Tonight at RCIA some interesting details emerged. We were discussing the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I pointed out that the word ‘overshadowed’ in the story of the annunciation was a linguistic reference to the story of Ruth and Boaz in the Old Testament. You may remember that the young widow Ruth presented herself for marriage to her husband’s kinsman, Boaz, and that he evidenced his betrothal to Ruth by wrapping his cloak around her. The word for cloak is the same word used in Hebrew for angels’ wings, and the transliteration of the word in the New Testament is ‘overshadowed’. The clear reference is that the Blessed Virgin is being ‘betrothed’ to God through the ministry of the angel who ‘overshadows’ her as the Hebrew bridegroom does to express his intentions to his bride.
In the audience are some members of the local Maronite community and one of them says, “Father, this is still the custom in the Middle East. The Bedouin and other tribes have an ancient betrothal ceremony in which the bridegroom wraps his cloak around the young girl to signal his intentions to her.” This ancient custom is observed, and when they are asked why they do this they answer, “Because it is the way of our ancestors back to the time of Abraham.” Bewdiful.
That’s not all. He also said that it is still the custom in some of these tribes for an older man to be betrothed to a young girl around the age of thirteen or fourteen. She enters his extended family, but they do not consummate the marriage until a few years later. In the meantime, she remains as a betrothed virgin. This has practical advantages as the young daughters are given a sense of security, but they live within the secure confines of the extended family, with the older women, learning about the ways of the family life until it is time for them to enter fully into marriage and childbearing.
The idea that the older St Joseph would not have relations with his young bride seems so alien to our culture, but within the Semitic culture of the Middle East–even today–the idea that an older man would have a virgin fiancee, and that she would remain a virgin for some time does not seem so unusual. Therefore for Mary and Joseph to have remained celibate is not such a stretch. In apologetics conversations with those who deny the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin, all of these are good points to bring up.
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Fine post, I must share it.
Thank you for sharing the story. I plan to share it soon with our RCIA inquirers. 🙂
Thanks, Father, I'm sending this to my Protestant Bible study. I taught on the Blessed Virgin last year and they had a problem with the whole issue of Mary's perpetual virginity. So, brick by brick, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit & intercession of St Jerome, I am sharing our doctrines. Blessings, Anneg in NC
Most interesting, Father. Thanks.
Last night in 6th grade Wednesday Sunday School we were covering the Immaculate Conception, Mother of God and Theotokos. I have a little plastic fetus about 3″ long from Family Honor. I was holding it against my stomach and we were imagining it was baby Jesus. They did a good job drawing conclusions about Mary and her sinlessness.
Thank you for the lovely post, Father!And just as an FYI, the majority of Josephologists have placed Joseph’s age at just a few years older than Mary’s (was prolly in his late teens when they were married), per the customs of their time. For more information (I’m a bit o’ an amateur Josephologist myself), feel free to check out the following resources on the subject:Josephology: On Joseph’s Age at His Betrothal to MaryJosephology: On Joseph’s Age at His Betrothal to Mary, Part IIJosephology: On Joseph and Mary’s MarriageJosephology: On Joseph and Mary’s Marriage, Part IIJosephology: On Joseph’s Virginity
Did the topic of painless childbirth come up? This idea perplexes me, because it seems to be an example of deductive reasoning taking a wrong turn. There is no scriptural reference to Mary having painless childbirth. In fact it is just the opposite. If you believe the woman in Revelation to be Mary, then it clearly states her birth experience was a painful one: Revelation 12:2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.Painful partruition may have been a consequence of original sin, but it seems a fallacious argument to conclude that sinlessness buys one a celestial epidural.
I aqree — parts of this story are wonderful — except for the part about young teenage girls becoming betrothed to older men. How many of these girls have any say at all in this most important matter which will determine their whole lives? How many would choose these men for themselves? Because world events are beginning to expose to the rest of us what has been happening in parts of these cultures (think of Afghanistan, for example), we are now coming to understand the plight of girls and women in societies where they have few or no rights at all.On the other hand, a most important lesson about the story of the Annunciation is the free will that Mary exercised in her answer. That is the central beauty of Mary’s motherhood of Christ. She understood what was being asked of her and she chose to say “Yes!” “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord.”
