In the rich reflections in the last chapter, I hope that I had made more vividly apparent the profound intersection between the vocations of marriage and virginity, of continence for the kingdom of heaven and the natural way of sexual union and procreation. Both are paths of the communio personarum, and both, from the heart of this intimacy, are fruitful. This is what constitutes the core of each vocation, even if they both manifest this mystery differently. I also spoke in a particular way, as the prime example, of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, which is the first and fullest blossoming of the holy married state as well as the first expression of virginity in Christian history. John Paul II says as much, indicating that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was a kind of “sanctuary” in which a mystery greater than natural marriage dwelt: the mystery of virginal intimacy proper to eternity, and indeed the very nuptial union between God and humanity, Bridegroom and Bride, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The communion existing between Joseph and Mary, therefore, was a virginal communion, and yet one which did not contradict the truthfulness of their marriage, but rather fulfilled it—indeed super-fulfilled it—in an unexpected and supernatural way.
Christopher West summarizes John Paul’s words on this matter quite well:
Earthly continence for the kingdom “is a sign that the body, whose end is not death, tends toward glorification; already by this very fact,” John Paul says, Christian celibacy is “a testimony among men that anticipates the future resurrection” (TOB 75:1). In this state, men and women no longer marry—not because the deep truth of marriage is deleted, but because the sacrament is fulfilled in the eternal reality of Christ’s union with the Church. In this sense, those who are celibate for the kingdom are “skipping” the sacrament in anticipation of the real thing. They wish to participate in a more direct way—here and now—in the “marriage of the Lamb.”
John Paul says that the person “who consciously chooses such continence chooses in some sense a particular participation in the mystery of the redemption (of the body); he wishes to complete it in a particular way in his own flesh (see Col 1:24).” In doing so, the celibate person finds a distinctive “imprint of a likeness with Christ,” who himself was continent for the kingdom (TOB 76:3). The Pope observes that the departure from the Old Testament tradition, in which marriage and procreation were a religiously privileged state, had to be based on the example of Christ himself. From the moment of his virginal conception, Christ’s whole earthly life, in fact, was a witness to a new kind of fruitfulness [and a new kind of intimacy]. This mystery, however, remained hidden from those to whom Christ first spoken about continence for the kingdom. The Pope points out that only “Mary and Joseph, who lived the mystery of his birth, became the first witnesses of a fruitfulness different from that of the flesh, that is, the fruitfulness of the Spirit: ‘What is begotten in her comes from the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 1:20)” (TOB 75:2). The miracles surrounding Christ’s virgin birth would only gradually be revealed to the eyes of the Church on the basis of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.
John Paul remarks that although Christ “is born from her like every man…still Mary’s motherhood was virginal; and to this virginal motherhood corresponded the virginal mystery of Joseph” (TOB 75:2). Joseph’s and Mary’s virginity is certainly in keeping with that continence for the kingdom that Christ will one day announce to his disciples. However, at the same time, they were a legitimate husband and wife.* As John Paul says: “The marriage of Mary with Joseph…conceals within itself, at the same time, the mystery of the perfect communion of persons, of Man and Woman in the conjugal covenant and at the same time the mystery of this singular ‘continence for the kingdom of heaven’: a continence that served the most perfect ‘fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit’ in the history of salvation. Indeed,” the Pope continues, “it was in some way the absolute fullness of that spiritual fruitfulness, because precisely in…Mary and Joseph’s covenant in marriage and continence, the gift of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word was realized” (TOB 75:3).
In a profound paradox that simultaneously embraces the heavenly marriage (i.e. continence for the kingdom) and the earthly marriage, Joseph and Mary’s virginal communion of persons literally effected the marriage of heaven and earth. This is the grace of the hypostatic union—the marriage of the human and divine natures in the Person of Christ. This grace is connected precisely with the absolute fullness of the spiritual fruitfulness that comes from embracing continence for the kingdom. John Paul concludes that every man and woman who authentically embraces continence for the kingdom in some way participates in this superabounding spiritual fruitfulness.i
We see here a confirmation of everything that we have spoken about until this point. Truly, the choice for virginity or, in the pope’s terms, continence for the kingdom of heaven, is a particular insertion of one’s being into the mystery of the redemption of the body. It is a way of anticipating already now in this life the virginal way of living and loving proper to eternity—a way opened up precisely in and through Christ, who was himself a virgin and who, by his Paschal Mystery, made possible a human participation in this virginal way of love, based in the Resurrection and the new creation, and, ultimately, in the very manner of life and love proper to the Trinity. And yet even before Christ himself, Joseph and Mary lived in virginity, a virginity freely chosen and yet protected in the context of their spousal covenant in marriage.
