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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 9 hours ago
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3 Answers 3

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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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@Flimzy The Ark of the Covenant parallelism is what Dr. Scott Hahn says in The Lamb's Supper. That is sound Catholic doctrine you probably can edit out the probably. The problem is it's a mystery so a Catholic can't say anything more than probably about anything. –  Peter Turner Nov 2 '11 at 12:57
    
@PeterTurner: I removed the 'probably'... Thanks for the additional information. –  Flimzy Nov 3 '11 at 0:35
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This makes sense as to the importance of her original virginity, but I still don't see the importance of the eternal virginity. After God's presence left the ark, it's just a box of wood. –  Narnian Nov 11 '11 at 14:08
    
@Narnian I edited my answer to address this issue. I've decided to use an homily in which the importance of this doctrine is briefly explained. –  deps_stats Nov 12 '11 at 23:47
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@deps_stats how are we so sure that Mary's first son is indeed the Son of God? One would know because Jesus is either older or younger than his alleged siblings. If he has an older sibling than that would disprove the virgin birth. The existance of younger siblings would be inconclusive to the virgin birth. I don't see a necessity (logical or theological) for eternal chastity here. –  Jeff Nov 30 '11 at 14:40
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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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Welcome to Christianity.SE! –  JustinY Nov 30 '11 at 2:31
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It sounds like the case for eternal chastity is boiled down to: "She acted faithfully and sacrificially once, so she must have done it her whole life." Either I am misunderstanding or that seems like shaky ground - especially when condemning other people to hell (let him be anathema) –  Jeff Nov 30 '11 at 14:50
    
The reasoning isn't she did it once, therefore she did it in perpetuity; it's an argument from tradition, not scripture. There are references the the perpetual virginity made by the early church fathers, various ecumenical councils, etc. It's believed in all of the western, eastern, and oriental orthodox churches. In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Sacred Tradition is given great weight of authority, similar to scripture. –  Aaron Traas Dec 1 '11 at 15:28
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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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