To Father: thanks for that information about ‘overshadowing.’ Lovely.To Lisa, sfo: The Church now repudiates the tradition that Joseph was an older man. I haven’t checked out your links yet (I will), but that tradition is very old. I’ve never understood completely why they want to deny it now. True, it offers a handy explanation of his absence in Jesus’ maturity and an explanation of possible “siblings”, and maybe they reject it precisely because it’s so “handy.”To obpoet: Mary’s childbirthing was painless because of her own immaculate conception. The woman in Revelation is not Mary, giving birth to Christ, but the Church herself, the bride of Christ. The salvation that the Chuch gives birth to is anything but “painless”.
There is a school of thought that the woman in Revelation is Mary, based on the preceeding reference to the Ark of the Covenant, and the idea that Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant. And again, there is no scriptural reference to anything undoing God’s sentence of painful childbirth for mankind.
Why, pray tell, is a celibate any more holy than a non-celibate? Why have we silly primates been worrying about this for centuries, if not millennia? We have Origen fretting about whether or not Mary’s hymen was broken during the birth of Christ! Origen concludes that Christ was teleported from the womb to preserve virginity! For heaven’s sake!I think that this is one sick, silly primate obsession that God shakes his heavenly head at. Worrying about Mary’s hymen, or whether or not it was in the heavenly plan for Mary and Joseph to have sex or not. It’s not really our business, and it is not for us to know. These theologians who obsess about it are a wee bit freakish.
Marcus, it is obvious that celibacy, on its own, doesn’t make one more holy than a non celibate. However, celibacy is part of what the New Testament considers to be a ‘better way’–a way of total self dedication to God. St Paul teaches this in his instructions to virgins and the Book of Revelation 14:4 shows the highest in the kingdom of heaven were those who remained virgins.The bit about Mary’s hymen–well it is embarrassing, but it all has to do with the ‘scandal of particularity’.
Fr, Doesn’t the NT also warn of the ‘days’ when celibacy will be mandatory as being days of grave error? My memory is rusty. Clearly the charism of celibacy, if it is granted by the holy spirit and not forced, is a good and holy thing. But obviously Origen and others take this a bit too far. Of course Origen is also thought to have castrated himself. This sort of condemnation of the sexuality that God created in us belies a grave error. Obsessing with whether or not Mary and Joseph were virgins seems to me to be a symptom of the same illness. The church has always proclaimed Mary to be a virgin. Her hymen obviously had nothing at all to do with that virginity. We have no way of knowing if Joseph was a virgin. Those who proclaim that Joseph was a virgin in his prior marriages must do so out of disrespect for healthy, married, human sexuality. Their argument seems to be that the entire holy family must be virginal to be holy. I disagree with that line of thinking profoundly.That’s not to say that I know whether or not Joseph was a virgin. I just think that the whole line of thought is a waste of time and based on Origen-esque error regarding human sexuality.
I don’t know what this stuff is about Joseph’s “virginity.” I’m fairly knowledgeable about Catholicism and I never heard such. He lived a celibate life after his marriage to Mary *because* she remained a virgin. If he’d had relations with anyone else, he would have been an adulterer.There seems to be some throwing around of terms here as though they were interchangeable: chastity, celibacy, virginity are distinctly different expressions of sexuality.Also, while I’m at it, it should be pointed out that prudery is *not*, and never was, Catholic. Check the catechism: it’s a sin. Why? Because it is evidence of sexual obsessiveness. Prudery is Protestant in origin–specifically the Calvinistic branch thereof.
Estiel,I was responding to Lisa SFO’s links (see comment above) regarding Josephology. In the linked documents, theolgians are cited who claim Joseph’s perpetual virginity.I’ve got a fairly deep devotion for Joseph and somehow that makes me sort of annoyed that prudish theologians are poking their noses into his sex life, or lack thereof, some 2000 years ago. Or insulting my vocation of marriage by insinuating that Joseph is not just as holy having lived a vocation of marriage, including sexual congress, than if he abstained.All of this seems to point, with glaring red lights and arrows, to overzealous (and prude) theologian types obsessing over sex. It reminds me of Origen, as I mention above, who castrated himself and who wrote voluminously worrying about how Mary could remain a virgin without a hymen. Obviously that is idiotic ancient stupidity, this obsession with hymens. I agree with you, Estiel, that this Origen-esque sort of prudery is totally an utterly wrong and a blight on the church. I can only dream that whomever is obsessing about Joseph’s virginity might someday be chastised or otherwise corrected by the CDF.
