That’s the old carol, of course. “A Virgin Most Pure”. Implying that non-virgins, for whatever reason, aren’t pure. An odd state of affairs, when the whole existence of the human race depends upon sufficient people deciding that being virgins is not a long-term option. But there you go.
The thing about that whole “virgin most pure” thing is, it’s not something we actually find in the Bible. Virginity was kind of the expectation of a new bride, but had no particular intrinsic value. Jews thought having children was good, and virginity – with a few weird exceptions – wasn’t a great idea, for males or females.
There’s only two Biblical references to Mary’s virginal state at all – one in Matthew and one in Luke. Matthew uses it to crowbar in an inexact prophecy based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible*, while Luke uses it to far greater psychological effect as he explores Mary’s and then Joseph’s response. The important thing, though, is to note that neither of them worry about it too much. Matthew would find just about any excuse to stick in a prophecy, at the best of times. Luke tells us that the angel sorts out Joseph’s minor niggling worries, and then kicks on into the story of the census and the shepherds.
That relative lack of interest isn’t that surprising – it’s just an other miracle, in one sense. And in some ways it’s a non-essential one. Mark and John, in their totally different ways, manage to get along without mentioning it just fine. Paul doesn’t draw any conclusions from it. It’s just a thing. Just there, in amid all the other wonders and unexpected stuff going on around the life of Jesus. Personally, I’m going to go with it being true. Simply because there was no need to bring it in. Because Matthew deals with it (via a fairly dodgy bit of prophecy-fulfilment) in the same way he deals with the awkward fact of Jesus growing up in Nazareth. I reckon it’s just what it is. It doesn’t mean sex is bad, it just states that God, sovereign and merciful, decides to act in a miraculous way to bring about God’s bodily presence on the earth. And I believe in it, for the strangely ordinary way it’s treated.
She’s under-loved, in my opinion, in the Protestant world, is Mary. The sheer significance of her bringing God into the world is underplayed, lest we start to idolize her. Her persistence – her sheer motherliness. When Jesus starts going round preaching the Kingdom of God, notwithstanding the miracles, Mary is there – deciding he’s gone off the edge of normal behaviour and trying to get his brothers to drag him home.
But, in case we start to think she’s just concerned about the good name of the family – she, the woman who got pregnant in unexpected and possibly embarrassing circumstances – she’s there, later on, at the Passion. There, feeling every lash of the whip. Every thud of a hammer on a nail. Every pull upwards, against the screaming of the muscles, to get a breath – and there for every gasp for breath. There, to watch the blood fall that will make her, and you, and me, and all things clean. There through the whole thing.
But she’s not there when the big news starts to break in the garden. I wonder where she was – maybe too exhausted, too distressed, to make that journey with Mary Magdalene and the rest, down to where her son’s body was laying. Maybe she just couldn’t face it – first widowed and then bereaved again, so early, of the son who had promised so much – the bright boy who drew angels, and shepherds, and wise men, and argued with the scribes of the temple. And I wonder – when Mary Mag bursts back with the news – “I’ve seen Jesus! He’s alive!” – did Our Lady think, typical – can’t reveal himself to his mother?
But she knows the joy no other bereaved mother can know – though they can cling on with hope and faith – the joy of seeing her son again. Of seeing him there, beyond pain, yet bearing her pain – and your pain, and my pain – forever. And I assume, from the first two books of Acts, that she was there to see him ascend, and there to receive the Spirit – alongside John, and Mary Magdalene, who knew and shared her pain so well, and the joy that came after.
So she was there – and she alone, with Him – at the beginning and the end-which-is-a-beginning. The source, and the bearer of grief, and the receiverof joy. She plumbed the depths with him, and soared to the heights with him. She shared his pain, and walked our way. And she is the one who first did our job – the one who brought Christ into the world, as we are called to do.
It’s strange we write her out of the story so often.
* The Septuagint