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I understand that the Catholic Church (and perhaps the Orthodox church as well) teaches that Mary is "the eternal virgin" Mary.

If this were an important doctrine, it seems there would be fairly clear reference to it in the Scriptures. However, the Bible is incredibly silent on it and even seems to indicate that Joseph had no union with here until Jesus was born.

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:24-25 ESV

Admittedly, I don't believe Mary is the eternal virgin, and it seems by implication that Joseph would need to be an eternal virgin as well since he was married to her. Nonetheless, in my understanding, it seems to me to be such a minute issue that it's hardly worth the effort to invest any significant amount of energy debating it. Other things seem to be of far greater importance.

So, here's the question:

What importance does the eternal virginity of Mary have? What does it matter? A what would have been so horrible about her and Joseph enjoying the intimacy God provided for a married couple?

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In the orthodox church, Mary is held as "Our All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary" Regarding Joseph's virginity, I cannot assure anything except that he is regarded as a model of chastity in the catholic tradition. –  deps_stats Nov 2 '11 at 0:43
    
Just as an aside, I've often wondered this myself as a Catholic, but it just struck me that it might be precisely the "non-significance" of this doctrine that most tells in its favor. The doctrine is not necessary for some further purpose, and yet it's held-to vigorously by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox, who disagree with each other quite vigorously about other much more important issues -- and it enjoys early Patristic and Conciliar testimony. Why is that? Maybe the simplest answer is "because it's true". –  Ben Dunlap Dec 23 '11 at 23:46
    
The Protoevangelium of James asserts that Jesus's brothers were Joseph's from an earlier marriage and that he was old man by the time he married Mary –  aceinthehole Dec 21 '12 at 0:55
    
@curiousdannii This is the one that deserves your question: why question why God decided to do anything He himself decided to give the sign. He knows the reason. –  FMShyanguya Jul 24 at 23:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The importance of the perpetual virginity of Mary lies in the scriptural parallelism between Mary and the Ark of Covenant.

The Ark:

  • Journeys to a town in the hills of Judah (II Samuel 6:2)
  • It is greeted with awe “How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?” (II Samuel 6:9 KJV)
  • It remains at the house of Obed-Edom for three months (II Samuel 6:11)

In the same way Mary:

  • Journeys to a town in the hills of Judah (Luke 1:39)
  • It is greeted with awe "And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43)
  • It remains with Elizabeth for three months: "And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house" (Luke 1:56 KJV)

I quote orthodox wiki:

The Ark of the Covenant and the Mother of our Lord are in a sense two ways of looking at the same reality [...]

Because both are different manifestations of the presence of the Lord. Mary --who is a limited being-- carried in her womb the uncontainable --who is God incarnate: Jesus Christ. And in the same way that Jesus chose to lay his dead corpse in a new sepulcher (John 19:41), it is natural to believe that he also chose a "new" womb to come to this world.

The belief in ever-virginity of Mary has been a long held tradition, even the protestant reformers held such belief. I won't go deep into the testimonies of the early fathers or the protestant reformers.

A more extensive article can be read at orthodox wiki and at Newman Catholic Apologetics

EDIT

This answer would have been incomplete without addressing virgin birth. As article 499 of the Catechism explains, virgin birth and perpetual virginity are intertwined doctrines.

To gain some insight on perpetual virginity I'll decided to add an excerpt from an homily of St. Josemaria Escriva in which he explains the importance of the doctrine of perpetual virginity of Mary.

You don't have to wait to be old or lifeless to practice the virtue of chastity. Purity comes from love; and the strength and gaiety of youth are no obstacle for noble love. Joseph had a young heart and a young body when he married Mary, when he learned of the mystery of her divine motherhood, when he lived in her company, respecting the integrity God wished to give the world as one more sign that he had come to share the life of his creatures. Anyone who cannot understand a love like that knows very little of true love and is a complete stranger to the christian meaning of chastity (Is Christ passing by, In St. Joseph Workshop)

Paraphrasing, Joseph decided not to know Mary as a sign that God had touched her. I'll try to explain: Mary's perpetual virginity is important because it leaves a material imprint, an evidence of his coming to us. If we think that Mary was not ever-virgin, how are we so sure that Mary's first son is indeed the Son of God? On the other hand, if Mary is ever-virgin (as has been held for many centuries) we can readily admit that her first and only son was conceived by divine intervention.

In Catholic doctrine, Mary's perpetual virginity is a sign that God has come to us indeed.

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Where did the idea that the Ark and Mary were parallels come from? As part of the tabernacle/temple, the Ark is an important part of the way God chose to live among his people, which is of course fulfilled in Jesus, not Mary. –  curiousdannii Jul 26 at 22:06
    
Actually I can't see the relevance of anything before the EDIT marker to this particular question. The first half is answering what the significance of Mary is, not her perpetual virginity. –  curiousdannii Jul 26 at 22:07

If this were an important doctrine, it seems there would be fairly clear reference to it in the Scriptures. However, the Bible is incredibly silent on it and even seems to indicate that Joseph had no union with here until Jesus was born.

