Friday, November 06, 2009

On Semper Virgo

Rev. Eric Brown brought up a helpful discussion over at Four and Twenty Blackbirds on the semper virgo--the question whether the Blessed Virgin Mary remained virgin all her life--when he asked for the theological reasons and ramifications of it for those who believe it. He was not interested in proof-texts or other arguments for or against; he merely wanted to know what sort of significance it held in the theological scheme. So I chimed in. I decided to cross post my response here. If you want to get the full discussion on the matter, check there. But here's what I said:

Semper virgo ultimately has to do with coming to terms with the fact of the Incarnation. Here's what I mean: generally--though not in every case--it seems to obtain that among people who reject semper virgo there is a corresponding view that the BVM was nothing really unique. She is given the nod as the mother of Jesus, even (grudgingly) the mother of God, but these are merely names, and anyone can live with names.

What I find particularly helpful among medieval and early meditations on the Virgin--although there are excesses--is evidence of an eagerness to grapple with the reality of the miracle of Christ's conception in her womb. This eagerness is something I sense has been lost on us.

Luther similarly opines somewhere that there is great gain to be had from meditation on the term "Mother of God."

The fact is that Mary is unique. The miracle that happened within her was a sharp and singular break from the ordinary manner of human reproduction. This miracle was enacted upon her flesh, resulting in the Incarnation of God within her. She became the vessel for Him who holds heaven and earth, and it was of her flesh that He partook. This is something that really cannot be parsed and analyzed as much as it can be wondered at. At such moments we must become more inclined simply to revere and adore than merely to understand.

And this reality means that she is no ordinary vessel any longer. Something has really and verifiably changed: the nativity of our Lord is an incontrovertible verification of the miracle.

Since this is so, it seems to me that the whole Church--including, incidentally, Joseph--must set this vessel apart from all others on earth.

She is the Holy Grail. One does not use the Holy Grail to drink milk or beer.

I would think that of all people struck by this reality, Joseph would have to be first. Remember also doubting Joseph, how it was necessary for the intervention of an angel to correct him on this matter. Would he not become reticent about taking this vessel into his chamber for common use? No law forbade it, but that's not the issue: she has become the theotokos. That changes things, really and physically.


Fr. Timothy D. May said...

This is always a worthwhile topic. Although it may cause some to bristle at first, after thoughtful theological reflection on the significance, of which your post is an example, it is a teaching one cannot give up. One may even say that Mary is "full of grace." Whatever the emphasis, the significance of this teaching is that it is always in relation to Christ and in this case, His Incarnation. Therefore the Church rightfully honors Mary.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

And see, ironically as it may be, it ends up being for strangely parallel reasons why I tend to. . . dislike much of the Semper Virgo discussion.

If I may so opine here, I shall dive in.

The wonder, the miracle of the ages, is beheld in the Virgin conceiving and bearing a Son. That God Himself takes flesh from the Virgin Mary and makes it His own. In this we see the fulfillment of all the promises of the Old Testament beginning to take shape - God Himself for our Salvation has come down.

With the wonders of the conception and the birth, let us never cease marveling! But then. . . sometimes it is moved beyond the conception and the birth - moved beyond the Incarnation. And the stories, the legends, the language used seems to shift the focus off of Christ and onto. . . virginity? Piety? There is no wonder of a woman remaining a virgin her life - many have done so. I tend to see a correlation between promoting the SV and not the incarnation, but the value of virginity and chastity (generally speaking).

It almost strikes me in the same way that a Zionist speaks of the nation of Israel - not realizing that in producing the Messiah, Israel's purpose is fulfilled, is complete.

If Mary were to later on have children with Joseph, it would have no impact upon the Incarnation - nor would it be demeaning to her. Yet, if we wish to assert and protect her virginity beyond Christ's birth, we seem to be doing disservice to the reason why Mary is Blessed and known as such for all times.

The rightful honoring of Mary should be done - but it does not depend upon perpetual virginity.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

In a way it does. Once again, her perpetual virginity is tied to the Incarnation, to her being the Mother of God. It is correct that the rightful honor of Mary does not depend only on this teaching of the semper virgo since Mary has also many other reasons to be honored. However, the honor accorded her because of the semper virgo is honor accorded her because of Christ. Therefore, all honor accorded her (and accorded to all the saints) is reflective of the honor accorded Christ Himself.

The lesser moves to the greater but this does not diminish the honor of the lesser who is blessed among women and is blessed above all. (No other human has been blessed to be the one to carry the Lord as she was.) This does not deny Scripture but is a greater appreciation of its fulfillment.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Fr. May,

I am not quite certain if I follow the way your logic flows. Are you saying that if Mary were to have had relations with Joseph after Christ's birth that this would thwart or nullify the Incarnation? Or that if the Incarnation is the Incarnation then Mary would not be able to consummate with Joseph? Or is this to say that if we do not always acknowledge her at the Blessed Virgin it robs her of her due respect (and that asserting that she might not have remained a Virgin afterward leads towards a diminishing of respect)?