Here, at the origin of virginity as a state of life, marriage is present, even as all those who embrace continence throughout history come forth from the sanctuary of marriage, from the creative love of man and woman. But in the opposite direction, the true and deepest meaning of marriage is revealed and safeguarded precisely in virginity, in the eternally definitive state of communion that will endure whenever marriage and procreation have ceased. This, too, we see in Mary and Joseph: their life is a perfect union of both marriage and virginity. This is what John Paul means when he says that “The marriage of Mary with Joseph…conceals within itself, at the same time, the mystery of the perfect communion of persons, of Man and Woman in the conjugal covenant,” namely, the true communion of mutual self-giving that constitutes marriage, “and at the same time the mystery of this singular ‘continence for the kingdom of heaven’,” namely, the mystery of virginity in unconditional spousal surrender to God, and in the custodianship of the other person’s mystery in the sight of God.
The pope also summarizes this rather lengthy sentence in a much shorter phrase, and a very beautiful one. In other words, he simply calls it “Mary and Joseph’s covenant in marriage and continence.” These two dimensions of their covenant are distinct and yet inseparable, the union of the marital and the virginal, in the fabric of a single life and a single home. And what is the significance of this? It means that the very communio personarum, the communion of persons between man and woman, is raised beyond the level of the temporal sacrament, and comes to participate directly in the eternal Mystery that is its origin and fulfillment. And yet in this way it is not dissolved, but rather consummated; it is consummated not through natural intercourse, but through the total spousal surrender of each person, man and woman, to God, and expressed also through their care for one another’s whole psychosomatic being, namely, in the “custodianship” of one another’s virginal mystery.
Here the original experiences of solitude, nakedness, and unity are realized and fulfilled in a different but no less real way than in natural marriage; indeed, they are realized in a more profound and transparent way on the basis of the grace of the redemption of the body flowing from the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Thus we could even say that, just as the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary was a gift given to her in view of the coming Passion and Resurrection of her Son, so the virginal marriage of Joseph and Mary was given in view of his coming Incarnation, and, indeed, in view of the virginal consummation of love and intimacy that was inaugurated through the whole of his life from conception to ascension. In a particular way, it was a participation in the Paschal Mystery, in the Eucharist, Passion, and Resurrection. For it is here, in the virginal Body of Christ himself given as a gift to the Church, and to each child of God, that virginity or continence finds its fulfillment and its clearest expression.
And the mystery that Mary lived with Joseph throughout their life, in the union of marriage and continence, was realized before the Bridegroom-Christ at the end of his life, in the union of continence and marriage. And both events, both expressions, were forms of that total chaste surrender of self to God, which brings about a spiritual fruitfulness of a different order than natural fruitfulness: the first being the very cradle of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the sanctuary of his life for the first thirty years, and the second being the very birthing of the Church and of all the children of God who will be brought forth into the life of the Trinity throughout time.
+ + +
Each person who is called to walk the path of love participates in this great mystery in their own singular way, according to the unique contours of their path and their incomparable story as written by our loving God. And yet even more deeply, beyond the externals of their unique life story, as important as this is, lies the more profound singularity of their personhood, of their incomparable “I,” created by God for fulfillment in the eternal intimacy of the Trinity. Here singularity is not a limit, not defined by externals, by what is partial; it is rather but an incarnation of the fullness. It is the living contact of the singular human heart with the Heart of Christ, and, in him, with the entire Trinity, who is the “universal singular,” who is himself the white-hot light of undivided love in the perfect communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, when we look deeply enough—with humility, and reverence, and receptivity—upon the unique beauty of another person, or when we allow God to look upon us in our own uniqueness, we come to realize that each person has an absolute value, comparable with no other and replaceable by nothing: a value that is a reflection of the absoluteness of God’s own love which has directly willed them, created them, and redeemed them to find fulfillment in the shelter of his own intimate embrace.
