Another Theology of the Body, Part IX--Sexuality, Purity, and Mary

The Gospel reading for this Sunday on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (assuming you attended a church that uses the Common Lectionary or one of its predecessors or derivatives--basically Catholics and most Mainline Protestants) is one of the most famous in the entirety of the Gospels--the Annunciation.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 

The child to be born of Mary comes, not from a human father, but directly from God.  According to the Scriptural witness, Mary was a virgin at the time of this miraculous event.  Traditional Christian reflection and theology, however, takes this a step further, and asserts that Mary was a perpetual virgin.

This is in tension with the mentions of Jesus's "brothers" (see, e.g., Mark 6:1-5) in other sections of the Gospels.  There are explanations for these issues (they are really half-brothers, "brothers" encompasses relatives, etc.), but at a minimum you have to do some work to get this conclusion.  Moreover, this notion of virginity is more expansive than just not having sex.  Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it:

The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it." and so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin"  (CCC 499).

"Virginal integrity."  To put a finer point on it, Catholic theology teaches that Mary's hymen remained permanently intact, notwithstanding giving birth to Jesus.

The theology of the perpetual virginity of Mary is both a product of, and an engine that generates, very problematic theological ideas about sexuality, especially female sexuality.  It's less about the conclusion reached (i.e., Mary was a perpetual virgin), than about the theological process that leads to that conclusion.

Think of it this way--what theological problem is the perpetual virginity of Mary trying to solve?  Or, perhaps more accurately, what theological problem is created by the possibility that Mary was not a life-long virgin, which is solved by the doctrine of perpetual virginity?  Why would the idea that Mary had sex after giving birth to Jesus--or even that she did not have an intact hymen--be a source of concern to theologians?  Remember, presumably these brothers of Jesus are children of Joseph, her husband.  Why is the idea that Mary had sex with her husband problematic?

It's pretty obvious--this theology is intrinsically linked to the idea that sexuality and holiness are essentially opposed.  Virginity, even in its crude physical form, is of God, and a lack of virginity is not.  To say that Mary is ever-virgin is to say that she has the maximum possible holiness; in the alternative, to say that Mary did have sex would be to diminish her holiness.  As the Catechism says:

Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith "unadulterated by any doubt", and of her undivided gift of herself to God's will.  (CCC 506).

To have sex is to "doubt," to "divide" oneself, regardless of the circumstances.  By extension, when people (especially women) have sex or break their hymen, they become lessened, at least in terms of holiness.  Virginity is pure, and sexuality is impure.

The perpetual virginity of Mary is a Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) idea, but the underlying theology that leads to it is pervasive in traditional forms of Christianity.  Consider the Evangelical "purity culture."  Sure, this culture ostensibly values married sexual activity.  But that represents the exception to the baseline view of sexuality, which is that sexuality can be corrupting to the holiness and integrity of the person (again, especially the woman).  Here's an example of the rhetoric, from Sarah Bessey.

He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”

And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!

“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”

Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”

No amount of praise for married sex counteracts the basic message that sexuality is degrading and at least capable of permanently debasing a person.  Losing a hymen, whether actually or metaphorically, is to be reduced, except perhaps under a constrained set of circumstances like a wedding night.

This is a theology that tells people, and especially women, that their sexuality is something to be feared.  And, once that idea is in place, it follows that sexuality is something to be avoided.  Like Mary did.

Once again, we come back to the basic thesis of this series---traditional Christian theology contains within it a seed of negativity, even hatred, of sexuality.  Theological ideas develop out of that seed, and they impact many areas of Christian thought.  Once you begin to believe that sexuality is bad, then you have to interpret Scriptural figures and questions, such as Mary, through that lens.  And that lens's focus turns on real people living real lives right now.

If on the other hand you believe, as I do, that this negative attitude toward sexuality is not fundamental to the message of the Gospel, and that it can, and should, be excised, then you are going to have to look hard at some doctrines that both have a long pedigree and no immediate connection to the controversial sexual questions.  You have to ask--why is this doctrine in place?  What motivated theologians to explore this question?  How much of it is a product of that fear?  And if so, how should we look at it with fresh eyes?

It is not simply that a positive view of sexuality leads to a different conclusion on whether Mary was a virgin after the birth of Jesus.  It's that a positive view of sexuality would lead you to never ask the question in the first place.


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