In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention is underway. General Convention is the triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church’s governing body. Some of the highlights so far are mentioned in today’s announcements in the leaflet. Like secular culture in general, the Episcopal Church has become sex-obsessed, and this obsession is reflected in General Convention’s agenda, and indeed in the agenda of General Conventions for the past twenty or so years.
Today’s Gospel opens by saying that Jesus came with his disciples into his own country, to the place where he had been raised.
And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” (Mark 6.2-3)
This passage, and others like it, have made some Christians in our own times balk at the idea of the “Virgin” Mary. The Church has always taught not only that Jesus’ mother conceived him miraculously, when she was a virgin, but also that Mary remained a virgin until she died. For example, St. Augustine of Hippo, writing around the year 400, called Mary, “A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual,” and Augustine asked rhetorically, “Why do you wonder at this, O man?” (Sermon 186).
Mary remained a virgin, like Jesus and St. Paul and many Christians from the earliest times until our own day, and her “perpetual virginity” was not merely something invented by a bunch of celibate men in the Catholic Church to justify their own existence and to consolidate their hold on power. But the Church’s teaching about Mary’s perpetual (or “lifelong”) virginity was held by all Christians, even by the Protestant reformers of the 16thand 17th centuries. Martin Luther believed it, for example, and often called Mary the “ever-virgin.”
Likewise the Swiss reformer, Huldrych Zwingli wrote, “I firmly believe that [Mary]… forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.”
Jean Calvin wrote in a commentary on the Gospels that a man would display, “excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s ‘brothers’ are sometimes mentioned” in the Gospels, and he aid that “No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.”
Lastly, in this parade of Reformed commentary, John Wesley said that Christ was “…born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”
So what do we make of this reference to Jesus having brothers and sisters in today’s Gospel reading? The first thing to say is that the Greek words for “brothers” and “sisters” can refer more broadly to relationships of various kinds, like cousins. And we know for a fact that at least two of Jesus’ so-called “brothers” mentioned in today’s reading, were in fact his cousins: James and Joses. In Galatians, Saint Paul writes that on one of his visits to Jerusalem, he “saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother,” (Galatians 1.19). There were only two apostles called James: one “the son of Zebedee,” and the other “the son of Alphaeus.” We know from the Acts of the Apostles (12.2) that James the son of Zebedee” was dead by the time that Paul wrote Galatians, and that hence the “James, the Lord’s brother,” that Paul mentions having met in Jerusalem must have been the other one, namely “James the son of Alphaeus.” We know, furthermore from John’s Gospel, that Alphaeus’ wife was the sister of Jesus’ mother, which would make her sons, James and Joses (Mark 15.40), our Lord’s first cousins.
I have been through these intricacies of our Lord’s family tree in sermons before, and frankly I find it kind of tedious. I can only imagine what its like to listen to. But the point is this: it demonstrates with as much certainty as you could want, that what Scripture calls Jesus’ “brothers,” we would call his “cousins”; which in turn means that there is no Scriptural warrant for supposing that our Lord’s mother did not remain a Virgin. In other words: there is no evidence that Jesus’ mother did not remain a lifelong virgin, and there is considerable evidence that she did.
Some might ask, though: why is it important to insist on Mary’s virginity? Is it not just part and parcel of the Church’s traditional fun-town, come-down vilification of sex? You will be shocked to hear me say the answer is “no.” One reason to affirm Mary’s perpetual virginity is, as I have said, that there is no evidence to suggest that she was anything other than a perpetual virgin, and considerable evidence suggesting that she was. And, as I have said, it is what the vast majority of Christians have believed for as long as we know. To say otherwise is kind of the theological equivalent of being a member of the Flat Earth Society: it is to maintain a dogged and ideological commitment to a position, against all evidence to the contrary.
And, let the record show, the Church has never vilified sex. The Church has always prized virginity. But prizing one thing is not the same thing as vilifying that things opposite. Neither Jesus nor his Church have ever said that owning property is evil. And yet Jesus did say: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” (Matthew 19.21). Virginity, like selling everything you have and giving the proceeds to the poor, is a higher way, it is the way of what the Lord called “being perfect” – a short road, as it were, to blessedness. But just because there is a short, direct road to a particular destination does not mean you can’t reach that same destination by other roads, even if those other roads are a little longer or a little more circuitous.
Sex is not bad in itself. And the boundaries God has placed around sexual intimacy – the “rules” governing it, like that it be contextualized by promises before God of lifelong fidelity and self-gift in all things between one man and one woman – these rules are there to keep human sexuality pointed away from self-seeking and exploitation, and oriented toward blessedness. The rules are there, in short, to make human sexuality a means of grace.
But sexuality sits near the center of our being as human persons. It is a powerful force, and easily corrupted. Advertisers and marketers understand the power of sexuality, which is why they use it to sell their wares. Sexuality is a powerful force, and it sits near the center of our being as human persons. In the final analysis, perfect fidelity in Christian marriage, and perfect fidelity in virginity, really ask of me the same thing, namely the unqualified offering of my sexuality to and for another. To undertake this faithfully, within the context of Christian marriage, is almost impossibly difficult for most people. To do so as a virgin is even harder. But this enterprise, this sacrifice of one of the deepest and most personal elements of our humanity, is something to which every Christian, without exception, is called.
And this is what our Lord’s mother shows us, centrally in her words: “Be it done to me according to thy word.” That fiat was Mary’s whole vocation. The offering of her whole self, her body, her soul, her sexuality – her WHOLE SELF – to God, and for his purposes, is what constitutes her unsurpassed greatness. And this offering of her whole self to God, which is in a sense the same thing as her perpetual virginity, was more fruitful than the world dared to hope; because by means of it – by means of HER – God gave us life and salvation in the person of his Son.
May each of us have the courage to follow the example of our blessed Mother, offering our whole selves, including our sexuality, to God and for his purposes. May we have the courage to say to God, with Mary: “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.