Irrelevant. There are many things all Christians believe that are not directly spelled out in the bible, such as the Trinity, the hypo-static union, etc. Also, Catholics do not believe in a sola scriptura approach to doctrine.

[B]y implication that Joseph would need to be an eternal virgin as well since he was married to her.

There is no such need. Joseph may have been a widower, for instance. His virginity is never referenced in Catholic tradition.

What importance does the eternal virginity of Mary have? What does it matter? A what would have been so horrible about her and Joseph enjoying the intimacy God provided for a married couple?

It's not that it would have been horrible -- indeed, it is good for a man to know his wife in this sense. In Catholic teaching, however, there are two other things at play here: the notion of sacrifice, and piety with respect to the holy. When we sacrifice things, we sacrifice good things. This goes for burnt offerings and little penances alike. When, for instance, a monk or a nun take vows of poverty and chastity, it isn't because sex and wealth aren't good things -- indeed, they are! But the spiritual good is better than the temporal good, and they are choosing, out of love of God, to give certain things up to seek further spiritual nourishment.

Piety and reverence to the holy is something that in the Catholic/Orthodox do a bit different than other traditions. For instance, traditionally the vessels of consecration, the tabernacle, the altar, etc. are all veiled. Women, traditionally, veil their head in prayer, particularly in the presence of the blessed sacrament. The veiling hides them from plain sight, not because they are bad, but because they are holy and beautiful. Joseph abstained from relations with Mary because she was the tabernacle -- she contained Jesus within her. She was the ultimate sacred vessel -- the Theotokos -- who bore God. Out of reverence, awe, respect, and love, he had forgone relations with her.

In addition to all this, it is a crucial article of faith that all Catholics are bound to hold under penalty of mortal sin. From the Second Council of Constantinople:

II. If anyone does not confess that God the Word was twice begotten, the first before all time from the Father, non- temporal and bodiless, the other in the last days when he came down from the heavens and was incarnate by the holy, glorious, God-bearer, ever-virgin Mary, and born of her, let him be anathema.

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If you are interested in what some of the early Church Fathers wrote on this you can look at http://www.catholic.com/tracts/mary-ever-virgin.

But, the significance is that Mary had trusted in God when she was young, and told that a miracle had happened. So, she serves as an example of devotion, obedience and purity to Catholics. So, her special place in the Church is based not only on her ever-virginity, but also on the fact that she was taken wholly to Heaven, to be with God, so her perpetual virginity is just part of how she was treated by God as being special.

To see more of what the RCC teaches on this you can look at number 499 on in the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p122a3p2.htm.

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A Sign, God's own Sign


God has his reasons, even if man cannot grasp them. | p. 143 Job, A Guide to The Bible | Antonio Fuentes.


Isaiah 7:14 (RSVCE)
14 Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman[a][b] shall conceive and bear[c] a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.[d]

Footnotes:
a. Isaiah 7:14 Or virgin
b. 7.14 young woman: The Hebrew word ‘almah is not more explicit. The Greek translates this as parthenos, “virgin,” and may be regarded as a witness to later Jewish tradition as to the meaning of the prophecy. The virginal conception is, of course, unequivocally stated in the Gospel where this prophecy is quoted (Mt 1.23; cf. also Lk 1.35).
c. Isaiah 7:14 Or is with child and shall bear
d. Isaiah 7:14 That is God is with us


From the scriptural passage above, God himself said he would give this sign. His reasons are of course known to him. As Pope Emeritus Benedict said, ours is a religion of Faith and Reason and it is in fact laudable to probe the mysteries with Faith & Reason. The reason that Mary is ever virgin is taken up below. That she is Virgin and Mother, is known to God alone as far as I can tell. He could do it and he did it [f]or with God nothing will be impossible [cf. Lk 1:37 (RSVCE)].


In his General Audiences 10 March 1982ff., Pope St. John Paul II [the Great], says in the translated Virginity or Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom | General Audiences 10 March 1982:

Continence is exceptional ... continence is for the kingdom of heaven ... virginity or celibacy are an anticipation and an eschatological sign, [of] the state of the future resurrected body.


Please see Catechisn of the Catholic Church, 495ff.


Summary:

The perpetual virginity of Mary, is no different from Jesus', and hers and others, connected with and drawing from Jesus', live perfect continence for the Kingdom of Heaven, living here and now, as a sign to the world, what our anticipated future will be in the resurrection.

Mary's sign, God's own, is of course unique and different; she is both Virgin and Mother.

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You always write your answers very confusingly. Can you try to present them more like a mini essay with an introduction, by explaining the logical links between your sections, by always introducing quotes with an explanation? Please don't present evidence without explaining it. Because from reading your answer I can't understand why her perpetual virginity is relevant to her being God's sign. –  curiousdannii Jul 26 at 22:10
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@curiousdannii So curious ... always probing. We give thanks for you ... I will give it a try. Please see answer once I have edited it. –  FMShyanguya Jul 26 at 22:47

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