Virgin Most Pure
Immaculate Conception Novena
Of the 52 different titles ascribed to Mary in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the title of Virgin Most Pure is among the more theologically-rich appellations. The reason for this is that there are really two aspects of the title: first, Mary's virginity and second - Mary's purity.
MARY'S VIRGINITY - Perpetual Virginity
Not only is Mary a virgin - she is ever-virgin. This means that she was a virgin before giving birth to Christ; while she gave birth to Christ; and after she gave birth. As early as 374 A.D., St. Epiphanius, held that Jesus was generated in a perfect way by Mary, the ever blessed virgin through the Holy Spirit. The Second Council of Constantinople, in 553, adopted the term, "ever-virgin." This was affirmed three other times - at Lateran IV in 1215; at Lyon II in 1274 and in MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS in 1950, which declared the dogma of the Assumption and stated that Mary's perpetual virginity was one of the reasons why Mary was assumed into heaven.
Most people can grasp that she was a virgin before and after the birth of our Lord. In other words, they can understand that she did not have relations with St. Joseph. Even the texts in the Gospels that refer to the brothers and sisters of Jesus can be understood as the cousins of Christ or children of St. Joseph from a first marriage. In any case, the ancient concept of virginity encompassed much more than the absence of sexual relations. Virginity also extended into both a spiritual virginity as well as the physical and biological fact that Mary did not experience birth pangs when she delivered our Lord. It was a miraculous birth. I'll leave it to you figure out the biology but we can quote the Council of Trent which refers to Fathers of the Church who collectively held that the infant Jesus passed through Mary in the same way that the Risen Christ passed through the closed door of the upper room on Easter Sunday, without any alteration to either the body of Mary or the door of the upper room. Mary's birth pangs would not be experienced in Bethlehem but at Calvary, when Christ gave His mother over to us and the Church was born out of our Lord's side, in water and in blood.
Moreover, St. Luke, in his Gospel, records that after she delivered, Mary took the infant Jesus and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger. As a physician, Luke was intrigued by this fact because the role of wrapping a child in blankets and placing him in a type of crib was usually reserved for a midwife or some sort of birthing assistant at the side of the mother. For Mary to have had the ability to wrap an infant in swaddling cloths and then lay him in the manger implies that she did not undergo the usual bodily trauma that every other woman endures in childbirth. This is, of course, evidence of the Immaculate Conception - only a woman conceived without original sin would have been preserved from the pains of birth promised to Eve when God the Father expelled our first parents from the Garden of Eden.
What a mystery! Mary's unique role in salvation history as mother and virgin and queen should inspire within us a palpable awe and veneration. Not too far removed from the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception should generate in each of us a filial devotion for Mary our Queen.
MARY'S VIRGINITY - Virgin in Spirit
In remarks during his weekly general audience of July 24, 1996, the Holy Father stated that Mary intended to remain a virgin all her life as an act of consecration to the Father, even prior to the Annunciation. This was highly unusual because Jewish culture did not really value virginity. The Holy Father writes that Mary's question, "How can this be since I do not know man?" reveals her desire to have remained a virgin all her life. Notice that Mary does not say that "I have not been with a man," as if to denote a past event. Rather she says, in the present tense, that she does not know man.
The Holy Father sees this as meaning that she was already intending to remain a virgin, since she had no desire to know man. This intention of remaining a virgin disposed Mary to full receptivity to God's plan and a spirit of full cooperation with the message of the angel.
For many in the world, virginity can appear to be so lifeless, so unexciting or unromantic. Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote that just as virginity is not the opposite of love, neither is it the opposite of generation. Virginity's generation is of the spiritual kind, however. For celibates, one's physical capacity to generate is surrendered so that spiritual children may be brought forth. Mary's virginity was unique in that her celibacy actually generated a physical being, in addition to her spiritual motherhood of the entire human family.
To beget a body is blessed - to save souls through the witness of virginity is more blessed - it is a kind of spiritual generation. That is why the Council of Trent defined celibate chastity for the sake of the kingdom as a superior state of life. That is not to say that marriage is not blessed. However, consecrated celibacy's primary object is God - the celibate is not divided in his or her state of life. We all know that married people are perfectly capable of sainthood, with God's grace, but we can further assert that consecrated celibacy, which Mary's life inspires, makes this end more easily attained because there is no division between the affairs of the spouse and the affairs of God. St. Paul says this much in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7.
