with his own divine life. This is a very “earthy” way of speaking, but it isn’t mere poetry. In Mary we witness a woman who literally conceived divine life in her womb.
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:
Having been enlightened by an angel in a dream regarding her pregnancy, and perhaps further by Mary concerning the words of the archangel Gabriel to her at the Annunciation, Joseph knew that God had conducted himself as a husband in regard to Mary. (emphasis mine)
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):
Living a celibate life within marriage was not unknown in Jewish tradition. It was told that Moses, who was married, remained continent the rest of his life after the command to abstain from sexual intercourse (Exodus 19:15) given in preparation for the revelation at Mount Sinai. There was also a tradition that the seventy elders abstained thereafter from their wives after their call, and so did Eldad and Medad when the spirit of prophecy came upon them; indeed it was said that the prophets became celibate after the Word of the Lord communicated with them.
Even today in the Church there is something known as a "Josephite marriage" -- that is, a couple validly married in the Church who both mutually agree to abstain from their right to have sex with one another. St. Therese's parents had just such a marriage until their spiritual director, one year into the marriage, advised them to consummate. Josephite marriages are quite rare, of course, but just as in ancient Jewish times, they do exist.

Oh my, this is getting long. So much more to say, but this is supposed to be a "little" teaching after all.

I will leave you with this, because I adore this passage.... You know how the Old Testament foreshadows, or prefigures, the events of the New Testament? How everything in the OT points to Jesus Christ? Well, with that in mind, meditate on this beautiful passage from the Old Testament, in light of Mary's perpetual virginity:

The Lord said to me,
"This gate shall remain shut;
it shall not be opened,
and no one shall enter by it;
for the Lord God of Israel has entered by it;
therefore, it shall remain shut."
(Ezekiel 44:2)

Holy Mary, ever-Virgin, pray for us!


  1. Big-a** disclaimer: I know very nothing of Canon law and am pulling all of this out of the air, so I could be completely off-base. My mouth is big enough to insert my foot (and I apparently find it tasty at times) if I am wrong. But I wanted to mention this because I thought it was where Adrienne's question was going.

    My (very limited) understanding is that a union of marriage within the Church is valid if it meets certain criteria which includes the ability (emotional and physical) at the time of entering into the marriage to live out the commitment of marriage and all that it entails. A marriage which is not consummated does not make it “invalid” per se. A “valid” marriage (one meeting all the criteria of the Church) is valid at the Altar when the vows are entered into . . . it doesn’t wait to become valid upon consummation. (This is my understanding. See Big-a** disclaimer).

    However, refusal to consummate the marriage by one party would be “evidence” (for lack of a better word) for one seeking an annulment because it would appear that the refusing party did not have the intent or the ability (again, emotional or physical) to enter into the marriage commitment (I guess a form of “fraud”). One of the main elements for making a marriage valid at the time the vows were entered into (i.e., ability) is presumably missing. I think if one party did seek and obtain an annulment in this situation, the official grounds would be based on “lack of ability” to enter into the marriage, not that the marriage wasn’t consummated.

    That is a very different situation where a couple agrees to refrain from relations (which, as Leila pointed out, does happen but is rare). They may have the emotional and physical ability, but refrain from doing so for religious reasons.

  2. BTW: That should read I know nothing of Canon law . . . I originally said "very little" and then felt I didn't even qualify to say that :)

  3. If I knew you were up, you could have edited or proofread my post I just wrote! It needs help!

    But yes, it's magically romantic! And magical is not a good word for it. I remember in pre-cana the Priest saying that marriage prepares us to spend eternity with God!!!!!!!!

    And then it's funny because I was talking with a friend about God's power. I thought early on in our IF journey that if God can raise people from the dead he can make little sew pregnant. But if he can also impregnate a virgin, come on PEOPLE! Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.... not just some Catholic jargon but staright from the bible. ;)

    I love this post, so crisp, so clean! I'm gonna need a little more bubble teaching on understanding Ezekiel 44:2. But I guess since I'm still awake I could google it. :)

    My soul bursts with joy that I'm Catholic!

  4. Ann call me if you want to talk! ;)

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Ha ha! Sew & Ann are up and blogging at 3am (of course, now it's 5:30). We can't be held accountable for what we write at this hour.

    BTW: My insanely long comment was really addressing a sub-part or ancillary issue of the original question (un-consumated marriages in today's world- are they invalid ). Your BEAUTIFUL post was great and hit the main part of the ? which was the perpetual virginity.

