Mary the Virgin Mother


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Last week we spoke of Mary as the New Eve and Virgin Bride and noted that virginity always speaks of purity. The purity of Mary’s faith, so closely bound up with her virginity, leads to the other great Marian image found in John’s Gospel: Mary as the Virgin Mother. For at the very climax of the story, a curious thing happens that John obviously regards as extremely important. He writes:

One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe. (Jn 19:34-35)

Why does John interrupt the narrative of his Gospel here, of all places, to make sure we believe blood and water gushed from Jesus’ side? Is he really interested in the anatomical details of pericardial rupture? No. He is interested in pointing out the meaning of this event, which he saw with his own eyes: namely, that the Church, the bride of the second Adam, is born from Jesus’ side in the waters of baptism, just as the first Eve was made from the side of the first Adam. For John, there’s a clear and obvious connection between “the spirit, the water, and the blood” (1 Jn 5:8). It is by “water and the Spirit,” flowing from the bleeding side of Jesus, that Christ cleansed the bride “by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:26-27). The creation of the second Eve parallels the creation of the first. Moreover, it brings us back with immense force to the mystical vision of Ezekiel we discussed last week. For now we’re seeing the source of the waters that flowed from that mystical temple: the heart of Jesus Himself whose temple was destroyed but raised up in three days.

So Mary is shown at the wedding of Cana as the icon of the bride but at the cross as the mother of the children of the second Adam. For John carefully preserves this scene from the crucifixion:

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (Jn 19:25-27)

John is not simply interested in chatting about first-century domestic arrangements for Jewish widows. As with all the details from his Gospel, this scene also is written down for a theological purpose: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). In other words, he means for us to understand that we are the beloved disciple, that Mary is our mother and we are her children. For Jesus is our older brother, the “firstborn of many brethren” (Rom 8:29). Therefore, Mary is the mother of all Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

So the paradox of the gospel is made complete. You lose your life to save it. You must admit you’re blind to see. And, as Isaiah prophesied of Israel, so it’s even truer of Mary that the virgin daughter of Zion becomes the mother of a billion people:

For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.
Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
hold not back, lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your descendants will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.

Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called. (Is 54:1–5)

The thing to note here is that, once again, Mary’s life is a referred life. The point of the perpetual virginity of Mary, as of the virgin birth, is that – again — the point is not about Mary. It’s about Christ and His Church.


Mary Guards the Truth about our Relationship to God . . .

In the virginity of Mary, we see reflected to us the essential truth of the gospel: that it’s God who is the author of our salvation. That’s as deeply offensive to us today as it has ever been, because people don’t want to hear that we can no more save ourselves than a corpse can jump. We are much more comfortable thinking of ourselves as heroes who achieve something great and earn the respect of God and our peers through our achievements. In short, we believe in power, not love. It is the poison that has gnawed at our vitals since the serpent bit us in the Garden. It is pride.

And so, the world teaches us to treat life as a power struggle among economic classes, races, man, and woman — and between God and us. Mary’s self-surrendering virginity offends this approach to life deeply because she says, “It’s about love, not power.” To the power addict who can only conceive of a world neatly divided between the cunning and the stupid, Mary’s way is the way of death. So, for instance, Simone de Beauvoir recoils from such surrender when she writes of Mary:

For the first time in history the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin — it is the rehabilitation of woman through the accomplishment of her defeat.

For surrender is death, according to the world. And so the world produces men and women who distill the worship of power down to ever more bitter dregs, to gain the whole world while losing their own souls. But Mary’s surrender to God leads to the mystery of total dependence on God — and the paradox of happiness through the cross. The Son before whom she kneels is not some selfish boor of this fallen world, but the second Adam who undergoes a defeat far more profound than her own self-surrender so that He may exalt her to a glory above all other creatures. In Him and Him alone, power and love are reconciled, and we find not servility crushed by domination but humility crowned with glory.


. . . and the Truth about Our Relationship with One Another

That’s not, however, all that Mary’s virginity shows us. It is not just a sign calling us to our own complete dependence on God. It guards another truth at once profoundly repugnant and profoundly attractive to our culture: the truth that purity is fruitful.

