Mary Ever-Virgin and Why It Matters

In my last few posts I have covered some of the main Scriptural objections to the Catholic belief Mary was ever-Virgin, and how they are all based upon assumptions.  It is true there is no explicit statement in Scripture that Mary lived her entire life as a virgin.  There is also no explicit statement in Scripture that denies this belief.  And within Scripture we can also see evidence that supports the belief Mary was ever-Virgin, as was covered here.  As Catholics however we do not rely on Scripture alone but also Sacred Tradition to form our understanding. 

This Marian dogma was defined at the Council of Constantinople II in 553.  As with prior councils, this council primarily dealt with the nature of Christ and confirmed and expanded upon the Christological declarations from the first Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  Both councils spoke to the nature of Christ and the dogma of the Hypostatic Union – that Jesus Christ is one divine person who has existing for all eternity (the second person of the Trinity) and has two natures, divine and human.  The Council of Constantinople confirms this, as well as declared that Mary was ever-Virgin.  – “If anyone will not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, that which is before all ages from the Father, outside time and without a body, and secondly that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her: let him be anathema.”

But now the question – why does it matter if Mary was ever-Virgin, or not?  What does it have to do with a correct understanding of who Jesus is?  How does it affect the Gospel message of salvation or our lives today?  In order to better understand this, we need to step back into Jewish history and their understanding of the sacred. 

When God established with Moses His plan for the Israelites and their liturgical worship, He gave them extensive details on how to construct the tent of the meeting, the sanctuary, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies.  There are multiple chapters in the Book of Exodus dedicated to these specifics.  One example is the instructions for the table which would hold the Bread of the Presence“And you shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour libations; of pure gold you shall make them.  And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always.”  (Exodus 25:29-30)

Once completed, the worship space and everything in it had to be sanctified.  “The Lord spoke to Moses: Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.  With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand; you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy.”  (Exodus 30:22-29)

So, would the Israelites have ever considered it to be appropriate once an object was consecrated for service in the worship space that it could ever be used for something else?  Could the plates and dishes used for the Bread of the Presence if needed be removed and used to serve a regular meal?  There is after all nothing inherently wrong with the use of dishes in our normal everyday lives; we could even see this as a good thing.  But we know the Israelites would never have considered that to be appropriate, and Scripture recorded some dire consequences for those who did not recognize that once something has been consecrated it is set apart and dedicated to a singular purpose of service.

For example, the night Babylon fell King Belshazzar ordered the gold and silver goblets that had been taken from the temple be brought to him so he and his party could use them to drink wine.  When they did this, immediately they saw the fingers of a man’s hand appear and write on the wall.  Daniel was called to interpret the writing, and informed the king because of his act, God had numbered the days of his kingdom and brought it to an end.  That very night he was slain (Daniel 5). 

The Ark of the Covenant was known by the Israelites to be most sacred.  God’s command regarding the Ark was no one should touch it.  If it had to be moved, there were rings, poles were inserted into the rings and men then carried the Ark by the poles.  In 2 Samuel 6 we read however that at one point they decided to move the Ark not as instructed by God but rather on a cart pulled with oxen.  The oxen stumble, and a Levite named Uzzah instinctively reached out to steady the ark and keep it from falling.  He immediately died.  This Evangelical site has this to say about this incident:

Something of God’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant seems to be lost in the church today.  In the time of Moses, the people knew the awesomeness of God’s absolute holiness.  They had witnessed great miracles when the ark was with them.  They respected that God’s ways and thoughts are much higher than ours. (Isaiah 55:8-9).  In truth, the more we try to bring God down to our worldly way of thinking or reasoning, the further away He will seem to us.  Those who would draw near to God and have Him draw near to them are those who approach Him in reverence and holy fear.  Uzzah forgot that lesson, and the consequences were tragic.

Read more:

The concept of the sacred dwelling within their midst was central to the Israelites experience of God, and this Evangelical site is correct – this seems to be lost in the church today.  I would also agree with their statement that the more we try to bring God down into our worldly way of thinking, the further away He will seem to us.  As Catholics we are reminded of this with our consecrated altars and sacred vessels used to celebrate Eucharist, but we too can come to take these things for granted and fail to recognize the significance in what has been consecrated and set apart. 

So, what does all of that have to do with Mary, and her being ever-Virgin? 