This is reflected and incarnated in all the concrete details of our life in this world—in the way of living we have chosen in response to God’s invitation, in the network of relationships in which we are enfolded, in the multitude of sacramental experiences by which God remains in contact with us, from the simple whisper of wind in the trees to the breath of deep prayer and the sacramental life of the Church. And yet it also surpasses all of these details, not in a way that leaves behind our uniqueness as a person but rather sinks down to its deepest origin, safeguard, and fulfillment in the unmediated embrace of the Trinity. Here, in the living contact of faith, hope, and love, our personhood makes contact with the mystery of eternity, with a foretaste of the consummation that awaits at the end of time, when, so permeated by the self-communication of the Trinity and by the joy of his intimacy, we will be utterly absorbed in him who is our eternal happiness. And here also the true order of all relationships, of all things, is revealed in its deepest essence, not based on externals or roles or even the specific contours in which they are expressed, but in the pure transparency of person and person, of child of God and child of God, within the transparency of the love and communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Yes, and it is precisely from this place and in this place—this place of gratuitous affirmation of the uniqueness of each person—that all the other details of life, all the manifold expressions of love and relationship proper to this world, find their meaning and their beauty, and can be lived in freedom, spontaneity, and a spirit of childlike playfulness. It is indeed quite beautiful how the single mystery of virginal love revealed first in the union of Mary and Joseph, and most fully in the gift of Christ himself, in whom the white-hot light of the Trinity’s inner life is opened before us, is refracted in so many diverse colors in the lives and relationships of individual persons throughout history, and yet always leads back to this place of white-hot light in pure gratuitous intimacy once again. Indeed, there is no place for comparison, no place for weighing better or worse except in terms of the innate transparency of love to the mystery of the Trinity. And this lies not so much in the particular state of life or the specific contours in which this state is lived, but in the love of the heart manifested in the body and in the whole of existence. Whether in a natural marriage or in virginity, whether in a single consecrated life or in a Josephite marriage or in the religious life, the one and only mystery of the Trinity’s inner life, and of the union of Christ and the Church, is made present, allowing us to participate in it.
What matters is simply that we receive the gift and live it. And I don’t mean primarily the gift of our own unique vocation (though this finds its place within it), but the single gift that gives meaning to all other gifts: the gift of God’s own gratuitous grace, drawing us to participate in his inner life of love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is also, thus, the gift of profound loving relationship and mature intimacy with other human persons, founded in our very sharing in the manner of life proper to the Trinity, which has become present within this world through Christ, Crucified and Risen. Indeed, when the divine life first burst forth into the visible world in its full, white-hot light, it did so in the simplest and most humble way: in the virginal-marital bond of a man and a woman, and in the Child virginally conceived of her. Here the image of God in the union of man, woman, and child was restored and fulfilled in a way deeper and more transparent than in Adam and Eve, for their union shared fully in the likeness of the Trinity through the redeeming powers of grace.
And this union of divine love and human love, of divine intimacy and human intimacy, radiated out to touch other human hearts—indeed to permeate the entire universe in its every fiber—in the same simplicity, littleness, and humility that characterized it in its first beginning. For the loving Christ lived a life that was utterly humble, simple, and ordinary, such that it is difficult to find anything in it that would cause the earth-shattering transformations that occurred in history in the centuries following his death (transformations that are occurring until this very day!). That is, it is difficult to find such significance on the surface, without looking deeply, without opening one’s heart to be touched and ravished by the breathtaking beauty of God’s love made manifest within him.
He lived for thirty years hidden away in a tiny town in a small province of the Roman Empire, doing humble manual labor as a carpenter and, as people thought, a carpenter’s son. After these thirty years he was baptized in a muddy river by an eccentric preacher who wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts; and then he spent forty years in the desert praying. And then he emerged and began to travel around the province, speaking to the people and teaching them wherever he could find a hearing: in synagogues, on the plains, on the mountains, and even on the shore of the lake as he preached from a boat. And he began to gather a band of disciples, indeed of friends, who spent three years with him in this kind of life of itinerant preaching and dependent poverty. This band consisted of both men and women, each drawing near to him and sharing his life, and also ministering to him in ways that beautifully manifested their complementarity as man and woman. Twelve of these men Jesus chose as “apostles,” in other words, those whom he sent out to extend his loving care for others in his name; and there were others, too, a larger number, who did similarly.
But if we read the Gospel accounts with open eyes, and do so without prejudice or a plan to doubt from the outset, we are immediately struck that this profound littleness is also pervaded by an atmosphere of indescribable greatness, depth, and beauty. This humble man and his humble companions worked wonders of healing, bringing sight to the blind, hearing and speech to the deaf, health to the lepers and the ill, and even life to those who had died. And his teaching, so ordinary and in such plain language, had a unique capacity to turn all the ossified and dead concepts of religious rigidity and Pharisaism of his day upside down, and to lay bare the throbbing heartbeat of human relationship with God in its pristine purity and depth. But this is not all: not only did he work miracles of healing, and not only did he teach with a mysterious authority, one that came not from book learning but from direct experience of the reality itself. No, there is much more: he himself claimed this authority directly, claimed to speak on behalf of and in the name of God himself. Indeed, little by little with ever growing explicitness, he himself claimed to be God, claimed to be the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father who came into this world to save humanity!
