Fast approaching on the 25th of March is the massively important but rarely celebrated Feast of the Annunciation. That it falls on a Thursday in 2021 almost ensures it will be totally neglected on the part of Protestant churches. Unfortunately, failure to mention it in preaching let alone observe the Annunciation breaks more than fifteen centuries of observance.
This feast day commemorates the announcement of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin and the conception of Christ in her womb (Luke 1:26-38). These are no minor events. It is at the Annunciation that Luther said Mary became pregnant “through the ear.” Thus, proclamation and the Annunciation go hand in hand. In the Eastern Church, for example, there is evidence for the observance of this feast in a sermon by Abraham of Ephesus preached about 530 AD.
It is worth considering observing the Annunciation as an opportunity to proclaim the Incarnation and how the Holy Spirit works through the Word. But there are other considerations, those bound up with the ethic of the Kingdom of God. That is the focus of this brief essay, not so much as a homilist but as a father and under-shepherd of the Lord.
Conspicuously celebrated in song and story during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is the same woman, Mary, and her extraordinary place in the drama of redemption and re-creation. Her role, however, hinges on this fact: She was a virgin. Her virginity serves as a crucial factor in Christology. In the Lutheran Service Book no less than twenty-two hymns from the previously mentioned seasons sing of Mary, with at least sixteen specifically referencing her virginity or Jesus being born of a virgin. This is true Christology reinforced through orthodox hymnody, from the Annunciation through the Nativity. I cannot think of any other time of the year that virginity is so extolled in public than Advent and Christmas, save for the opportunity that resurfaces with the Annunciation. In fact, it is usually the opposite situation which receives all the press – promiscuity, polyamory, and prostitution – there are plenty of songs about that today. In such an inverted milieu, virginity becomes vice. Countless articles can be found from major publications that lampoon virginity, decry its detrimental effects on desirability, and even argue its oppressiveness for self-expression and, therefore, its contribution to emotional self-harm. One writer labeled virginity “sexual self-murder” while another linked it to killing sprees. In Christianity, however, the virginal state is a blessed estate, with the virtue of virginity lauded for millennia. For the people of God, the virginity of Mary serves as the iconic example for women and, though less noted, the virginity of our Lord Jesus Christ stands as the paragon for men. For virginity is not merely a fact of being, but also a virtuous disposition consequent upon justification and regeneration. One can be virginal even after having lost one’s virginity, thanks to the sanctifying graces of Jesus.
For virginity is not merely a fact of being, but also a virtuous disposition consequent upon justification and regeneration. One can be virginal even after having lost one’s virginity, thanks to the sanctifying graces of Jesus.
Our casualness about sexual expression and liberality is but a modern repackaging of a timeless phenomenon of immorality. Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Celts, and countless other people groups and religions were uninhibited about sexual relations and even conjugal relationships. Further back in time, the nations around the people of Israel proved a constant temptation to succumb to their deviant sexual practices, even as a form of worship.
But the Old Testament, while evidencing polygamy, presents something different from the sexual exploits of the nations, the virtue of virginity. The virgin is a woman, “…who has not known a man” (Genesis 19:8; Numbers 31:18, 35; Judges 11:39; 21:12). She lives as one who is sexually chaste. In biblical society sexual chastity would certainly be assumed of a woman who was not married (Matthew 25:1-11). In the New Testament, however, the scope is broader. Chaste men, “…who have not defiled themselves with [unchaste] women,” are likewise denominated and celebrated as virgins (Revelation 14:4). Together, within the Church, virginity is elevated and proffered as the ideal spiritual state; the restored, renewed condition of Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). The advent of biblical Christianity thus turned the ancient world upside down by promoting both virginity and monogamy, but also avenues for the existential practice of the virtue of virginity even when post facto. It did so because virginity had this added strength to those who became Christians that it lacked before the reign of Christ: The indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit disposes the baptized toward purity in living because of the Gospel. The world, on the other hand, does not incline anyone to holiness.
Significantly, the state of virginity is privatively defined (such a person has not engaged in sexual intercourse), while the virtue of virginity defines a positive connotation: The virgin is virtuous, pure, beautiful, and strong. A good argument could be made that, in the new creation, the positive virtues of virginity begin with Mary.