  7. Ann- you are right on. I believe the part of the vows that would be in question (thus paving the way for a possible annulment) is the "give yourself" part since giving yourself "totally" is implied. This is especially the case if someone knowingly entered the "marriage" with the intent to not consummate, but never told the spouse before hand. I've often heard that marriages in which both parties decide to refrain from the physical renewal of their vows are referred to as Josephite marriages.

  8. Now that I'm up at 8, I hope that Sew and Ann are sleeping in! Good grief girls!!!!

  9. I really enjoying reading your "educational" posts. Lord knows I need all the help I can get. Keep'em coming!!! :)

  10. Ann, your are right!! I almost put that disclaimer in, but my "little" post was getting so long! But you are right that Adrienne was going there with her question.

    Essentially, if one or both parties do not have the ABILITY to consummate the marriage, then the marriage is not valid. It would not be a "marriage" then, but a "friendship" is how I look at it, since no marital act is possible!

    You win some sort of prize here, Ann!

    And, as you said, this is different from a Josephite marriage, in which both parties are able, but both parties choose to abstain.

  11. PS: I also deliberately did not do any "apologetics" in this post, i.e. defending against Protestant objections. That was beyond the scope of the post. :)


  13. Olya, the Church has always understood those "brothers and sisters" as his cousins or kin (or even possibly children from Joseph, if he were an older man and previously widowed). There are many proofs for this, but that is for another post. But essentially, their was no word exclusively for "sibling" then, and the translated word also can mean "cousins" or kin. Just as Lot was called Abraham's brother (I believe) in the OT, even though he was his nephew....

    Sorry, I was up till 2:00am and I need sleep! :) You can google some Catholic sources on that. Oh, and the Reformers also believed in Mary's perpetual virginity, so they did not consider it in the least way unbiblical.


    Olya, the link above has lots of good information on what you asked.

  15. Thanks...I'm going to really enjoy these Little Teachings!

  16. Love it love it! Thanks blog Mom! Love the little teachings. More please!

  17. I love this post! And I love our Church!

  18. WOW! Awesome post! You explained this so well and concisely.

    I've often wondered if our sex-focused/saturated culture makes it harder to accept or understand Mary's perpetual virginity than it is for people of other eras and cultures where celibacy is more normal.

    Also, in regards to "ability" to consummate a marriage vs. "decision" not to: I recently heard that a man who is incapable of sexual relations can't be a priest? Something about needing to *choose* celibacy? Am I making that up?

  19. Sarah, I believe you are right on that issue. I just read that as well, when I was researching Josephite marriage. A priest must willingly choose a life of celibacy, not have it decided for him. It's a beautiful sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom, and you are right that it is not a choice that our sex-saturated culture can understand/accept.

  20. Great post! Keep these coming-I won't ever get enough!

  21. Great post. Thanks for helping us think about it.

  22. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and concise response, Leila. And also thank you, Ann, for the helpful follow-up about the validity of "unconsummated" marriage--that makes much more sense. Thanks for catching that part of my query too.
    I also appreciate the additional information about Mary being called the "Spouse of the Holy Spirit". That term has always made me cringe because I feel that "spouse" sounds awkward there, making Mary sound like a polygamist having two husbands and of course leaving St. Joseph a bit like "chopped liver", as you better expressed it. I had assumed that title was non-traditional and had probably come from the same sources that claim Mary's favorite color is definitely blue (nothing against this, but I'm just not sure how this custom was started. Anyone know? My guess is by the Renaissance artists who depicted Jesus as a little blond-hair boy with blue eyes.) It is probably semantics issues on my part, but I sort of brushed off the title without giving it much thought. The linguist in me would still prefer a different term to express her relationship with the Holy Spirit, but perhaps there really isn't one as He is the one by whom she conceived and thinking of it that way, I definitely cringe less. ;) Also, it is interesting to think of her relationship with God being fulfilled here on earth as ours will be in Heaven. I hadn't thought much about marriage as a preparation for this.
    Br. Opisso's explanation of the tradition of celibate marriage in early Judaism helped me to see the perpetual virginity argument better as well in light of the fact that there was a precedent established in early Judaism for celibate marriages. (Side note: this explanation was especially helpful for my formerly protestant husband, who does not go for biblical proof of Marian doctrines unless it is absolutely clear that the biblical passage cited is referring to Mary. So I am very happy you had the Jewish authority in your post too. :)) Thanks again for clearing all of this up!
    --Adrienne (I will eventually figure out how to change "Dave" from appearing when I log in. I'm sorry for the appearance of a male "intrusion" in our cozy, little feminine circle. ;))

  23. thank you, I'll check it out. And, some protestant churches can be 'out there' with their teachings, so I usually just go to the Bible and since it says that Mary was a virgin until she gave birth, that's what I believe.