Marcus, you are correct that the NT warns against those who demand celibacy. This was a reference to gnostic sects that demanded celibacy of all members. The Shakers are a modern example of this. Catholicism does not demand celibacy of anyone. It is freely chosen by those who become priests or religious.The Catholic faith does not teach that St Joseph was a virgin, but it does teach the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and therefore teaches that St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin did not consummate their marriage. Whether or not St Joseph had a previous wife is an open question.
Thanks Fr. L,I am aware of the Marian doctrine and that Joseph never had sex with Mary. The notion that it is a knowable fact whether he had sex in a previous marriage is what troubles me, and that the theologians referenced by Lisa SFO seem to suggest that he ‘must’ have also abstained in previous marriages in order to be holy. One of those referenced is Scott Hahn. I like Mr. Hahn a lot so I am hoping he was quoted out of context.
Marcus, I confess that I didn’t go to Lisa’s links, even though I said I would. St Joseph is my favorite saint (except for St Francis de Sales, and…etc.)I’ve never heard of any notion of Joseph’s being a virgin. Sounds weird, actually. He was chaste, of course, and so as the husband of Mary, he was celibate.On the Origen stuff: I remember hearing about that somewhere–can’t remember where, since it was St Jerome who had such difficulty with temptation. However–if you think about it–“If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out; if your hand, cut it off”, etc. (paraphrased). So–maybe so. Doesn’t have much to do with prudery, though, any more than one would condemn someone for having eyes, hands, etc. It is an ideosyncracy of modernists to witch-hunt for people with perceived “sexual hang-ups”. It shocks my students sometimes when I tell them that celibacy is not fatal–they think it causes blindness or madness, or something.
Estiel,I certainly agree that celibacy is counter cultural and can be a holy calling. But the sillier theologian prudish types need to back away from Joseph and go ponder something else!
The hymen issue, like the painless childbirth issue, seems to be one derrived from flawed logic. Just because A = B does not mean non A = non B.The integrity of a hymen might (underscore might) give information about something going in, and thereby virginity. But the status of a hymen following vaginal delivery says nothing virginity. Believe it or not, there are virgins giving birth every year in this country via assisted reproductive technology, but their hymens do not remain intact following delivery.I was initially surprised to learn of the Church’s opposition to IVF. I thought the “be fruitful and multiply” crowd would be all for it. But I gather it has less to do with virgin conceptions and more to do with embryo wastage issues.
Obpoet- instead of surmising why the “be fruitful and multiply” crowd is against IVF, read for yourself in the 1988 Document Donum Vitae. Simply find the extensive yet easy to read section on IVF/ET, it is in section II on human procreation. Note especially: The Church’s teaching on marriage and human procreation affirms the “inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning…Homologous artificial fertilization, in seeking a procreation which is not the fruit of a specific act of conjugal union, objectively effects an analogous separation between the goods and the meanings of marriage. .
Fr. Andrew is quite right. Unlike every other conceivable human act, sexuality requires two goods to justify it rather than just one. Unitive good and reproductive good. How can you possibly have one without the other without committing an unspeakable evil?I would like to point out, and I don’t think I’m alone here, that I love the painting Fr. L chose for this post. I’ve loved that one since it was in the Norvus Ordo calendar so long ago.
I did not say I disputed the Church’s position, but consider the following scenario:A couple is infertile due to obstructed fallopian tubes. Their sex is conjugal, but not procreative.A condom is used to collect semen during a conjugal act which is then used in a successful cycle of IVF. The maneuver has maintained the conjugal nature of their sex act while also restoring its procreative force, achieving both “unitive good and reproductive good”. So which approach is better in God’s eye and why?
