Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
I thought it might be good to talk a bit about a subject near and dear to his heart and the heart of his beautiful bride-to-be, Claire. That would be Mary (they are both members of the Militia Immaculata, founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe, and are consecrated to her). So today and Monday we will take a look at Mary. First we will discuss the meaning of her Virginiity. Then on Monday, we will take a look at the significance of the Wedding at Cana.
So What’s the Big Deal about Mary’s Perpetual Virginity?
The first thing to note about this teaching 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’ “ (Matt. 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 (Matt. 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’ requests with silence (Luke 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.” 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 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” ( John 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 NewAdam 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 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 Chron. 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: “[H]e 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 ofa man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Matt. 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” (Matt. 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 (Matt. 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 ( John 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 ( John 3:29).
Such nuptial language pervades the gospel. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast (Matt. 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 (Rev. 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” (Luke 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 (Luke 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., Luke 2:34–35). No other disciple of Jesus has ever offered more to God than she offered.
“But,” says the Evangelical 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!’” (Luke 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 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.