We continue our look at the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and its significance from MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON.
The notions of consecration and virginity have always been part of the Christian tradition. Indeed, as we have seen, pre-Christian tradition (both pagan and Jewish) also recognized at some instinctive level that the two went together. For virginity entails self-denial and, in some mysterious way, new life in God. It is a kind of sacrifice and, contrary to modern notions, it’s the sacrifice of something supremely good, not of something “dirty.” As David said, he would not offer “burnt offerings which cost me nothing” (1 Chron. 21:24). The entire principle of sacrifice rests upon the reality that something really good—not a piece of trash—is being offered to God.
Whoever offers the sacrifice recognizes that God is the author of the very gift being offered back to him—a gift that is (like the offerer himself), next to nothing in comparison to God. Our Father receives such gifts gladly, and pours out on the worshipper abundances of grace and glory absurdly beyond the value of the sacrifice. And so, says St. Paul, we go from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18).
The great exemplar of this pattern is, of course, Jesus himself, who is both God and High Priest—and a virgin totally consecrated to God. The power of such virginity is indisputable. And so our culture still recognizes the “fitness” of virginity in someone especially close to God. That’s why The Da Vinci Code irritates the devout and titillates those who delight in attacking the Gospel. Both sides recognize that the idea of a Jesus with an active sex life is a jab at the notion that he was specially consecrated to God. Yet though we feel this instinctively, we still need to ask why virginity is so bound up with the idea of consecration to God.
Certainly not because there’s something wrong with marriage. Indeed, it’s one of the great paradoxes of the Church that, while she exalts virginity as a higher estate than marriage, she simultaneously understands that Jesus established marriage—not virginity—as one of the seven sacraments.
Yes, you read that right: Virginity is a higher estate than marriage. That’s not some bitter anti-human enthusiasm left over from the Dark Ages. That’s Paul of Tarsus, who sums up the Catholic picture succinctly: “[H]e who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor. 7:38). St. Paul is just repeating the teaching of his master, whose disciples once shrugged at his teaching on lifetime fidelity in marriage by saying, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Those disciples were surprised when he didn’t correct their wisecrack, but agreed with them, saying, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matt. 19:10–12).
So the relationship between marital sex and virginity is not “bad/good,” but “good/better.” And the proof of it is Jesus himself, who lived a life of earthly virginity so he could live a life of heavenly marriage with his bride the Church. It’s the classic pattern: Die to yourself and live to God and you get back thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold more than you sacrificed (Matt. 13:23). Jesus gave up the good of marriage for the greater good of the heavenly wedding banquet. That’s why the “first of his signs” was done at a wedding (John 2:1–11). John’s point is not that the sign was the first in a series of signs. He means for us to understand this sign as the archetypal sign, the sign that makes sense of all the other signs. If you want to understand what Jesus is about, John is saying, start here. And if you want to know who the real bridegroom at the real wedding is, says John the Baptist, then understand that it’s Jesus, the virgin who turns out to be the bridegroom of all bridegrooms (John 3:29).
Such nuptial language pervades the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast (Matt. 22:1–14). Paul tells us that not just the wedding at Cana, but every marriage is an image of Christ the groom and his bride the Church (Eph. 5:31–32). The book of Revelation portrays the cosmic consummation of all things as the marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:5–7). The ultimate love story is the story of Jesus and the Church, according to Scripture. All our earthly love stories are just dim shadows of that reality. But love stories require two lovers, not just one. And that leads to the question, “What does total consecration in holiness look like, not for Jesus, but for his bride?” Happily, it’s a question that John has already answered. For as we already know, the holiest thing in the old covenant was the ark of the covenant. And for John, as for Luke, the ark of the New Covenant is Mary, who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and who is the cosmic woman of the Book of Revelation, and who therefore is the icon both of the virgin daughter of Zion and of the Church. And that, in turn, leads us to the reality summarized in the words of Ambrose of Milan: “Mary is the type of the Church.”
 Ambrose, Expos. Lc. II, 7: PL 15, 1555.