We have read numerous books on Mary that treated her virginity and motherhood. In many of these, biological terms closed us from Mary’s deeper, archetypal relation to us as a sign of the enriching feminine in our relations toward God.
Before we can understand Mary’s virginity in a fuller sense with greater enrichment for our own spiritual growth, let us recall the Church’s traditional teaching about her virginity as found in Scripture and in Apostolic Tradition.
The Church has promulgated a beautiful dogma, the dogma of “Immaculate Conception,” that Mary was conceived without sin. Because of the merits of the redemption of Jesus, her Son, she was preserved from all sins, even from the first moment of her conception. She was not corrupted in the mud of the earth. In fact, it is sin that corrupts. In Mother Mary, there is no sin at all! There is nothing corrupt in her body and mind.
Mary was a woman full of grace — that is the way the Angel addressed her, “Hail Mary, full of grace!” (Lk 1:28). At no time in her existence, she was under the slavery of Satan. At no time in her life, has she ever consented to sin. So she was full of grace, body and mind filled with grace.
The Virginal Birth
The Nicene Creed, recited by most Eastern and Western Christians as the basic statement of faith, professes: “and in Jesus Christ. . .conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. . . .” Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have, for more than 2,000 years, maintained an unwavering faith in the virginal birth. This means that Mary, as St. Luke records in his Gospel (Lk 1:35), conceived her son Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Writers in the fourth century, such as Athanasius, Cyril, Epiphanius, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzen, seemed to think this was not a very important issue. After the council of Ephesus (431) that solemnly decreed that Mary was truly the Mother of God, her sanctity was exalted, as well as her virginity before, during and after Jesus’ birth. We can say in this matter that the faith of Christians from the fourth century to the present is the same.
By the grace of God in her life, Mary has experienced more joy than pain, more of humble service to God than a bewildering panic of fear. She had only one virginal desire: “to serve God as He wished.” Her virginal desire was there from her birth. On the other hand, Christian virginity was born at the moment Mary was illumined by the Holy Spirit to surrender herself. In her fiat, she also understood this surrender as embracing perpetual virginity.
Born from Above
Karl Rahner proposes a much needed theological basis for appreciating Mary’s virginal surrender to God throughout her whole life. Jesus Christ is born without an earthly father because He always existed as the Word of His heavenly Father from all eternity. The Scripture “But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13) gives an important witness by St. John to the virginal birth. Jesus was born from above. There was no “will of human” but only “of God himself” that was the aggressive creative force bringing Him into our existence. However, the action was completely on the part of God.
Mary understood by the power of the Holy Spirit each day of her life before the Incarnation that everything about her came from God as a gift: her existence, her loved ones, the beauties of nature around her, the whole world that thrilled her heart and made her often shout out with joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord. . .He who is mighty has done great things to me!” (Lk 1:46-55). She knew that she was constantly being filled by the blessings and graces of Almighty God.
What Mary experienced in her soul and spirit, she also experienced in her body. God touched her profoundly and made her realize that she was total gift on every level. She wanted to surrender in the totality of her whole being in a willing submission to God. She wanted to live in a concrete manner what she experienced in prayer. For this reason, she was total virgin, always returning completely her whole being body, soul, and spirit to God.
Virginity as a fixed state of life freely chosen by Christian virgins is a charism given by God, “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Mt 19:12). St. Paul also preaches, “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32). This is much like the infusion that Mary received from the Holy Spirit to witness to God’s complete, condescending, graceful love.
An Apostolic Thrust
Those who had such experience not only yield themselves to God in faith and obedience, but they also witness to the primacy of grace and the ultimacy of God’s kingdom in a physical surrender of themselves. Such virginity also has an apostolic thrust too. In such virginity, we sacrifice ourselves for the Kingdom in a greater life of service to others in self-giving. And it also draws others to imitate and dedicate totally themselves as virgins to God.
Mary is the model of true human freedom. When we say true human freedom, it is not primarily being free to choose between good and evil; this is the lowest kind of freedom that human beings experience. The freedom that God intended is that which human beings possessed when He created them according to His image and likeness (Gn 1:26). It is the ability for human beings to know the indicative state of dignity that God’s free grace has bestowed on them and then to take their lives and return them wholly to God.
Mary had to love God, not through fear, restraint, or an imperative of duty or command of a law, but because her whole being recognized that she could not live without Him. She freely wished to determine herself at every moment according to God’s will. And in doing so, she knew she was the most free of all human beings. Living consciously toward God, for God, in total virginal surrender, brought her at each step to a greater freedom, a greater desire and ability to allow God to be supreme in her life.
Mary’s virginity was not about sterility but about holy self-giving and loving service. First, the Angel did not tell her to go to help her cousin Elizabeth in her pregnancy (Lk 1:39-45). Second, she sensitively moved to ask her son to do something in the wedding party in Cana (Jn 2:1-5). At the foot of the cross, she surrendered the peak of her human suffering in total gift to God (Jn 19:25-27). Her oneness with God poured her love out in service to all who needed it.
Virginity is a process of experiencing God’s outpouring of free love. We must return it with a growing surrender of ourselves to God. In this kind of virginity, we experience God’s free and total gift of Himself to us. This gift of God makes us free to serve Him and to bring His life into greater reality for this world. That is why Mary the Virgin becomes Mary the Mother of God.
Mary the Virgin is the promise of what humanity can be in this postmodern world because her virginity brings out spiritual enrichment in us and from us. Let us follow our Virgin Mother’s example and live a life of love and service to God, one another and nature.
FATHER SINGARAYAR, S.V.D., is a writer and contributor to international and national journals, including The Priest magazine. He has authored several books and is currently assistant director of Sarve Vikas Deep, a tribal mission station in India.