We continue our look at the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and its significance from MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON.
The first thing to note about this teaching is that it’s the natural extension of the dogma of the Virgin Birth. Many modern people assume that, at its core, the Virgin Birth was basically a stunt. That is, the common modern assumption is that the meaning of Mary’s virginity is pretty much exhausted when somebody says, “Wow! She had a kid without the assistance of a man! Cool! He must be God Incarnate or something! Let’s check him out!”
The problem is that this approach to the miraculous is constantly repudiated by Jesus:
Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’” (Matt. 4:5–7).
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed (Matt. 16:1–4).
God does perform miracles, but he does them in his own time and for his own reasons, not because curiosity seekers like Herod Antipas want to see nifty stunts as though God has to prove himself to them. Those people are met with silence, as Jesus met Herod Antipas’ requests with silence (Luke 23:8–9).
So if the Virgin Birth is not a stunt to prove that Jesus, being born of a virgin, must be one amazing guy, what is the point of it? The point is that the virginity of Mary is a sign, not a stunt. Stunts merely draw attention. They often don’t mean much beyond “HEY!” And, at any rate, Jesus’ Virgin Birth drew no attention at the time it took place. But signs—and especially divine signs—are crammed with meaning. That is, signs signify. So the question becomes, “What did the virginity of Mary signify?” And the answer of the Catholic Church is that Mary’s Perpetual Virginity signifies crucial things, both about the “person of Christ and his redemptive mission” and “the welcome Mary gave that mission on behalf of all men.” And since, like all divine signs, this one goes on signifying long after its immediate time, Mary’s virginity is appropriate, fitting, and significant on a perpetual basis.
God Is in Charge
The first thing the Perpetual Virginity of Mary makes clear is that the entire project of salvation is God’s initiative, not ours. That’s not me talking. That’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church—the Catholic Church that, as an Evangelical, I had often been told denies God’s grace and teaches “salvation by works”:
Mary’s virginity manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. “He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed . . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 503).
Jesus, like all of us children of God who call him our older brother, is born, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Jesus has God as his Father not as a stunt, but because this is the deepest truth about him. And because it’s true of him, it becomes true of us when we’re adopted by God through his grace.
Because of this, we are, so to speak, made members of a new human race headed by a New Adam (1 Cor. 15:45–50). But that New Adam has a corresponding figure: the New Eve whose “yes” to God allows life to enter into the world just as the “no” of the first Eve brought death into the world. And that “yes” is the fruit both of God’s predestining grace and of her own free assent:
Thus, giving her consent to God’s word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God’s grace:
As St. Irenaeus says, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.” Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . . : “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.” Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary “the Mother of the living” and frequently claim: “Death through Eve, life through Mary” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 494).
All of which means that Mary is identified with the family of the New Adam just as much as the old Eve was identified with the family of the old Adam. Therefore, Mary’s virginity is a sign of joy that echoes down the ages even more than the weeping from the fall of Eve.