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Photo: Virgin Mary by Sassoferrato, 17th century. Lobkowicz Palace, Prague, Czech Republic.
Part 9: Mary's Perpetual Virginity and Her Total Consecration to God
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jul 23, 2015)
The following is the ninth part of our Mary 101 series.
Among many non-Catholics, the "strangeness" of the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity lies with the suspicion that it stems from a generally negative attitude toward human sexuality in the Catholic tradition, a defect allegedly stretching back to the earliest centuries of the Church. Perhaps sex was always seen by the Catholic Church as something too worldly, too tied in with the body, a distraction from things pertaining to the human spirit and to eternal life.
Indeed, there have been times and places in Catholic history where a relatively anti-body and anti-sex mentality seemed to prevail. First century Palestine, however — the world of Mary, Joseph, and the apostolic writers of the New Testament — was not one of them. Conjugal relations between husband and wife, in that time, and especially among the Jews, were generally held to be good and wholesome, a created gift of God for the procreation of creatures in his "image" (Gen 1: 26-27).
Catholic scholar Roch Kereszty, O.Cist., explains that even in the era of the Church Fathers several centuries later, when relatively negative attitudes toward human sexuality were more widespread, the Fathers generally did not argue that Mary must have preserved her virginity in order to keep her from any imagined "evil" of sexual intercourse:
The patristic argument for the perpetual virginity of Mary is ... based on the understanding of virginity as a total consecration to God in pure faith and undivided love. They interpret Lk 1:34 as expressing the firm intention (or vow) of Mary to dedicate herself to God as a virgin; such a dedication must be total and irrevocable. They also see in the womb of Mary the New Ark of God overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the New Temple forever sanctified by God's presence. No man may enter that sanctuary since God has made it his own [cf Ezk 44:1-3]. (Roch Kereszty, Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology. New York: Society of St. Paul, 2002, p.80)
Let's look at this passage from Ezekiel more closely. In Ezekiel 44 the prophet was given a vision of the Temple in Jerusalem that would one day be rebuilt and of the significance of the east gate of the Temple:
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.
Why did the ancient Fathers of the Church see in this "east gate" a symbol of the total consecration to God of the Virgin Mary? Because in John 2:19 Jesus calls himself — in fact, his body — the true Temple of the Lord. So if Jesus' body is the true fulfillment of Ezekiel's vision of the Temple in Ez 44, then who or what is the "east gate" through which only the Lord could enter that Temple? Mary is the true and natural fulfillment of this prophecy, for it was through her alone that the Lord entered his Temple — that is, united himself with human flesh in the Incarnation. And that is why this east gate, specially consecrated to God for his use, is always to remain shut. As St. Jerome wrote back in the fourth century:
Only Christ opened the doors of the virginal womb, which continued to remain closed, however. This is the closed eastern gate, through which only the high priest may enter and exit and which nevertheless is always closed. (Against the Pelagians 2:4)
Our Protestant brothers and sisters usually want to know where we get this whole idea of "total consecration to God" in the form of "consecrated virginity."
"Where in the Bible do you find that?" they ask. As Catholics, we need to remember that most Protestant churches do not have a tradition of celibate priests or of consecrated virgins living under vows in "religious life," so this whole notion of the importance of this special vocation in the Church can be hard for them to grasp at first.
The idea of consecrated virginity, however, appears in several places in the New Testament. For example, Jesus spoke of those specially called by God to embrace a life of celibacy, referring to them metaphorically as "eunuchs" for the sake of the service of his Kingdom (Mt 19:10-12), and St. Paul wrote of a special Christian calling to virginity, embraced in order to serve God with an undivided heart (I Cor 7:1-8, 32-35). This vocation was not entirely unknown to the Jews, who already had the example of the divinely commanded celibacy of the prophet Jeremiah from ancient times (Jer 16:1-4). Saint Paul even gives instructions to his missionary delegate Timothy about how to guide and govern the early Christian widows who had consecrated the remainder of their lives in celibacy to God (see I Timothy 5: 5, 9-12). As we shall see in our next article, the heart of Mary, full of divine grace, was more completely dedicated to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ than the heart of any other creature — so she must have embraced the way of life that best enabled her to remain totally consecrated to him, dedicated to him alone.
Even the whole notion of "consecrating" someone or something to God may sound foreign to non-Catholic ears. But, once again, the notion is entirely biblical. In Scripture, to "consecrate" someone or something to God was to set it apart for God, for his exclusive and holy use. For example, the Old Testament law is filled with references to aspects of Jewish worship that were set aside for holy use alone: the priests (Ex 29:1-9), the priestly garments (Ex 28:40-43), the offerings (Ex 29:31-34) the Sanctuary (2 Chr 30:8), the Ark of the Covenant (Num 4:17-20), the Nazirite vow (Jg 13:3-5). To use any of these consecrated things for other than a holy use was considered a sacrilege. In the New Testament St. Paul twice has his head shaved as a sign of his special vow of consecration to God (Acts 18:18 and 21: 23-24).
The Blessed Virgin Mary was chosen and set apart by God, with her consent, for the most important holy purpose of all. Tim Staples explains in Behold Your Mother:
Our Blessed Mother was consecrated to God in the context of a nuptial union with God [i.e., to be, in a sense, the spouse of the Holy Spirit] for the specific and sacred purpose of bringing Christ into the world for the salvation of all. ...
In Scripture, once something or someone is consecrated or set apart for God's use, often accompanied by sacred vows, the thing or person so consecrated is generally not to be used for anything else. This has obvious implications for Mary's perpetual virginity. If Mary was consecrated to God in a nuptial union in order to bring forth Christ, there would be no question of Joseph's ever having conjugal relations with her. (p.158)
Saint Jerome summed it up best:
Would he [Joseph], who knew such great wonders, have dared to touch the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the Mother of His Lord? (On the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary Against Helvidius,7)
All this is not to say, of course, that Mary and Joseph lacked real marital affection for each other. Surely their affection for each other was more exalted by grace in love and tenderness than any other spousal relationship could ever be! And no doubt it was expressed in appropriate hugs, kisses, and caresses just as authentic human love always ought to be. They were not bodiless creatures, after all, but expressed their love for each other through their bodies.
At the same time, there knew the deep mystery of the special consecration of Mary's body to God's plan, a mystery that both would have respected and cherished. Joseph and Mary could be so closely bonded to each other in tenderness and love precisely because, first and foremost, they were so completely consecrated to God.
Follow the entire Mary 101 series.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.