Mary’s Virginity: the Form of Christian Life and the Remedy for the “Heresy of Formlessness”
This article is based on a book already published in Italian and to be published shortly in French and in English translation, entitled ‘Semper Virgo, Mary’s Virginity as the Christian Form‘, by Father Serafino M. Lanzetta, theologian, professor at the Faculty of Theology of Lugano, and author of numerous works in Mariology and ecclesiology.
The virginity of Mary is a golden thread that stitches together all the elements of the Christian Faith, becoming one with the dogma that is at the heart of the Faith, the Incarnation of the Word, to the point that, if one denies the virginity of Mary, the Incarnation also is disbelieved. In ancient times as well as in recent times, a “renewed” way of talking about the mystery of Mary often turns into a ditching of the very same mystery, accompanied by a loss of understanding of the value virginity and chastity, and ends up discarding the sound doctrine perennially taught by the Church.
Today the mystery of ecclesiastical celibacy is being questioned, on the pretext that it is not a definitive dogma, but a mere disciplinary item connected to the priesthood. This appeal, which seems inclined to exploit the grave scandals of pedophilia, neglects an essential fact: celibacy did not arise from a prohibition to marry, but as a means to achieve the perfect continence for the Kingdom of Heaven. Manipulating its identity by making it appear as the mere disciplinary intransigence of a medieval Church, aside from not solving the problem of shrinking vocations, manifests the void of meaning smiting today’s Church; the very same hollowness that leads to the sexual abuses among the clergy, that is, the hollowed-out meaning of the value of chastity and purity, both echoes of Mary’s virginity.
The revisionist attempt to reinterpret ecclesiastical celibacy is accompanied by another maneuver that aims to reduce the indissolubility of marriage. Giving Communion to the divorced and remarried implies this reduction, presented moreover under the mantle of mercy. Already beforehand, however, religious life had been reduced to a mere option among many others. The notion of Christian perfection has been watered down, with religious life no longer being presented as a “state of perfection”, which also affects marriage.
This craving for novelty and the theological deviations that follow from it are rooted in a diminished understanding of the mystery of She who is the Mother and model of all Christians because She is the Christian form. Only if we safeguard intact the mystery of Mary’s perpetual virginity will our eyes be sufficiently clear-sighted to contemplate God. If, on the contrary, we water it down, soon the truth of the entire Christian mystery, in all its breadth and depth, will be obscured.
Marriage, even if valued as an ideal, will have nothing more to say to us other than that man and woman are not indissolubly made for one another, but are rather at the service of each other according to the fashions of the time. We lack a vision capable of going beyond the limits of the ephemeral. The anthropological revolution has been accomplished in the Church, but man has lost an essential aspect of his being: his soul. Left unattended, it is now practically dead. By undoing the chastity of love, we have lost the notion of truth, especially that of virginity being superior to all states of life which, once abandoned, results in the leveling of everything, to the point of eliminating all distinctions.
It is essential that we safeguard the truth of Mary’s immaculate virginity. Her virginity is the form of Christianity, the immaculate essence of Christian life, which confers a proper existence to all states of life, uniting them harmoniously within a deep-seated hierarchy. First, that which is the most perfect: the virginity of Christ and Mary, followed by the religious vocation and that of the celibate priesthood and celibate lay life, followed by widowhood chosen for the love of Christ; and lastly by matrimony with its call to live in conjugal chastity, in imitation of Mary’s spiritual virginity, by remaining faithful to the primary end of marriage, procreation, creating for God and with God. This hierarchy of perfection hinges on Mary’s virginity. In Her we are preserved from the itching for novelty that waters down the Faith, the Sacraments and the mystery of the Church, virgin and mother.
Marriage and virginity can be mutually beneficial if both are in harmony with Mary’s virginity, and it is precisely by virtue of this bond that they can find their distinctiveness and the hierarchy necessary to safeguard God’s primacy above all things. Mary’s virginity says to man that virginity, or celibacy, is the most excellent state of life since it is intimately connected to God’s eternity and, at the same time, that marriage can in no wise be debased, since it offers the natural and sacramental foundation of spousal love, which grows and is perfected in the measure in which it reaches union with God.
Mary’s virginity is the “ladder” that connects Heaven and earth, soaring above the things of man, carrying them upwards to God. However, it can serve in the Church as a “ladder” that raises men heavenwards only if it is also recognized as the “form” of Christian life, as the most perfect “type” and principle that bestows perfection to things, since it confers to them their being. The Virgin Mary is the form that shapes Christian being.
Form is primarily the principle that determines the essence of matter, conferring to it its perfection. Aristotle defines the form as the cause of things and as the quintessential “species” because it specifies the things that are, conferring to them their primary perfection, which is indeed their being. The form allows things to move from the state of potentiality to that of actuality, namely from the pure possibility of being to the act of existing. Existence, which is the “species” of being in the metaphysical sense, is, consequently, also the first and ultimate perfection of being. The essence of this form, understood in the Aristotelian sense, can be transferred analogically to the Blessed Virgin Mary; and more precisely, to her virginity, as the initial and final cause of being Christian.
Mary’s virginity is the Christian form because it acts as the structural perfection of Christian life. It is the original and definitive perfection, the beginning but also the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the beginning, because Mary’s perpetual virginity is the expression of her being the immaculate creation of God without stain and corruption, as well as Immaculate creation for God, so He can become flesh and dwell among us. It is the fulfillment because it signifies the way of being in God forever, in an eternity of heavenly contemplation. It is the finality of a love that does not dissipate, does not change, and does not perish.