obpoet – I’ve got some experience in this field, but as a only-recently-returned-to-the-Church Catholic, I might not have the proper Catholic verbiage to explain. But, if we start with two maxims: All sex must be both unitive and procreative, and that conception needs to take place within the “womb,” most artificial reproductive technology quandries are completely clear-cut, morally. (Womb’s in parentheses because it’s more a figure of speech – fertilization actually takes place in the fallopian tubes.)First of all, an obstructed tube is easily treated via surgery. No Catholic objection to the procedure at all.Secondly, any collection done for the purpose of semen analysis needs to be done with a perforated condom. (I always thought that might make a good name for a punk band, no?) That way the procreative aspect of the sex act isn’t impeded, and it still allows for a good sample, quantity-wise. (And yes, I can tell you it’s VERY strange to be buying condoms and ovulation predictor tests at the same pharmacy visit. I could tell the clerk REALLY wanted to point out that these two things would cancel each other out and perhaps I might want to figure out what I truly hope to accomplish here.)As for IVF … it’s not licit, and the perforated condom doesn’t make it any more permissible. Conception occurring outside the body just isn’t part of God’s plan. (The logistics of what you’re proposing also boggle the mind. Where would this unitive act take place? At the IVF clinic?) Also, a little known fact, most women need to take hormonal bc pills for a cycle or two before conditions are right for an IVF attempt. What should the couple do for those months? Abstain, so that they don’t have non-procreative sex? IVF is a Catholic minefield, basically.
This may be a simplistic observation, but it comes to mind each time I read one of these posts. All of this is very simple (unless I misunderstand virtually everything): This is all about natural law. As far as I know, all that the Church teaches about sexuality, as well as all pro-life issues–Theology of the Body, Humanae Vitae, end-of-life law, the illegitimacy of homosexual practices–all of it comes under the heading of natural law. Further, all objections to what the Church teaches on these topics is really an objection to natural law. That’s why there’s nothing new about it. That’s what humankind has objected to from the beginning: Natural law means mortality.
You’re right, Estiel, it’s all very simple when you’re observing from a distance. But when these procedures and technologies are being presented to you as medical options – and you really, really want that brass ring, and hey, aren’t we all supposed to be having big families; babies are good, right?? – you find yourself in the nitty-gritty of parsing out what’s acceptable and what’s not. The lure is extremely attractive.
I don’t know. I am fascinated by how some ART patients’ conceptions take on a semblance of a virgin birth. In fact, some are virgin births. I am pretty sure it’s not about the womb. I know wombs inside and out, and they are amazing, but it’s not where the action is. The action is in the piercing of the Zona Pellucidum and the joining of haploids sets of chromosomes. I can imagine God rooting for such couples, not condemning them. Can anyone offer a fundamental reason why God would object to fertility so restored?
obpoet, you said: “I can imagine God rooting for such couples, not condemning them. Can anyone offer a fundamental reason why God would object to fertility so restored?”I do not for a moment imagine that you are one of those people who say things like: homosexuality/abortion/birth control actually solves the over-population crisis. Why should anybody object to it? These same people are the ones who advocate IVF and such things. There is a contradiction here. The answer is so obvious: If you are pregnant and you don’t want this child, give it up for adoption. If you are infertile and you want a child, adopt this one. That’s the way it’s been done in the past–without controversy, wads of money/technology/research, etc. To insist that your child have your own genes is not to love that child but to seek self-replication. To insist that a child should die because you don’t want it is self-love carried to a monstrous extreme. What is best for the children? That’s what God intended–not to gratify some couple’s wishes.
Oh, oh, oh, Estiel. If only it were that easy. (I’m not saying IVF and other ART should be considered licit by the Church. I’m saying that “you should just adopt” is anything but simple.)
Elizabeth,God’s will is not always easy, but it is always simple.
You make it sound as if adoption were as easy as ordering an expresso. I get letters from couples all over the country seeking a child. It is anything but easy.You also fail to acknowledge the inherent desire to reproduce, so strong and inate that many mothers will undertake it, at the cost of their own life. Perhaps it is even a natural law.Much as Jesus healed the withered hand on the Sabath, I wonder if IVF could be a similar good in some cases. I don’t have the answer, just the questions.
I think that the church will eventually thaw out on IVF so long as:1-Only the number of eggs will be fertilized as will be implanted2-No freezing embryos (see point 1)3-semen collected in a manner that includes unitive dimension of sexuality (ie perforated condom).Note that only fertilizing one or two eggs at a time means that IV will be a long, arduous, expensive process involving daily subcutaneous injections as well as some intramuscular ones. This approach:1-involves sacrifice and patience on the part of the couple2-would not create any embryos that would not be attempted to imlant3-would not create frozen embryos that a couple may be tempted to discar or never rescue.4-includes the unitive dimension of sexulity and a conjugal actOnce the church has a century or so to ponder the bioethics of an approach like this I think she’ll see things my way.