When God created Adam and Eve, he gave them the command to “be fruitful and multiple” (Genesis 1:28).  Sexual relations within marriage were part of God’s plan, and the Catholic Church affirms these acts are “noble and honorable,” established by God himself, and “spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit.”  (CCC2362)

Yet we also know that in the world to come, there will be no marriage (Matthew 22:30) so these activities will cease.  They are for this world, at this time.  They are not part of our eternal destiny.  And even within this world we know there are some who will choose celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, like St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7:8, Matthew 19:12).  The option for celibacy even for a betrothed couple is outlined by St. Paul in Scripture as well (1 Corinthians 7:36-38) and was discussed here

While sexual relations within marriage are seen as a good thing, we also see in recognizing the sense of the sacred there are times when they are not appropriate.  Recorded in the Babylonian Talmud for example we learn according to Jewish tradition, after Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai, he remained celibate for the rest of his life even though he was married.  While that is not recorded in Scripture, we see other evidence in Scripture that even for a short encounter with the direct presence of God, fasting from sexual intercourse was expected.  In Exodus 19:15 it’s instructed that the Jews were to abstain from intercourse for three days before they gathered to meet God at Sinai.  In 1 Samuel 21:1-6 when David approached the high priest looking for bread for his men, he was told all the priest had was consecrated bread.  He was willing to give it to them to eat, “if only the young men have kept themselves from women.”  These restrictions in no way imply sexual relations within marriage are not God ordained and a good thing.  They do teach us that when directly encountering the sacred they are not appropriate. 

Mary and Joseph lived within a culture that understood God is sacred, and that which has been set apart or consecrated for God’s purpose was also sacred and not to be returned to a normal worldly purpose, no matter how good that purpose may be.  And through the mystery of the Incarnation, they had the most intimate, long term and direct encounter with God ever known in human experience.  In the person of Jesus, God dwelt in their home for their entire married lives.  When Gabriel told Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35), she became consecrated just as when the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:35).  In fact, the same Greek word (episkiasei) is used to describe both of those events. 

Therefore, it is no surprise within the first centuries of the Church it was known and universally accepted Mary remained a virgin.  Unlike our culture today, they retained an understanding of the sacred, and of what it meant to be set apart and consecrated for God.  It’s why when St. Jerome in the 4th century addressed the first attack on the belief Mary was ever-Virgin, he asked “would you have us believe that Joseph, though well acquainted with such surprising wonders, dared to touch the temple of God, the abode of the Holy Ghost, the mother of his Lord?”  While St. Joseph may not have recognized Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant, he certainly would have understood she had been set apart to become the Mother of God and was no longer living a normal life or experience.  When I read the words St. Paul wrote about the possibility a man who was betrothed would choose to keep his wife a virgin, I cannot think of a single person in history they would be more applicable to than St. Joseph – “But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well” (1 Corinthians 7:37).

One passage the early church fathers saw in clear relation to Mary is from Ezekiel 44:1-2“Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut.  And he said to me, ‘This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.’” The understanding of Mary as ever-Virgin is completely related to who Jesus Christ is – the Lord, the God of Israel.  It would have been unthinkable to them that any other person would be worthy to share the same womb or be born of the same woman that God Himself had used to come into the world.  It would have been unthinkable for St. Joseph to believe he would have been worthy to have the same woman carry and deliver and nurse his children who had carried God Himself in her womb.  That within much of our Christian culture today we would believe otherwise simply shows how far our culture has been removed from having a true understanding of the sacred.  Of this we can be certain – God has not changed.  The sense the Jewish people held of the sacred was given to them directly by God.  Unfortunately, we have often lost sight of that today.

Another problem I see with the idea Mary was not to remain a virgin all her life is that it very much objectifies Mary.  She would have essentially been “borrowed” by God from Joseph to bring Jesus into the world prior to her becoming the mother of Joseph’s children.  Rather, God entered a covenantal relationship with Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and St. Joseph assumed the role of their protector.  St. Joseph’s role as protector of Jesus and Mary was very necessary in a culture that would stone a woman believed to be caught in adultery (Leviticus 20:10Deuteronomy 22:22).  We clearly see him in this role when he led Mary and the child Jesus into Egypt to protect them from Herod.  There we see Scripture refer to them not as his wife and child, but rather as “the child and his mother” (Matthew 2:13).  Mary and Joseph had a singular focus on God who dwelled in their midst in a way that is unique in all of eternity.  They teach us that even in our marriages God must come first before all things, and sometimes this requires great sacrifice on our part.

In his book “Behold Your Mother,” Tim Staples says this – “If we Catholics pursued greater devotion to Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, we would be renewed in our sense of the sacred, and of what consecration to God truly means.  We would have stronger marriages and holier priests and religious.  We would approach the altar with more reverence.  We would be a changed people.  That’s a big deal!”

It is indeed a big deal.  It is little wonder that as the dogma of Mary being ever-Virgin has been rejected by a large part of the Christian world and even viewed as not that important by some Catholics, we have lost a great deal of the reverence we have known in the past, especially as we approach God through the sacraments.  Just as Moses was instructed to remove his shoes because God’s presence had made the ground holy (Exodus 3:5), by restoring this dogma to its proper perspective and understanding in our lives, we cannot help but come to a greater awareness of the holiness and mystery of our God and be changed for the better.

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