Mary’s virginity has nothing to do with passivity or innocence. Instead, it’s the independent attitude which undergirds her prophetic power. (Listen.)
The first time I heard the word ‘virgin’, I was in primary school. I was confronted by a mean little gang who asked hungrily, ‘Are you a virgin?’ The way they said it, it was clearly a dirty word, and so of course I said, ‘No.’ They howled with laughter, and I felt so ashamed. I asked them to explain the word, but they just snickered some more, then ran off to the next poor sucker.
A few years later, I was in high school in America. At that time and place, and to the concern of many parents, health workers, and conservative Christians, very few fifteen-year-olds were virgins; and so a series of billboards went up. On each was sprayed ‘VIRGIN’ in ugly letters; and underneath, in calm, assertive type it said, ‘Teach your kids it’s not a dirty word.’ Of course, it failed completely. In the perverse way of teenagers, ‘virgin’ became even more shameful: something do-gooder adults tried to insist on, and a label to be shed as quickly as possible.
A few years after that, I was a young adult, and I found the virgin birth to be embarrassing, even ridiculous. I wanted to explain the stories of faith rationally; there was no room in my world for miracles. When pressed, I would explain that ‘virgin’ was better translated ‘young woman’; the virgin birth was the story of a teenage pregnancy; and of course there is no baby without sex. And while I am still convinced that ‘virgin’ is a mistranslation from the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’, and while I understand that there are important theological, historical, and political reasons why it was translated this way, I am ready to let these arguments go for now. They’re not fruitful. Instead, since it’s been over thirty years since I first heard the word ‘virgin’, I reckon it’s time to take a proper look at the term and see if there is anything good in the concept worth claiming.
When we look at the Chambers dictionary, the definition of ‘virgin’ implies incompleteness. A virgin is someone, implicitly a woman, who has had no sexual intercourse. As an adjective, or a describing word, something which is ‘virgin’ is ‘in the original condition, unattained, untouched, unexploited, never scaled, felled, captured, wrought, used’ and so on. These all imply passivity. The mountain is waiting to be scaled, the forest to be felled, the field to be tilled, the gold to be dug out of the ground; and the woman, to know a man.
What was so important about Mary’s virginity? Was it that she was passive? Was it that she had not yet known a man? Was it a physical thing?
Many would say yes: for most theologians have insisted on Mary’s physical virginity. Some have even argued that, when Jesus was born, he emerged as a wisp of spirit touching nothing, and that he took flesh only outside the birth canal; while others have claimed that Mary remained a perpetual virgin, and that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Bible were really his cousins.
Of course, most definitions and theologies have been written by men, and they appear desperate to disassociate Jesus from women, and from sex, wombs, blood, vaginas and birth. And so we get told that ‘virgin’ is that which has not yet been ‘used.’ It suggests innocence, but also ignorance; and the thousands of images of Mary as insipid, genteel, submissive and pale uphold this point of view.
But I am not a male theologian. I am a woman, and I question this way of thinking of Mary as passive or ‘unused.’
Because when I think about when women are most fiery and powerful, I immediately think of young girls, literally virgins, who know exactly who they are. Before they have internalized the gaze of others and adjusted their behaviour accordingly, they exude confidence, competence, and completeness. We adults might use words such as fierce and feisty, stubborn and wild; but what we are seeing is contentness, a product of freedom, and something that often fades as children, especially girls, adjust their attitudes and their behaviours to meet other people’s expectations.
When else do we see women so fierce, so complete? Most often, on the other side of their reproductive years. At some point in their forties, most heterosexual women realize they have become largely invisible to the gaze of men, and that they have a choice. They can spend the rest of their lives frantically trying to regain that gaze; or they can accept with joy the freedom that comes with sexual invisibility.
And when women accept and delight in the invisibility, they really hit their stride. They may not be literal virgins, but they experience a renewed virginity, that is, a renewed identity independent of other people’s expectations. This can be a time of shedding conformist behaviours; a time of really knowing, or rediscovering, oneself; a time of finding one’s deep power and fearlessness; a time of moving towards wholeness.
We see this independence, power, courage and completeness in Mary. In tonight’s story, we encounter her before marriage or motherhood, yet her identity is fully formed. For the angel tells Mary that she has already found favour with God. Her identity, and what makes her beloved by God, do not rely on her being desirable, married, or maternal. In God’s eyes, the virgin Mary is already somebody, and this somebody already pleases God.
This same somebody lives in occupied Palestine; and the child she conceives will be named ‘God-Liberates’ – for that is what the name ‘Jesus’ means. And this somebody sings the Magnificat, that radical hymn which claims that God ‘has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the humble; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’
These are hardly the actions of an ignorant innocent or celibate simpleton, that is, a virgin in the pejorative sense. Instead, these are acts of political defiance, performed by a fierce woman, a grounded woman, a strong woman, who lives in occupied territories, who knows herself and her political terrain, and who dares to resist. Mary challenges the powers and claims a small circle of freedom in the baby she will bear, the boy she will name ‘God-Liberates.’
In other words, her virginity is the source of her courage, strength, and independence, her superpower if you like, which frees her to live fully, completely, and wholeheartedly for God: and so it should be for each of us.
- The virgin is liberated from the constrictions of the human gaze. She doesn’t need to prove herself to anyone; she doesn’t need to please: because she knows she is cherished by God.
- The virgin assumes that women, like men, are complete in themselves and are made in the image of God.
- The virgin proclaims her obedience to God, love and justice, above anything and anyone else.
- The virgin does not care about censure and she will not be silenced.
- The virgin wholeheartedly sings God’s praises, and gives birth to wonder and joy.
Not many of us here tonight are virgin. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has shied away from the word. We are easily swayed by the expectations of others; we adjust our behaviours accordingly.
Through our silence, we mostly submit to authorities, whether it’s governments intent on protecting borders; advertisers intent on increasing dissatisfaction; religious leaders intent on maintaining power; or corporations intent on profit at all costs. We sadly agree that the rich seem to get richer, and the poor seem to have even their little taken away – but how rarely do we help lift up the lowly! How rarely do we help fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty!
From Mary, from the virgin, we have much to learn. Like her, can we claim the superpower of virginity? Can we accept that we are cherished by God, and are whole and complete in ourselves? Can we confidently proclaim God’s liberation and justice, and will we work towards these things for other people? And will we nurture that which is Christ-like within us, offering it hospitality and tenderness and nourishment, and, when it is time, will we birth it into the world?
For we are all invited into God’s kingdom-culture. May we respond with Mary’s wholeheartedness; may we too be virgin. And may God grant us courage to wait, strength to push, and discernment to know the right time, that we may bring into the world God’s justice, Christ’s peace, and the Spirit’s joy. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 1:26-38, 47-55 given to Sanctuary on 20 December (Year B Advent 4) © Sanctuary 2020. Image credit: Raka Muhammad Iqbal Ismail on Unsplash (edited).
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Congratulations!! What a wonderful article. I am going to forward it to my Daughter-in-law and ask that she consider forwarding it to her teenage daughter.
I’m sure the teenager daughter will roll her eyes, just as I once did 🙂 Peace.