Moreover, Mary’s virginity is the form of Christianity because it is the maternal womb that forges all vocations, giving them their unity and hierarchical distinction. We feel the need for a form especially today, at a time of “heresy of formlessness”, to use the expression of Martin Mosebach. A sort of amorphism prevails when the differences between the states of life are compressed and conflated into the notion of perfection, without realizing, however, that perfection is the aim of all states of life rather than being their common element. Such deviation from steadfast theological development produces Christian amorphism. Mary’s virginity is the Christian form since she is the quintessential “species” that throughout history reminds us of what Christianity actually is. When a child allows himself to be formed by his Mother, and consciously welcomes this maternal form, then Mary’s Heart opens up to him and already anticipates in that moment the new heavens and the new earth to come.
Mary’s virginity is the form that unites virginity and spousal love. It is the “bridal chamber” from which Christ comes forth to unite to himself, in his body taken from the Virgin, his mystical Body, the Church. Mary’s virginity gives birth to Christ and thus gives form to the Church. Mary is the type among virgins who remain virgin in their body and of all those who must remain virgin in spirit. This is a notion dear to St. Augustine who, in a sermon on the Nativity, speaks of Christ coming forth “like a bridegroom from his nuptial-chamber, which is to say from the virginal womb, leaving his Mother’s integrity inviolate”. The Word, by uniting human nature to himself in Mary’s virginal nuptial-chamber, united the virginal, chaste Church to himself, so that everyone may possess an untainted heart. Her womb prepares the birth of the Church, bride of Christ, where all souls are promised to the one bridegroom, and they themselves promise their fidelity to Christ. All members of Christ participate in a virginal chastity, which the Church is rich in because she imitates the Virgin Mary, by becoming, like her, virgin for her exclusive love of Christ, and mother for her capacity to generate men to God.
Mary is Christ’s bride and that is precisely how she unites the Church to Christ in a spousal way. Saint Maximus the Confessor, commenting on the mystery of the Annunciation, attributes to the Holy Spirit Mary’s adornment as bride of the Lord who becomes incarnate in her. He addresses Mary, recalling what the Angel says to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” in order to “prepare and adorn you as the bride worthy of the Lord, and to sanctify from the beginning your holy body and soul adorned with godly virtues. And immediately your immortal bridegroom and Son, who is the power of the Most High, will overshadow you, for Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Mary unites virginity and spousal love, epitomizing them in her union with Christ.
Virginity leads to spousal love which, in turn, must always remain anchored to virginity, in all the various states of Christian life, and always aiming towards it, even when it is expressed in married love. Spousal love is always the virginity of love, both when it is fulfilled in priestly celibacy, and when it is experienced in marriage as chastity, namely as the truth of indissoluble and fruitful love. The Virgin Mary is therefore, once again, the form of Christian life because she expresses in her being both virginity and spousal love. The Church sees in Mary a unity of all the diverse states of life of her children, enveloping them in this spousal love, which is ever more perfect the more one draws closer to that of the Virgin Mary, and then to that of Christ himself.
The virginity of Mary is the form that unites virginity and martyrdom, that is, complete self-donation, ushered in by virginity and fulfilled by martyrdom. Thus, purity and sacrifice become intertwined to the point of sealing in a sacrificial offering the supreme act of charity, which is spousal love. Spousal love and martyrdom are made one. This emerges, for example, in St. Ambrose’s praise of the martyr St. Agnes. He describes the union, within Agnes the martyr, of the spouse who sets off for her nuptial-chamber and of the virgin who runs in haste to the place of her martyrdom. The bridal-chamber of the virginal nuptials will become scarlet with the blood of this little lamb of Christ. Thus writes St. Ambrose: “A bride would never hasten to her nuptials with so glad a heart, or so light a step, as this young virgin marches to the place of execution. She is decked not with the blithesome show of plaited tresses, but with Christ; she is wreathed not with flowers, but with purity. All stood weeping; Agnes shed not a tear.” Virginity and martyrdom are intertwined in spousal love, in the ultimate witness of cruel martyrdom.
Through spousal love with Christ, which began in Mary’s virginity, everyone in the Church is called to witness to their belonging to Christ, by becoming a “host of love”, a sacrifice for God and for the brethren. We could certainly see Mary, Virgo and Sponsa, as an exemplum of virginal spousal-love in the martyrdom that is the model of the entire Church. This presupposes that we speak of Mary as a true co-operatrix in our salvation, as the New Eve alongside Christ as the New Adam, offering herself on Calvary. In short: Mary as the Co-Redemptrix of humanity.
In Mary and in her being Christ’s virginal spouse, we have the beginning of martyrdom as the definitive witness of the Lord. The first and most cruel martyrdom was indeed experienced by Her when, standing at the foot of the Cross, She sacrificed her Son for all of us and, with Him, sacrificed herself for our salvation, as a martyr of love and sorrow. Christian life will forever be inscribed in this indissoluble couple: virginal and martyrial spousal love as the supreme holocaust of love.
A form was impressed on Christianity from its very first appearance in the world with the birth of Our Lord, and that form was immediately discernible in the virginal and sacrificial womb of Our Lady, her nuptial-chamber. In Her, spousal love becomes sacrificial. Religious life can recover its essence by rediscovering the inestimable value of an oblative spirituality, which places the gift of self at its center, to the point of complete self-sacrifice and even martyrdom; whilst marriage can rely on the indissolubility of chaste and fruitful love.
If Our Lady is placed once again at the center, everything can flourish once more because the proper form of all things will be restored. She is the original type which must be preserved to stop paying the high price of a silent and inevitable collapse into a deformed and sacrilegious amorphism of principles and life. More must be done to recover this form.
Father Serafino M. Lanzetta