Mary’s purity reflects and signifies the purity of the Church, the bride without wrinkle, spot, or blemish. G. K. Chesterton, in one of his typically insightful remarks, noted that heresy has always tended to identify purity with sterility, while Catholic teaching “always connects purity with fruitfulness; whether it be natural or supernatural.” This is seen not only in ancient forms of false teaching that tried to scrape spirit clean of all contact with icky disgusting matter, but in more modern heresies as well. For example, it’s one of the strange contradictions of our age that the cultural apostles of sexual insanity constantly declare that “sex is nothing to be afraid of,” while at the same time desperately urging everyone to have “safe sex.” By this, they mean sex that is something like the Roman vomitorium, where you get all the pleasures of a bodily act but none of the consequences. With perfect tone-deafness, the emissaries of “safe sex” thereby set themselves squarely against the only two things sex is actually for: union with the beloved and fruitfulness. For that’s precisely what God is saying when He tells us that the two shall be “one flesh” and then bids us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28; 2:24).

Sex is the pledge of one’s total self to another. It is, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out, a kind of language that says, whether we admit it or not, “I give all of myself to you.” Sex is the only human activity that creates people — other beings in the image of God. Even a moment’s contemplation of these facts reveals the sheer idiocy of saying sex is nothing to be afraid of. One may as well say walking through a dry forest with a lit torch is nothing to be afraid of. And, if we’re honest, we are afraid of it — and none more so than the timid creatures who try to keep all the commitments sex implies — promises to husbands, wives, and children — at bay with a thin layer of latex (give or take a few hundred million abortions, STDs, ruined hearts, and broken lives).

We fear fire enough to keep it in the fireplace, but we’ve lost the elementary knowledge that God has ordained the fireplace of marriage for the fire of sex. The problem is not with wanting the fire, but with not wanting the fireplace. So our culture avoids the blessing of sex and makes it a curse instead. And we do it by making sex artificially virginal and virginity artificially sexual.

The artificial virginity of contraceptive sex boils down to the permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure from the sacramental union of love and fruitfulness, enthrone autonomy and pleasure, and declare love and fruitfulness “optional” rather than what revelation declares them to be: the very heart of reality. It is the attempt to replace love with power. But as power exalts itself over love, it naturally preys upon the weak, which leads to the artificial sexualization of virginity. For the simple fact is, a culture that despises virginity is a culture that despises children, who are both its weakest members and the last images we have of both purity and virginity. A culture that dedicates all its psychological resources to despising virginity is a culture ready, willing, and able to make war on childhood. The most obvious manifestation of this is, of course, abortion. But less obvious (and more insidious) is the insistent sexualization of children with clothes, media, and music urging them at ever earlier ages to be “bratz,” “studs,” and even to “explore same-sex attraction.” So, for instance, a fairly typical story fished at random from daily headlines tells us:

Push-up bras. Thong underwear. Eyeliner and mascara. Skirts up to here and shirts down to there. Bare bellies and low riders. Sexually explicit rap lyrics and racy adult television shows.

They’re not just the domain of young women anymore. Before parental anger forced them off the shelves, Abercrombie & Fitch marketed a line of thongs decorated with phrases such as ”wink wink” and ”eye candy” to youngsters. In a recent survey, the steamy adult series ”Desperate Housewives” ranked as the most popular network television show among kids ages 9 to 12.

Prime-time television, with its ubiquitous commercials for Viagra and Cialis, tells youngsters about erectile dysfunction. Nielsen ratings show that 6.6 million children ages 2 to 11 watched Janet Jackson’s ”wardrobe malfunction” during [2004’s] Super Bowl. The Internet offers kids a whole new source of information on sex, including pornography. Even the children’s film ”Shrek 2″ contains scenes in which the honeymooning Shreks are making out, clearly preparing for sex.

Constantly bombarded with sexual images and lyrics, girls today seem to be going straight from toys to boys, without a stop at the tween years.

”The idea of girlhood as being a time of playfulness seems to have gone away,” says Jill Taylor, who teaches in the women’s studies department at Simmons College. ”I think the culture is pushing them to grow up faster. You see the girls and they’re 12 going on 16.”

