OUR LADY INTENDED TO REMAIN A VIRGIN
Pope John Paul II
Mary’s decision to remain a virgin would have been unusual in her time, but we must not forget the remarkable presence of grace throughout her life
"The extraordinary case of the Virgin of Nazareth must not let us fall into the error of tying her inner dispositions completely to the mentality of her surroundings, thereby eliminating the uniqueness of the mystery that came to pass in her", the Holy Father said at the General Audience of Wednesday, 24 July, as he reflected on Mary's intention to remain a virgin. Here is a translation of his catechesis, which was the 27th in the series on the Blessed Mother and was given in Italian.
1. Mary asks a question of the angel who tells her of Jesus' conception and birth: "How can this be since I do not know man" (Lk 1:34). Such a query seems surprising, to say the least, if we call to mind the biblical accounts that relate the announcement of an extraordinary birth to a childless woman. Those cases concerned married women who were naturally sterile, to whom God gave the gift of a child through their normal conjugal life (1 Sm 1:19-20), in response to their anguished prayers (cf. Gn 15:2; 30:22-23; 1 Sm. 1:10; Lk 1:13).
Mary receives the angel's message in a different situation. She is not a married woman with problems of sterility; by a voluntary choice she intends to remain a virgin. Therefore her intention of virginity, the fruit of her love for the Lord, appears to be an obstacle to the motherhood announced to her.
At first sight, Mary's words would seem merely to express only her present state of virginity: Mary would affirm that she does not "know" man, that is, that she is a virgin. Nevertheless, the context in which the question is asked: "How can this be?", and the affirmation that follows: "since I do not know man", emphasize both Mary's present virginity and her intention to remain a virgin. The expression she uses, with the verb in the present tense, reveals the permanence and continuity of her state.
Mary co-operated fully with God's will
2. Mentioning this difficulty, Mary does not at all oppose the divine plan, but shows her intention to conform totally to it. Moreover, the girl from Nazareth always lived in full harmony with the divine will and had chosen a virginal life with the intention of pleasing the Lord. In fact, her intention of virginity disposed her to accept God's will "with all her human and feminine 'I', and this response of faith included both perfect co-operation with the ‘grace of God that precedes and assists' and perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit" (Redemptoris Mater,n. 13).
To some, Mary's words and intentions appear improbable, since in the Jewish world virginity was considered neither a value nor an ideal to be pursued. The same Old Testament writings confirm this in several well-known episodes and expressions. In the Book of Judges, for example, Jephthah's daughter who, having to face death while still young and unmarried, bewails her virginity, that is, she laments that she has been unable to marry (Jgs 11:38). Marriage, moreover, by virtue of the divine command, "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gn 1:28), is considered woman's natural vocation which involves the joys and sufferings that go with motherhood.
3. In order better to understand the context in which Mary's decision came to maturity it is necessary to remember that in the period immediately preceding the beginning of the Christian era, a certain positive attitude to virginity began to appear in some Jewish circles. For example, the Essenes, of whom many important historical testimonies have been found at Qumran, lived in celibacy or restricted the use of marriage because of community life and the search for greater intimacy with God.
Furthermore, in Egypt there was a community of women who, associated with the Essene spirituality, observed continence. These women, the Therapeutae, belonging to a sect described by Philo of Alexandria (De Vita Contemplativa,21-90), were dedicated to contemplation and sought wisdom.
It does not seem that Mary ever knew about these Jewish religious groups which practised the ideal of celibacy and virginity. But the fact that John the Baptist probably lived a celibate life and that in the community of his disciples it was held in high esteem would support the supposition that Mary's choice of virginity belonged to this new cultural and religious context.
4. However, the extraordinary case of the Virgin of Nazareth must not lead us into the error of tying her inner dispositions completely to the mentality of her surroundings, thereby eliminating the uniqueness of the mystery that came to pass in her. In particular, we must not forget that, from the very beginning of her life, Mary received a wondrous grace, recognized by the angel at the moment of the Annunciation. "Full of grace'' (Lk 1:28), Mary was enriched with a perfection of holiness that, according to the Church's interpretation, goes back to the very first moment of her existence: the unique privilege of the Immaculate Conception influenced the whole development of the young woman of Nazareth's spiritual life.
The Lord transforms Mary's poverty into riches
Thus it should be maintained that Mary was guided to the ideal of virginity by an exceptional inspiration of that same Holy Spirit who, in the course of the Church's history, will spur many women to the way of virginal consecration.
The singular presence of grace in Mary's life leads to the conclusion that the young girl was committed to virginity. Filled with the Lord's exceptional gifts from the beginning of her life, she was oriented to a total gift of self—body and soul—to God, in the offering of herself as a virgin.
In addition, her aspiration to the virginal life was in harmony with that "poverty" before God which the Old Testament holds in high esteem. Fully committing herself to this path, Mary also gives up motherhood, woman's personal treasure, so deeply appreciated in Israel. Thus she "stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from him" (Lumen gentium, n. 55). However, presenting herself to God as poor and aiming only at spiritual fruitfulness, the fruit of divine love, at the moment of the Annunciation, Mary discovers that the Lord has transformed her poverty into riches: she will be the Virgin Mother of the Son of the Most High. Later she will also discover that her motherhood is destined to extend to all men, whom the Son came to save (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 501).
Weekly Edition in English
31 July 1996, page 7
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