The Virgin Mother by Lyn Holness

The Virgin Mother by Lyn Holness

Many of you will know that for quite a while now I have been considering Jesus’ mother Mary and her role in God’s redemptive processes. Among the areas that she has opened up for me is in an expanded understanding of the value of the body, and of human sexuality and how it fits into the big scheme of things.

Probably the most important thing I’ve realised is that we cannot hope to have a balanced idea of human bodily existence unless we consider ourselves as part of God’s wider creation, as an integral part of it – and therefore as living in relation to everything and everyone else. Our physical or bodily experience is in direct continuity with the rest of creation – all matter – and as such we are included both in God’s pronouncement of ‘good’ and the injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply’.

 

God saw that it was good

Jesus’ conception, his growth as a foetus in Mary’s womb, and his birth as a baby – in other words, the Incarnation – underscore and affirm our connectedness to ‘earthy’ reality, and the intrinsic goodness of it. From Mary’s point of view, it is the experience of becoming pregnant and undergoing the physical changes that this brings, and then giving birth and having responsibility for the nurture of a young child, that ground her firmly in the physical world. Of course, that God chose to bring redemption to the world through the body of a woman is in itself wonderful news! First, the body is good. Second, the woman’s body is good.

This might well evoke a response of ‘So’? The point is that for most of its history Christianity, as it took root and grew in the West, has not only distinguished between the spiritual and physical, but has elevated the spiritual at the expense of the physical. Worse still, historically women’s bodies were considered by many to be ‘the root of all evil’. Too often the bodily dimension of life has been interpreted as a necessary evil, something we should strive to be delivered from as far as possible, instead of delighting in it and praising God for it. I find it sobering to be reminded that this negative mentality towards the body flourished in two of the great theological ‘moments’ of history: the teachings of St Augustine and in the Reformation. And the consequences have been dire.

First, separating physical from spiritual reality has opened the way to abuse of the physical world because as we ‘de-sacralised’ nature (separated it from the spiritual) so we ceased to appreciate its value. Second, I believe that this separation has had an impact on what human beings do with their bodies, and how they too often treat the bodies of others.

I have come to realise how desperately we need to retrieve a sense of the utter enormity of what God did, and what God was saying to us, through Mary’s body. We believe that in some extraordinary way God became part of our physical reality in the Incarnation. In the Incarnation the Creator became a creature, linked – along with us – to the stardust. It is precisely this that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion, for ours is the only religion of Incarnation.

 

Be fruitful, and multiply

As I write I can almost hear you asking, ‘But what can a virgin teach us about our physical lives and about sexuality?’ This is a fair enough question! And it leads me to a second aspect that I have come to appreciate through reflecting on Mary. We are sexual beings, all of us, and sexuality involves a whole lot more that what we understand as sexual acts. Perhaps this is easier to grasp if we think of sexuality and sensuality as closely related. They are expressed in things like touch, tenderness, creativity, sensitivity, close relationships. Sarah Maitland, in her novel Virgin Territory, makes a remarkable observation. She notes, in considering the nature of a virgin forest, that ‘virgin’ does not mean ‘sterile’ or ‘fruitless’. Virgin in this sense means ‘untampered with by humankind’ (it would probably not actually be amiss to say ‘by man’…) and yet virgin forests are known for their fecundity, their lushness. So Mary’s virginity becomes a symbol for us of all the fruitfulness that we as human beings are capable of as creatures of God.