A Reply to Two Questions
The following two questions were addressed to me by a local bible study group.
Why is Mary’s perpetual virginity so important to the Catholic faith?
This is a good question, and difficult to answer. What is the significance of Mary’s perpetual virginity? Sexual union is a marital act, and in marriage, the two (male and female) give themselves entirely and completely to one another. Marriage is a one flesh union, and the sexual act is expressive of that one body union. The sexual act has a twofold goodness: 1) it is an expression and celebration of marital union, and 2) it is procreative.
Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, who says: “Let it be done to me according to your word”. She offers herself, but her offering is complete and total. She gives her body, so to speak, and the result is the conception of the Son of God in her womb. So there is a kind of marriage here (something like a marriage). There is a union between Mary and the Holy Spirit, and that union results in the conception of the Messiah. Mary’s virginity expresses the fact that she belongs completely and totally (which includes her body) to God the Holy Spirit. And so, it is fitting that Mary was not “married” in the complete sense (which would involve sexual consummation). Joseph was the husband of Mary, but we really don’t have a consummated marriage here. But it is interesting because there is a sense in which the Holy Spirit is a kind of Motherhood in the heart of the Trinity (there is a feminine element in God, so to speak). The Holy Spirit is the Uncreated Immaculate Conception, while Mary is the created immaculate conception (St. Maximilian Kolbe). In fact, St. Maximilian Kolbe pointed out that if the Holy Spirit were to become flesh (as God the Son became flesh), we would see no difference between that incarnation and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is not God, she is not divine, but she does reflect the feminine that is in God.
So Mary’s perpetual virginity has nothing to do with the false notion that sex is dirty or impure, etc. In marriage, sexual union is a sign of fidelity and complete belonging. When you belong entirely to another, it means that the self-giving was not partial, but total. So married love is undivided love. Mary’s virginity signifies that she belongs not partially, but completely and totally to God. This is not to suggest that married people cannot belong entirely to God. Matrimony is a sacrament, and it is a sign of the love that Christ has for his Bride, the Church, so it is very much a way of belonging to God completely. But Mary conceived Christ as a result of her complete and total surrender to the Holy Spirit, which is a kind of marriage; for it is a union that results in a conception. Her perpetual virginity signifies that perpetual belonging.
If God is almighty, why take 6 days (plus one day of rest) to create the world? Why not do it in one? For that matter, why does He need a day off?
The story of the 6 days of creation is not meant to be taken literally. This story does not mean that God literally created the world in 6 days and literally rested on the 7th. The story is an allegory, and an allegory is a story that contains a deeper meaning besides the literal meaning. In Hebrew, the word ‘seven’ is ‘saba’, which is derived from the root word ‘seba’, which means ‘to swear, as in swearing an oath’. To swear an oath is to enter into a covenant, and a covenant is a sacred family bond. The depiction of God creating the world in 6 days and resting on the 7th day is meant to convey the fact that creation is a covenant. God enters a covenant with humanity. Covenant means ‘family bond’, and the Hebrew word for family is be’tab, which means ‘my father’s house’. Notice that in the first story of creation, God is building a house (my father’s house). We have the creation of time (1st day), space (2nd day), a foundation, and then he furnishes the house. Creation is God’s house or family. Creation is a covenant. God ‘sevens’ a covenant, or ‘swears an oath’ (seven).
That family or covenant is shattered in Genesis 3, and the entire history of Israel is really the history of the restoration of that covenant.
But creation is not something that happens in time. God is not “producing” as we produce things like tables or houses. God creates temporal beings, brings them into being from nothing and sustains them in being. This includes bringing into being beings that can cause other things, i.e., material things that can cause other things to move, or material substances that can react with other substances, resulting in entirely new substances (sodium and chlorine, which become salt), etc. The kind of universe God has brought into being is a material universe in which things evolve, move, and develop. But a thing cannot move and develop unless it is brought into being by God and sustained in being by God. Thus, evolution presupposes creation. So, we think the universe is 13.6 billion years old, and the earth is 4.6 billion years old (or thereabouts). What we have today is the result of billions of years of evolution. The creation story, on the contrary, is an allegory that contains a deeper meaning besides the literal meaning. The deeper meaning being conveyed through the vehicle of the story is theological (about God, not about science or the facts of the universe). The truths communicated through the vehicle of the story is that God is the creator, God is one, God is outside of time and space (He is eternal and incorporeal), man exists in the image and likeness of God, creation is good, everything God creates is good, etc.