By Fr. Brian Oldfield
Orthodox Christians of all stripes affirm the doctrine of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostles’ Creed describes him as being “conceived by the Holy Ghost” and “born of the Virgin Mary.” The virginity of Blessed Virgin Mary is a bedrock of Christian theology because it is the instrument by which the Lord took human nature to himself, yet remained untainted by original sin. None of the above is in disagreement, however, where many Christians begin to raise their collective eyebrows is when Catholic Christians speak of the doctrine of the “perpetual virginity” of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Surely, this is only some sort of strange doctrine leftover from the Middle Ages, right? The Bible clearly says that Jesus had brothers and sisters (St. Mark 6:3, St. Matthew 13:55-56), but furthermore, this isn’t the Victorian age. Sex is not “icky,” and how would the purity of Mary be compromised if she had natural marital relations with her husband Joseph? More perniciously, this strange doctrine might be a creeping gnostic notion within the Church that refuses to recognize the inherent goodness of the material world which God created.
While it is true the Bible says that Jesus has so-called siblings (ancient semitic cultures, as well as modern non-Western ones, use the term “brother” and “sister” less technically than we in the 21st c. West might) and I would further agree that sex is a very good gift from God which does not defile a person who uses it rightly, yet, I affirm Mary’s perpetual virginity. Why? Ultimately, because the doctrine is true, and I hope to briefly outline the theological contours of why that is the case.
Sex as symbolic
I want to address the retort that the Catholic position affirming the perpetual virginity of Mary is gnostic because it views sex as defiling even within the confines of the marriage bed. The perpetual virginity of Mary is not only true, but makes the most sense of the trajectory of Holy Scripture. While we can affirm that sex is a good gift from God, if the Mother of the Word Made Flesh had sex, then we would disorder the relationship between the natural and supernatural. Ephesians 5 is clear that natural marriage is the shadow of the supernatural marriage between Christ and the Church. Sex, therefore, not only has boundaries that govern its right use, but it also has a greater purpose in reflecting the life-bestowing union between God and creation.
When God created Adam and Eve, he gave them the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Their marital union produced fresh images of God akin to God himself forming Adam from the dust of the ground. In this way, human sex is a sign and symbol of the creative power of God. It’s a real and powerful symbol, but a symbol nonetheless. In fact, this symbol is so infused with divine power it has sacramental efficacy. The marital union binds a man and a woman together as one flesh, and it produces new human life; and this is only the symbol! The supernatural reality to which it points/imitates/reflects/participates is the Incarnation. In Christ we see perfect union between the divine and the human natures where his sacrifice wins redemption and produces new spiritual life within the Christian. Natural sex cannot be an end in of itself, but must point to something related to it, but better.
These fundamental truths lead us to the sacramental principle that the divine can and does have union with the material. As the Book of Common Prayer says, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us” (BCP pg. 581). I want to expand that idea beyond the idea that material means are made suitable vehicles for divine grace. We also must affirm that the natural finds its end and goal in the supernatural. Just as the body is the instrument of the soul, the material world, while good, must be under the governance of that which is immaterial. Natural marriage points beyond itself to supernatural marriage in Ephesians 5:31. St. Paul says that natural marriage, “is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” Jesus says that at the resurrection people will become like the angels and not marry nor be given in marriage because at the resurrection we will have the consummation of the supernatural marriage, and God will be all in all (St. Matt. 22:30). Sex and sacraments, like all the Old Testament types which looked forward to Christ, will finally come to an end in the light of the new heavens and the new earth. St. Paul also cryptically speaks of food in a similar way with, "Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them" (1 Cor. 6:13).
In light of the end of sex and the sacramental principle, I think we can start to see why the perpetual virginity of the BVM is not only true but makes the most of the Biblical trajectory. With her fiat, Mary was united to God by the Holy Ghost overshadowing her in a unique way, which not only brought the Savior into the world, but brings a bit of the eschaton to bear. She was united to God in the supernatural marriage that we all wait for at the resurrection. She did not participate in the natural act because she already had the supernatural fulfillment. She had union with God by bearing the Father’s only-begotten Son by the power of the Spirit.
In this way, Mariology becomes Anthropology. We are all looking forward to the consummate union and intimacy with God - the true and final end of marriage. Mary represents mankind writ large. Her blessedness in enjoying the fulfillment before the end is cut from the same cloth as Enoch or Elijah being translated by God before tasting death (Gen. 5:24, 2 Kings 2:3–9) or the Transfiguration where the Peter, James, and John witnessed Christ in his glory even before his death and resurrection (Luke 9:28–36). How inappropriate would it be for the Blessed Virgin Mary to have such unspeakable knowledge of God and still participate in the lesser act? Far from being a "gnostic impulse", the perpetual virginity of Mary keeps sex in its proper role: a good, but a temporary one which points beyond itself to something better: union with God Almighty himself.
Fr. Brian W. Oldfield is Rector of Saint Paul's Church in Melbourne, FL.