If our lives are touched by the grace of God, and we are to go forward in applying it, how is it applied in the context of a relationship with him as things get more complex? Here I think there is a lesson to be learned from Mary.
As I noted previously, Mary was approached by Gabriel and told that she would conceive the long awaited Messiah of Israel who would bring freedom and it would be in a way that is very expansive. When God challenges us, those things that are truly of him that we do in grace and do not go away but are like gold refined in the fire. When we are refined in a divine conversation of God, it is only for our good and that of the world around us.
“But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:34-38).
How can this be…?….I do not know a man— It is important to see that this is not a matter of doubt on God’s agenda being carried out for two reasons.
First, since God is just, it would follow for her to be silenced like Zechariah if she was cynical against the word of God. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was struck mute for doubting John’s miraculous conception. The difference is that Zechariah inserted that the natural decay of death with his age was stronger than the author of life. For him in that moment, natural law was an end in itself.
But for Mary there was the principle of consecration totally to God and such disposition lends the soul for the unexpected and even the miraculous. There is a strong case to be made that Mary was promised to God as a temple virgin and aged out of serving directly in the temple when she gained her menstrual cycle. She would be saying this to say she was consecrated to God as a form of worship which would be against her understanding of God to belittle.
Far fetched? Not so much if one sees celibacy as part of a spiritual life and law. For her, consecration unto God was an end in itself and she understood God was permanently there meeting her in that which superseded any other relationships. We can look to Sacred Scripture for some precedent. I would suggest along with the Sacred Tradition of the early church that she vowed her virginity even through marriage.
There is reasoning for Mary’s perpetual virginity to not be far-fetched. Imagine there is a wedding shower and there are comments that one day the bride to be will have a baby shower. Then the bride says, “How can this be?”. There would be an uncomfortable silence as people wondered who is going to explain the biology of the marital embrace.
The commentary of the Ignatius Study Bible explores this further.“The Greek text literally says, ‘I do not know man’, which refer to Mary’s virginal status rather than her marital status. Her concern is not that she is unmarried but that she is a virgin at present and that she intends to remain one in the future.”
There are doctrinal and devotional applications to this interpretation of that verse. Doctrinally, in the subset of what is called Mariology, we see a great case for her perpetual virginity which was believed by Luther, Calvin and Wycliff. There is also scriptural foundation for a husband to know of a wife’s pre-existing vow and endorse it by silence (Numbers 30:11-13).
But for the personal devotion life of the believer there is something important for individual, spiritual formation. Mary answered back defending the beautiful premise that saving herself for God alone was important to her. If your calling is to be a spouse, celibate, or single but looking then bring God into that. Cherish his will for your life with an attitude of thanksgiving one day at a time.
The Holy Spirit will come upon you—- This line goes toward the profound establishment of God’s kingdom with wording that is reminiscent of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. God came in a cloud on that temple and an anointing was put on the king who was referred to as the meshiach or “Anointed One” where we get Messiah. Mary would be the first person in the New Testament who would be a true worshiper because she would carry the Son of God truly and not as an honorific title for the Davidic dynasty. In addition to temple imagery, it is marital too. In the Old Testament it would be a husband who covers his wife and a child would be born. To be overshadowed with the Holy Spirit for her would be the conception of the Jesus. This is why many times in both theological and devotional language in Christianity Mary is referred to as a spouse of the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived.—- I have long cherished an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The encouragement Mary receives is that she is not alone and God has a plan for her to be worked out in community. God calls all of us beyond ourselves first to Him but often in the faces of others.
Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.—— Mary was at peace in her consecration to God, had a mission refined in God and knew her place in community. Mary is in a very mature state to give an informed yes and live it out. Our names, circumstances and callings in life may be different but the principles are there. We can benefit from all those principles so that we can be flexible when God knocks on our doors and calls us to make a new way for Him. The absence of welcoming is the only things stopping us from those even quieter conversations with God when he comes.
For further research on point of Mary being a perpetual virgin, I recommend looking at the Protoevangelium of James written in the second century and highly attested by many early church fathers including Ambrose of Milan. This includes a major implication that Joseph took her as his wife but did not know her sexually.
Here is the link.
Also believed by a major leader in the Reformation.
“A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ” (Luther’s Works, 22:214-215).