And as God, he drew near to human hearts and walked with them on the paths of life. He shared time with them, shared meals and relationship and suffering and hunger and work, and family life and love and obscurity and joy. He himself looked out, with human eyes, across the grain fields, whispering in the gentle wind and glistening in the hot sun, and saw the creative hand of his loving Father giving all things as a gratuitous gift to humanity. He looked out over the lake, over the mountainsides, over the houses of the town, or over the very buildings of the great city of Jerusalem and its temple—and saw with the eyes of God himself. He looked upon each one of the persons whom he encountered, and looked with such tenderness, with such unique and singular love, that they felt in that gaze a love that they had always longed for. They felt the very tenderness of the eternal God pouring forth upon them in the eyes of Christ, in his voice, and in his every action and gesture. And Christ was always utterly attuned to each person in their unique struggles, their incomparable story and the unrepeatable dignity which cried out within them to be recognized, affirmed, embraced, and set free. And this he did, as God and in the name of God.
But this incredible union of greatness and littleness scandalized many, particularly those who thought that one had to be great in order to draw near to God. For here God himself claimed to be drawing near to those who were the littlest and the weakest! And so his life progressed, to his own complete knowledge—into which he gradually initiated those closest to him—towards the final days in which he would offer himself as a gift in bread and wine, and would be arrested, condemned, scourged, crowned with thorns, and crucified on a cross between two thieves. Most of his friends fled in fear after his arrest, but a few stayed: a handful of women, his own mother, and one of his disciples. They walked with him on the way of his suffering, and stood near to him as he hung upon the Cross. Yes, and here their eyes were opened to that most scandalous—and yet most utterly intelligible!—union of love and suffering, of vulnerability and intimacy. For here they saw laid before their eyes the very inner life of the Trinity: a life of total vulnerable gift which is forever consummated in the total security and joy of intimacy. They witnessed this, even if they did not yet understand it, in the serenity and peace with which the Crucified Son of God bore the immeasurable sufferings inflicted upon him, with which he joined himself to all human suffering, sin, pain, and death.
And thus they witnessed the tremendous beauty of the gift of God given in Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). Yes, and this love—in all of its littleness, weakness, and vulnerability—proved indestructible. It proved to be the love that, as the Song of Songs says, “is stronger even than death, and more relentless than the grave” (Sg 8:6). Here the very current of the life of God—the very circulation of mutual self-giving and eternally consummated intimacy between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—flowed forth into our world through the suffering flesh of Jesus Christ! Here it poured into the hearts and bodies of those who stood at the foot of his Cross, especially of his Virgin Mother, who welcomed his as his one bride, welcomed him in her own right and for her own sake, but also, precisely in this and from this, on behalf of all humanity, pronouncing her “Yes” to this love for us and on behalf of all of us. And this profound union of Bridegroom and Bride, of Christ and the Church, of Jesus and Mary, of God and humanity, was abundantly fruitful in the immeasurable expansiveness of love, in the fecundity that can only flow forth from gratuitous intimacy.
Yes, life was born in the place of death, joy in the place of sadness, hope and peace in the place of suffering, and undying intimacy in the place of deepest loneliness and apparent isolation. For here the bond of intimacy between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit was not torn, but proved indestructible, and here the bond of union between God and humanity, which had been ruptured sin, was healed. And life poured forth. Life will continually pour forth from this amazing event—this single event in which all the lines of history converge as one a single point—permeating all of creation and every human life like surging rivers of love and joy and re-creating grace. This life, undying and victorious in the purity of the uncreated Love of God, showed itself first in the Resurrection of Christ, in which he stepped forth from the grave, radiant and full in his humanity, beyond the boundary of death. Yes, he stepped forth, not merely into the old life that was his before his death, in the life proper to humanity in the fallen state of sin: no, he stepped forth into the wholly new existence of unbounded Love, the state of the new creation which, already realized in himself, awaits all of us as our everlasting joy at the end of time. For here all is love, all is intimacy, all is the pure vulnerability and utter security of encounter, communication, and communion.
Here all is permeated through and through by the very innermost mystery of the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which is at work, in the humility and littleness that marks the nature of all God’s activity in history, inviting the vulnerability and freedom of our response, our “yes,” our reciprocal surrender of love. And as we consent to this current of the water of life that flows out to touch us, to fill us, to embrace us, we are lifted from the brokenness and fragmentation of sin, and are gradually made whole, made capable of living, in all the contours of our human and bodily life in this world, the very life and love of the Trinity. And this mystery, touching us and carrying us now, will also carry us into the definitive consummation that awaits, in which all of humanity, and the whole universe, will be taken into the inner heart of the life of God, to share forever, in face-to-face vision and unmediated embrace, in the ecstatic love and perfect intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
*For those interested in the finer points of Canon Law, the Church teaches that a couple must be capable of consummating their marriage at the time they enter marriage (see canon 1084), but they are not absolutely obligated to consummate their marriage. [Footnote from Christopher West.]
i. Christopher West, Theology of the Body Explained, 337-339.