Thursday, December 9, 2010

marriage, virginity, & God's command

The following question came up at the blog of Eric Brown, a Missouri Synod pastor:

If "Be fruitful and multiply" is a hard standing command that applies to all today - how can chastity and virginity (in the "remain unmarried sense") be approved by God?  I'm guessing the answer will be that it is only to the married. Then, the question becomes this. I know many who are upset with my take on contraception also hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary. This seems to put Mary in a bind, for then she was refusing to engage in what was God's command for the wedded. How is this reconciled?

My answer would not fit in the comment space there, so I cut it down.  The following is my fuller answer.

"Be fruitful and multiply" is indeed a hard standing command, and it applies to all today. It is fulfilled in nature, and it is fulfilled in humanity. It is fulfilled in marriage in general, and in each marriage in particular ways.

It is also a command that brings about its own fulfilling. It can be seen at once as both a command and a promise, or as a word which accomplishes what it demands. It is a beautiful and rich and gracious and complex indication that creation is not a one time event, but an ongoing reality.

Yet chastity and virginity are not only approved by God, but commanded by Him, and blessed by Him. Chastity is the calling of every Christian, to live out in ways appropriate to each one's calling and station in life. Unmarried adult virginity/chastity is a special calling, as is marriage. For some, it is lifelong; some are called to witness to Christ in this way only for a season of life. There are many types of examples of Godly chastity in the sense of extended abstinence from connubial relations, one being widowhood, another being consecrated lifelong virginity, another being maidenhood, however long it lasts (as with, for example, Loehe's deaconesses in nineteenth century Bavaria).

How are these truths reconciled? Few things compare with the holy calling of motherhood. At the same time, virginity, rather than being a sort of allowance or exception to the rule, is praised just as highly. In fact, Saint Paul would have us think that "he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better."

I suggest that one way to approach the reconciliation of these two Christian realities is by considering the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she embodies and fulfills both fruitfulness and virginity as no one else has. Her holy calling was lifelong virginity, a purity and sempervirginity pictured for the Church by the Prophet Ezekiel as the temple whose eastward gate is shut, and shall not be opened, for it is for the Prince.

At the same time her lifelong virginity is coupled with her glorious fruitfulness. Mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. And Mary's purity, holiness, and ever-virginity met and kissed the righteous command and annunciation of God, and the result was the most fruitful and multiplying maternity imaginable. For Life Himself was brought forth, Who with his union with His blood bought Church brings forth many children to this day, like you and me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Lord of all, the Lord of life, was not only brought forth, but as St. Ambrose says in one of his hymns, He stepped forth from His pure and kingly hall, an image that reminds us of His triumphant stepping forth from the tomb three decades later, and also reminds us of the proper placing of the verb. It was not Mary's doing. It was Christ's own doing. Or, as the Formula of Concord says, it was God showing His divine majesty (section 24 of the Thorough Declaration, VIII).

Many think of the unfruitful womb as a moribund and desolate and lifeless thing, like a tomb. So Ambrose's imagery helps us, I think, to see that sometimes it is our view that needs adjustment. Christ makes all things new. His grace is everywhere, as Therese of Lisieux said at the end of her agony (which was not meant in the sense of a panentheism or in the sense that God's grace is received by all, but that even in suffering, God brings forth His good and gracious will). And His grace brings with it life, and salvation.

Marriage and virginity are not antithetical, but are reconciled in the same Church, and sometimes in the same marriage.Now, let us emphasize, God's command to be fruitful and multiply is for all of us today, and it is improper to step in front of this Word, and presume to know His will, by the use of contraception. However, there are marriages that will not result in the issue of children, or will not for many years. In this case, as in the case of the virgin and those called for various reasons to abstinence, God's Word is fulfilled not in such a particular and literalist manner, but is still fulfilled.

In all of our vocations and callings in this life, God, the life giver (vivificantem), brings about His grace and life. He plants His Word in us, as in the Annunciation, and it brings forth new life daily, constantly. The result is that while children are a wonderful heritage of the Lord, we must stand up for the truth that the highest heritage of God is the gift of Himself and His testimonies, as we pray in the one hundred and nineteenth psalm.
Incidentally, to clear up a misconception, Mary did not "refuse to engage in what was commanded for the wedded." Rather, it is not commanded in such a literalist way for every marriage, and Mary's virginity is improperly labeled a 'refusing.' It is an embracing of her vocation, a 'fiat,' an 'amen.' This, moreover, was not a hardship for Joseph, not in the sense of conjugal frustration. For he fully embraced this as well. He entered this special marriage knowingly and prayerfully.
Thoughts anyone?


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I think the idea of Mary being both the fullness of virginal chastity as well as of motherhood is interesting. There is something there. However, I do find there still to be a contrast, a disconnect between "be fruitful and multiply" as well as, "Do not withold yourself" and then the idea of continual virginity in marriage. It seems eliminate two of the major reasons for marriage (procreation and avoidance of temptation).

I'm not sold, but well written.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Out of curiosity, Eric, is there a reason two of my comments have been deleted at your blog?

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

I have been mnade aware that I violated part of Eric's rules for posting by referencing another comment. So the mystety is solved.

Deacon Hughes said...

The perpetual virginity of Mary was and is indeed taught by the Church but not indeed by the whole church as it is not a hard and fast article of faith to believe so.

In a devotional sense it can be helpful to conceive of such an arrangement but not as such that it would effect the faith of some who believe that Mary had children to also glorify God in motherhood.

If it is helpful both ways to so view Mary then I think in this God is well pleased.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Deacon Hughes:
Thanks for your comment. You say that Mary's lifelong virginity is not taught in the whole Church. It is significant, however, that the notion of Mary bearing children other than the Christ and having relations with Joseph is a very new and innovative one in the Church. Among orthodox Christians, it is virtually nonexistent until the last century or two. The Fathers knew otherwise, as does Luther, and the Confessions. I am quite comfortable siding with the traditional view of the Virgin Mother of God.

I would cordially and respectfully challenge you to ponder and reconsider two of your points. One is the whole category of a "devotional sense." If Mary had children, then why would I encourage someone to think otherwise, as long as it is only in a "devotional sense"? The other is the notion that "both ways" can be helpful. Surely only one is true, Mary's ever-virginity as the whole tradition of the Church teaches and confesses, or Mary having children. One or the other. How could both a truth and an untruth be helpful? This reminds me of the odd view espoused some time back by Pr. Ryan Fouts that there is such a thing as a "liturgical" sense in which Mary's perpetual virginity is true, but not a historical sense. Sometimes academic theology tempts its practitioners to have their cake and eat it too. But that is not theology.