Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a five-part series of columns Father Jeffrey Kirby is writing for the month of October, which is dedicated to Mary and the rosary.
Fourth Truth: We stand before God with empty hands.
Awhile back, the topic of the perpetual virginity of Mary came up in a conversation with a good friend.
This friend argued that “it was clear” in the Bible that Mary was a virgin when she bore Christ. And it was also clear that she later had other children and was not a virgin her entire life.
He did not understand the church’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity and dismissed it as “another example” of the Catholic Church’s obsession and negativity towards human sexuality.
This friend asked me why it was so important that Mary remained a virgin. “Who cares?”
The views of my friend, however, seem themselves to express an unnoticed, contemporary obsession with sex. Perhaps Mary’s virginity isn’t a negative thing, but a positive reality that is meant to direct us to something higher.
The church could agree with our culture and ask who cares whether Mary was a virgin her entire life. But why does the culture care whether Mary was a virgin? What is the culture’s ideal and goal? What is its point?
In posing a counter-question, however, the church explains why it has received, believes and teaches Mary’s lifelong virginity. The church wants to present the ideal and goal of God in doing such a marvelous work in Mary. God wants us to understand his point.
Mary’s perpetual virginity is an exceptional gift to her and to us. It teaches us a lot about the creative power of God’s grace. As human beings, we stand with empty hands before God. We are unable to do anything good without him.
As a young virgin, Mary could not bear a son, but God can do all things. The Lord overshadowed her and a virgin conceived a son (Lk 1:35). In Mary’s virginity, we see a symbol of our own inability before God. More importantly, we see God’s complete power and ability to accomplish great things in us.
The teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity is not a negative view of human sexuality, but a sign of its perfection within the higher order of the spiritual life. The dual purposes of the sexual act are unitive and procreative: to unite the couple and be open to life. Both of these purposes reach their climax in Mary’s virginity.
Mary’s empty hands before the Lord began the time of fulfillment of God’s promises and preparations. The Messiah arrived, and God would again be united to his people. Mary’s “yes” to God began a new creation.
In his conception by the Holy Spirit and in his birth, Jesus did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity, but sanctified it for all time. Joseph remained her chaste spouse throughout his life, surrounded by Jesus’ cousins or half-siblings, perhaps from a previous marriage by Joseph.
Jesus was Mary’s only Son, but he was the first-born of many brothers and sisters (Rm 8:29; Rv 12:17) adopted in the Holy Spirit through faith.
The focus of the church’s important teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity is not her virginity in and of itself or her lack of sexual expression, but the wonderful plan and providence of God in salvation history.
Mary’s untouched body is an enduring icon of God’s utter holiness and of his creative power within and among us. As Mary herself tells us, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1:46-47).
Father Kirby is the parochial vicar at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken. To read more, visit his Web site at www.jeffrey-kirby.com.