Last Halloween a group of 13-year-old girls in Brockton dressed up as prostitutes, with fishnet stockings, tube tops, miniskirts, and high heels. ”We’re ho’s,” one girl told the local newspaper. The news that a 15-year-old girl at Milton Academy performed oral sex on five older boys has prompted a wide discussion about sexualized behavior among kids. And it’s not just sex — girls today, on average, take their first alcoholic drink at age 13, according to the American Medical Association.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescent girls, says cultural forces are causing girls to grow up fast today. ”We’ve really lost what used to be called middle school years,” says Steiner-Adair. ”It’s almost like kids go from elementary school to teenagers. There’s no pause.”

This sickness has only one cure: the return to making sex sexual and virginity virginal. That is, a return to honoring the sacrament of marriage, which can only be fully honored by honoring the even higher call of virginity. It’s the only medicine that will heal and, therefore, it’s a medicine that will provoke a violent reaction for the reason summed up by Chesterton long ago:

The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote.

In few places is this truer than in the reaction of contemporary culture to virginity. On the one hand, the horror of our sex-soaked, sex-marinated, sex-obsessed, sex-enslaved culture at the thought of any restraint is palpable. The sheer loathing directed at Christ’s virginity (in, for instance, The Da Vinci Code or the play Corpus Christi‘s portrayal of Jesus as an active homosexual) hits you in the face like the heat of a furnace. The same is true for Mary as she endures the “honors” the world has ever bestowed on Christ’s faithful ones (such as Chris Ofili’s painting Holy Virgin Mary, which features a clump of elephant dung on one breast and cutouts of genitalia from pornographic magazines in the background).

Yet, at the same time, the world rings with longing for true love and total self-giving. People paid a billion dollars to watch Jack save Rose from the Titanic (albeit after the obligatory Hollywood sex scene in the backseat of a car). They bawl their eyes out at a woman who loves a man so much she will risk death with him, and at a man who loves her so much he undergoes a baptism of death in the icy deep to save her “in every way a person can be saved.” People pay billions more to songwriters to assure us either that such love exists and will find us or that the terrible pain we feel when it doesn’t is something we will laughingly crush by our own power. There is a massive hunger for pure, self-sacrificing love — and a terrible devouring fear of it, whether it comes in the form of marriage or virginity. Karl Stern describes that confrontation between burgeoning hope for self-sacrificial love and the primal terror that goes with it. He noted that:

Besides a thousand natural obstacles, besides the fear of cowardly betrayal, besides the anxiety of isolation, [there is] something else; there is a seemingly invincible horror, something which reaches deep down beneath the social and biological strata of the personality, something that seems to arrest the pulse and make the blood curdle in the veins, there is a cosmic fear, a panic of death and dissolution.

And with good reason: in a fallen world, love and death are alike. They are both forms of self-sacrifice and, in the mystery of Christ, therefore inseparable. So we have only two choices: live our lives trying to get love without death, or else find the courage to take the plunge, however ineptly, and die to ourselves for love. We may think we’re only trying to help a co-worker who needs a little time off, or cutting grandma some slack, or being nicer to that irritating neighbor. But if we continue down any road that starts with the attempt to love, we will sooner or later discover that we did not build the road; that Jesus has walked it before us; and that the little voice that prompted us to take that first step, and all the steps after that, was His, however faint it may have been. And should we continue to walk that road, we will discover it leads to still more calls to sacrifice until we reach the sacrifice of our lives. For as the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

St. Teresa of Ávila, confronted with this painful truth after falling from a horse and being unceremoniously dragged through the mud, was told by the Lord, “This is the way I treat all my friends.” To which the plain-spoken saint responded, “Then, Lord, it is no wonder you have so few.”

No wonder indeed. In fact, it’s a wonder that the terrible and frightening goodness of God found — in at least one of the Church’s members — a welcome at all when it came to earth. But it did — in Mary. And the welcome continued, even when she was warned that the one her soul loved was “set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)” (Lk 2:34-35).

That was a miracle of grace as well: a miracle that planted some of Christ’s own holiness in the very heart of the Church as a kind of outpost or colony to assure that, no matter how weak, sleazy, or lukewarm the Church’s members became, Mary would always be the sign that the Church was, in her deepest being, holy by the grace of Christ. And that would be the ultimate fruit of the virgin who was given the singular grace to be, in the words of Georges Bernanos, “younger than sin” in the miracle of the Immaculate Conception.

But that story must wait for another time.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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