  24. Olya, you find the link interesting, then, as it addresses the issue of the word "until" and what that does and doesn't mean. (i.e., "until she gave birth") Here's an excerpt about that from the article:

    But they {fundamentalists} are using a narrow, modern meaning of "until," instead of the meaning it had when the Bible was written. In the Bible, it means only that some action did not happen up to a certain point; it does not imply that the action did happen later, which is the modern sense of the term. In fact, if the modern sense is forced on the Bible, some ridiculous meanings result.

    Consider this line: "Michal the daughter of Saul had no children till the day of her death" (2 Sam. 6:23). Are we to assume she had children after her death?

    There is also the burial of Moses. The book of Deuteronomy says that no one knew the location of his grave "until this present day" (Deut. 34:6, Knox). But we know that no one has known since that day either.

    The examples could be multiplied, but you get the idea—nothing can be proved from the use of the word "till" in Matthew 1:25. Recent translations give a better sense of the verse: "He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son" (New American Bible); "He had not known her when she bore a son" (Knox).

  25. Olya, I mean't "you'll find the link interesting"

  26. Adrienne – I have no answer on the blue, but never thought it was Mary’s favorite color, just that we as a Church attributed blue to Mary like we do green for ordinary time, purple for lent, etc. I also thought it originated from her appearances and artists’ interpretations of those events.

    However, as unknowledgeable as I am on this subject, I do have a story (shocking, I know). My current pastor only wears dark blue shirts, not the traditional black. A group of us had a big pow-wow discussion about it. One thought it was for Mary. Another (deacon’s wife) thought it was part of his particular religious community. Yet another thought it was something regarding the Pastor’s native country (Ireland). My DH finally asked Father why he wore dark blue instead of black. The answer? “Because I like the color navy.” We laughed so hard because here we were acting like a bunch of theologians trying to find a purpose and it really boiled down to one man’s fashion preference.

  27. Love it, love it, love it... keep them coming!!! And you guys were up blogging that early... I was up reading at that hour!! I love waking up to some new blogging. I think I feel back asleep with my phone in hand .... :) Ha!

  28. Leila, I did find it very interesting, though not persuading. I even descussed it with my husband. We both think that the use of the word 'until' in those examples is different from the way it's used in the story of Mary. In the first to cases it's used with the 'closing' events. In other words, it's obvious that the sinonym to that word is 'never' In the story of Mary the meaning of word 'until' is obviously used in our modern way since Mary didn't die after giving birth. Giving birth was the event that ended one part of her life (being a virgin) and started another part (knowing her husband)It's like me saying 'I didn't play drums until our drummer left the church' Does it mean I still don't play them? If it were the case why whould I even say that? I feel I am not putting my thoughts into words very well here, let me know if it doesn't make sence.

  29. Olya, I thought all day about whether or not I should go forward with a Protestant/Catholic type debate (a worthy endeavor).

    Ultimately, I'm really bad about disciplining myself and setting limits for myself... I actually would love to have this discussion with you, but my family already complains about the time I spend on the computer (they are right), and starting a discussion like the one I would want to dive into would really not be good for my obsessive personality! I would be thinking of it and wanting to keep going with you forever! :)

    So, I'm going to force myself to commit to the limits I set for myself here, and I am going to stick to writing to a Catholic audience (though everyone is welcome!). If you read my reversion story (on the sidebar) you will see that my passion is making sure that lukewarm or uninformed Catholics will be educated about their Catholic Faith. It's kinda the niche that keeps me balanced. :)

    However, I don't want to just leave you (and any other Protestant friends) hanging, and so I am going to take the advice of another blogger and put some great links on the side of my blog. I won't get to it tonight, but I promise to do it soon. I may link to great sites, or I may write them myself. Not sure yet.

    Anyway, please know that I am thrilled to have you reading the blog and I hope you will stay in the "Bubble"! I love hearing from you!

    God bless!

  30. I love this post and the explanations you give! Thanks for blowing up my bubble just a little bit more :).

  31. I am so glad I found this part of your blog. I will be tuning in for my little lessons on a regular basis. I love that you are so logical!

    Fantastic! Truly fantastic.

    Love in Christ,

    Little JoAnn

  32. What a shame this post is so old! Olya, I've struggled with the very same objection! May I recommend a link that has cleared it up for me, if not inarguably, then at least to my satisfaction. :) Hopefully you signed up for email updates or something.


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