Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) with Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), “Madonna on Floral Leaf,” 1619
“The greater purity, the greater virginity in the soul of the believer, the greater the apostolic fertility.”
Jan. 1 is perhaps a most confusing holyday for some Catholics (or at least a runner-up to the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which some contemporary Catholics also have a problem explaining). The Church now marks Jan. 1 as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God—which is an ancient feast but somewhat eclipsed by the post-Vatican II decline in popular Marian devotion and even Mariology. Before the 1969 reform of the Roman Calendar, Jan. 1 was marked as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, following the chronology in St. Luke’s Gospel (2:21) about Jesus being circumcised on the eighth day. Post-Vatican II popes also turned Jan. 1 into “World Day of Peace” and authorized a votive Mass for the occasion, while all of the preceding practically ignores what the rest of the world is celebrating that day: the New Year.
I intend to come back to these issues later but, for today, let’s stick to the Feast of Mary, Mother of God.
Ven. Tomás Morales (1908-1994), the founder of the secular movement, Crusaders of Mary, blends all these themes together in his meditation for Jan. 1. The integrating motif is our title: “Virgin Most Pure, Mother Most Life-Giving.”
We are perhaps prone to think of virginity and maternity as mutually exclusive, and in the normal human order of things, they are. Because the normal human order of things now is also an order marked by sin, there is always also the trace of concupiscence that affects sexual intercourse, which marks the end of physical virginity.
But the miracle of Mary is that, by the grace of God, virginity and maternity are not mutually exclusive: she is ever Virgin, and yet Mother of God. This is Mary’s privilege, having been conceived without sin (hence, the Immaculate Conception—the Christmas feasts in the middle tend to obscure the fact that, in the span of less than a month, we have two solemnities of Mary that, like bookends, encapsulate who she is, virgin and mother). But while it is her privilege, it also tells us something of human possibilities, because Mary was purely and simply human. Mary shows us what humanity could have been but for the self-inflicted injury of sin. To adapt a favorite phrase of Vatican II and St. John Paul II, Mary “reveals man to himself.”
Fr. Morales puts it thusly: “The most pure virginity, the most fertile maternity. A human paradox, a divine miracle: virginity and maternity appear to be antithetical and irreconcilable categories, but everything is possible with God. From the most pure Woman who ever existed is made the Mother most fertile.”
Ven. Tomás Morales reminds us that today’s feast has important roots in ancient Christianity. When the Council of Ephesus taught in A.D. 431 that Mary was “bearer of God” (Theotokos) and not just “bearer of Christ” (Christotokos), it was not just promoting devotion to Mary: it was making a statement about who Jesus is: true God and true man (as affirmed 20 years later at the Council of Chalcedon). Jesus is one person who has two complete natures, divine and human. Mothers give birth to persons, not just natures: the person who is the child of Mary is “true God and true man” and she is his mother.
And while Dec. 8 celebrates Mary’s Immaculate Conception (her conception without sin), its Gospel refers to Jesus’ Virginal Birth: “born of the Virgin Mary.”
Virginity, purity, chastity …. Paradoxical concepts today. Words that appear to have fallen out of discourse, at least public discourse. Ideas that elicit a certain incredulous roll of the eyes (at least among elite opinion-makers and certain groups profiting off of government funds to “combat teen pregnancy” by handing out condoms and contraceptives while enabling teens to obtain abortions without parental knowledge or consent) when abstinence is spoken of as a social policy goal. Quaint and pretty—but terribly unrealistic words and concepts.
Karol Wojtyła, in his seminal 1960 work, Love and Responsibility, acknowledged that modernity tends to see chastity (and allied concepts) primarily negative, as something foregone, rather than as something positive, as something for. I would argue that one can find some common roots with modernity’s distorted notion of freedom, which sees the latter primarily as negative – freedom from restraint – and not primarily positive: freedom for good.
The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God reminds us, however, that Mary’s virginity is not just something foregone, something negative, but something for, something positive. Mary’s virginity makes her motives and actions pure and other-centered, free of any selfish taint. But precisely because those truths are not just negative – something given up – but also positive – something given up for something better – Mary is most life-giving, most maternal.
She is Mother of God. She brings—she “bears”—God to her fellow man in the same flesh as her fellow man.
And she remains our Mother. She is Mother of the New People of God, the Church, the new Eve, the life-giving foundation of the living community of the faithful. And she, as human, is our model.
We don’t talk about purity or virginity. But we recognize the loss when real life steps in. When the disappointment of sexual “satisfaction” leaves people dissatisfied. “Is that all there is?”
We see the disappointing effects of impurity in our world and Church today. As Wojtyła noted almost 60 years ago, the experience of purity/impurity usually comes down to an experience of clean/unclean. And when we look at the situation of the Church today, we feel the grubby uncleanness with which the (primarily homosexual) sexual abuse scandal has soiled the Church. But when we look at other aspects of life, e.g., pornography addiction and its growing deleterious effect on marriage, we sense the same feeling.
Mary shows us a better way, a virginity that is life-giving because it is for something.
Fr. Morales observers the paradox: “The greater purity, the greater virginity in the soul of the believer, the greater the apostolic fertility.”
George Weigel was on to something when he recently wrote that the Pope might perhaps think about a synod on purity. The Church’s apostolic fertility worldwide could use the boost.