I know the first two questions may seem less than delicate - I ask them simply to try to understand what you are saying.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

The previous post is directed to the relationship between the "rightful honoring" of Mary and the "perpetual virginity" or semper virgo.

You say that the one should not depend on the other. I say that this is correct since there is much more to Mary being the Mother of God than only the perpetual virginity. However, you tend to move in the direction of downplaying the perpetual virginity in connection with the honor of Mary. To this I add, "In a way it does." Not in a small way, but rather the Incarnation (if we are to concede that the Incarnation is a worthy teaching). So the perpetual virginity and the Incarnation go together and Mary is blessed among women and other things that Scripture attributes because of the Lord's mercy. Thus honoring her is honoring Christ through whom she is blessed. From a human standpoint we see Mary (the lesser) who points us to the Lord's mercy in Christ (the greater). And, on the other hand, we see that it is God's doing and merciful choosing of Mary to be the Blessed Virgin.

Discussion and speculation may continue till the end of time about Mary's sexual life following Jesus' birth, as is customary among protestants. However, this need not distract from the real direction of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is Christ, and Him Incarnate.

Without citing all the church fathers who accepted this teaching I am content to follow in their train and leave this teaching beyond my speculation. I hope this brief response helps clarify my comments.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

While I am not quite convinced by it's correctness, or of the logic of it, it does explain it your position better. Thank you.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

Thank you for your frankness and cordiality in this discussion. I need to understand more what is meant by "logic" since much of Scripture would need to be tossed if we approached it logically. Still, I appreciate your position.

This is the first level-headed online discussion on this topic that I can remember in recent years.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The Incarnation is dependent upon the Virgin birth - it is not dependent upon an idea of perpetual virginity. If Christ truly became man, then He truly had a mother who was human - and human mothers can have more than one child. Jesus does not have to be the only fruit of Mary's Womb to be truly Man.

That's where the I don't see things making sense. I don't see how the lack of the assertion of the Perpetual Virginity damages the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Of course, this is because I also believe that things that are holy, when their holy task is accomplished, may be repurposed to more mundane things -- there is probably a tie here into things like the endurance of the sacrament outside the sacramental action or ordination as an indelible mark.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

The Incarnation and the Virgin Birth do go together as you point out. While this connection does not necessitate the semper virgo nor does such a connection preclude it.

Implications vis-a-vis the sacrament and ordination did not come to mind, but now that you mention it . . .

Fr BFE said...

I note that you curiously refer to the endurance of the sacrament outside the sacramental action, which may indicate that you have adopted the Melanchthonian view of the sacrament as actio, as opposed to the view of Luther, who saw the sacrament as res.

The Lutheran Confessions' rejection of a sacrament outside the use is not intended to be an endorsement of the former view.

Peter said...

I'm with Eric on this one, and especially like his Zionist analogy. (And, I don't consider celibacy within marriage as a virtue, or that this would defile Mary. The desire for more children would I think be enhanced knowing that the world's redeemer had come). But, I realize I'm covering old ground. On a side note, I think this may be the background of the story of boy Jesus at the temple. How in the world could Joseph and Mary have forgotten their only son in Jerusalem? Single-child parents tend to dote. Well, my guess is that they were busy tending to their growing brood of boys and girls.

Peter said...

I also don't think that it's helpful to think of marital relations as "common use," as if it were merely a bodily function. Why not recognize such intimacy as sacred, set apart, and an expression of consummating love through which God continues his act of creation?

Fr BFE said...

Peter: on the visit of the holy family to Jerusalem, we are told that they supposed Jesus to be in the company, which suggests that there was a large group of relatives together. A twelve-year-old boy, particularly the most responsible in history, would not be much of a concern here, even for doting parents.

And on the question of 'common' use, I'll just reiterate, at the risk of covering old ground, that by common I do not mean profane. I mean ordinary; and the perpetual virginity of Mary seeks (among other things) to set Jesus' conception apart from all others.

Peter said...
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Peter said...

I think I differ here. Intimacy in marriage is not ordinary, it is a beautiful expression of love. It is the way the a man shows his love to his wife and becomes one with her. This is what marriage is all about. Why should Mary become less by not doing that which God has declared holy?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Fr. BFE,

I think I would say that a sacrament is a "res" - but it is a res that is bound to an office, to a duty, to a function. Outside that "actio" it is not bound to be or remain that "res". As such, I cannot say conclusively that outside the actio of the sacrament that it is and remains the Lord's Body and Blood (for I have no promise or Word to that effect), but neither can I say that it most certainly is not.

Likewise - I know that even through the "actio" of giving birth to Christ, that Mary was a virgin. Whether or not she remained so afterward - I know not. I see no reason for her theologically to need to remain, so hence then it would be up to Christian freedom - a thing between her and her husband to whom she was given by God.

Peter said...
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