In a very real sense, Mary's virginity of body is directly tied to her purity of soul. As the incorrupt Ark of the Covenant, she bridges the great divide between man and God by generating forth the God-man, Jesus the Lord. Mary's womb bears the new covenant in the person of Christ but she is only able to bear the Christ child as virgin because her soul is pure. This purity of soul need not resort to physical intimacy to generate a child; rather it is her very purity of soul that makes the Holy Spirit's action in her life fruitful.
MARY'S PURITY - Purity and Chastity
In our day, when we hear the word "purity", we often turn to thoughts of the term in relation to the conjugal act. Words like "chastity" also come to mind. Perhaps a helpful way to understand our Lady's purity is to see it in relation to the Beatitude, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Persons who have pure hearts have a supernatural outlook on the world. They are not limited by the constraints of mere physical appearance but can also see the divine spark in each person - the beauty of the soul yearning for God. Of course, we are sentient creatures and each of us only experience the world through our senses, but the beatitude challenges us to see that in each person which is more God-like - the soul. Mother Theresa always used to describe the poorest of the poor as Christ in distressing disguise. This disposition is evidence of persons who had a pure heart - someone who was able to see the Lord in the midst of the squalor of human misery.
This kind of chaste purity is such a struggle in our culture that is saturated with sexual images and glorifies only the body. Fashion trends always seem to push the envelope in attempts to somehow free us from any social morays or moral constraints to modesty and self-control. The grand irony in all of this is that in the attempt to liberate us from shame, our lack of modesty actually shackles us in sins of impurity with oneself or with others. When the passions go unchecked - they get unruly and how well we know the fruits of this trend when we see an increase in sexual sins and a decline in decency and morality in general.
While a general societal problem, this problem of impurity is usually more problematic for men. Men tend to be more visually-stimulated than women, on the average. The pornography industry knows this quite well and industry studies show that men's pornography always tends to be more hard-core. Women's pornography is a bit softer - concentrating more on story lines and relationships. Some say that soap-operas are the type of women's pornography because while the images of sexuality are less intense, the story lines and narratives appeal to the relational side of a woman's psyche. If you are an individual who struggles with pornography or other types of media which are a threat to your purity and chastity, you do well to take this to the confessional and extract it out of your life. When Jesus says that we ought to gouge out our eye or cut off our hand if they give us trouble, we can perhaps say that we need to totally remove from our lives anything that gives us problems in this moral category. It is imperative, if we are going to even have a chance to emulate our Lady's purity.
MARY'S PURITY - Purity as Detachment
Certainly, our Lady's purity was nothing but chaste but there is more to purity than mere cleanness in sexual matters. Father Federico Suarez compares purity to detachment and purity of intention when discerning and doing God's will. He says that Mary's purity of heart allowed her to be receptive to God's will in her life. None of us will likely be the recipient of a message from an angel, so we have to cultivate purity in our hearts in order to be sensitive to the working of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. Fr. Suarez writes, "...a person who lets himself be carried away by tastes, affections, impulses novel or elevated, but merely human, a person who is completely immersed in the world, would find it difficult to maintain such a pure outlook that he could recognize immediately the revelations of God about his future." Mary always saw God's plan with such clarity because she was eminently receptive to what He wanted of her.
In his book, "The Mystical Rose", John Henry Cardinal Newman comments on the title, "Virgin Most Pure." He quotes both St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom in their claim that Mary was more blessed in her self-detachment and receptivity to God's plan than she was in her physical maternity of Jesus because it was her self-detachment and receptivity that made physical maternity possible. Mary first conceives Christ in her heart before she does in her womb.
As we continue along in this novena, may we strive for that purity of heart - that detachment, which keeps us open to the Father. May we have true purity of intention in all our labors - always looking to the greater glory of God as our main goal in all things. And may our Advent resolutions and Christmas joy lead us to a greater appreciation that Our Lady's virginity is a sign in this world of the life of the world to come when there will be no giving or taking in marriage but where persons purified of their sins will live the freedom and glory of the children of God.
O Mary, conceived without sin - pray for us who have recourse to thee!