Since the second century, the Church has observed feasts in honor and veneration of the role Mary plays in redemption history. As the “most blessed among women” she conceived, carried, birthed, nursed, and reared our Savior, Jesus Christ. Christians believe Mary, as mother of Jesus, is the “Mother of God” (Μήτηρ Θεοῦ) and the Theotokos, literally “Bearer of God,” as expressed and affirmed in the Council of Ephesus (431). Throughout the ages she has been a favorite subject in Christian art, music, and literature, always bearing this moniker: The Virgin.
As the “most blessed among women” she conceived, carried, birthed, nursed, and reared our Savior, Jesus Christ.
To fulfill the will of God and in keeping with the prophetic Scriptures (God’s own Word), Mary’s virginal state and her virginity were of necessity. In other words, God, to bring forth the Holy One, must utilize a vessel made holy. Virginity, therefore, approximates holiness. That is, there is a sort of in-built set-aside-ness and notions of obedience unto God that permeates virginity. With Mary the virtue of virginity is bound up with her being “highly favored” of the Lord and it is a sine quo non for her being “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). It is in the combined state of Mary’s virginity and the virtue of virginity that “all generations will call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48).
Such women and men are blessed within the Church. They are an ornament of obedience and set-aside-ness unto God. Abstaining from sexual intercourse, they exemplify a foundational obedience unto the Lord and an innocence that bespeaks of justification by divine grace through faith. They have faith that their lives are in the hands of the Lord’s providences concerning their vocation, which may continue in celibacy or be altered by holy matrimony. In fact, the sanctity and security of the latter institution, matrimony, emerges from the virtues and ideals of virginity.
In terms of chronology, the virginal life comes first, providing a natural, family-context for training and exercise of temperance/self-control that will serve the disciple well in either the vocation of celibacy or matrimony. In celibacy, such self-control preserves the marrying Christian from undue suspicion, regret, shame, guilt, and loss. In holy matrimony, the virtue of virginity brings forth the habituation of preservation only for one’s spouse. So, there is a double helix at work through the virtue of virginity. It has one strand of exclusivity (preserved for one’s spouse and the Lord) and another strand of indivisibility (bonded only to one’s spouse): Both a yielding gift to one’s spouse and no less to one’s self.
Undue Protestant antipathies toward Mary have muted not only her place in redemption history and its necessary connection to Christology, but also the virtue of virginity. When women do not have an iconic figure acknowledged and extolled by all the Church, then the role of women breaks out into other domains. It is no wonder congregations that go years or decades without hearing a word about the Virgin Mary, much less venerating her as “blessed” (Luke 1:48), end up supporting female ordination and tolerating cohabitation and premarital relations by men and women as a mere artifact of our times. Indeed, when the Blessed Virgin Mary disappears from the conversation and sight of Christians, how do we ever have a conversation about virginity or see how it, as a moral law, finds its fulfillment in the Messiah’s own personal and representative virginity? The ancient Church was aware of the aforementioned deviations. They rightly and boldly coupled the Annunciation and Nativity with public proclamation.
As the father of three daughters, I am grateful the Church Calendar is punctuated with remembrances of Mary, the mother of our Lord. Aside from Advent and Christmas, of course, and the Annunciation in March, there is also the Feast of Saint Mary every August. Each time we acknowledge and confess Mary as the blessed virgin, we also extol the highest virtues of Christ’s Kingdom and the Fruit of the Holy Spirit. More than that, each time the ecumenical creeds are confessed the virginity of Mary is extolled in the hearing of my daughters and my son. Her virginity, however, leads to Christ Jesus in each creed and every liturgical remembrance. So, the celebration of virginity itself, at least within Christian enclaves, summons gospel tidings and placards the Son of God before all; boys, girls, men, and women as the icon of holiness and grace.
The celebration of virginity itself, at least within Christian enclaves, summons gospel tidings and placards the Son of God before all; boys, girls, men, and women as the icon of holiness and grace.
I have seen how not only the state of virginity (which pertains more to the Law) but especially the virtue of virginity beautifies, dignifies, and strengthens my children. This is because the virtue of virginity derives from temperance, and temperance curbs appetites or passions. Having cultivated temperate strength regarding abstinence, they are empowered to overcome a myriad of life’s challenges. To be sure, this is quite a Thomistic way of speaking, but there is something to it. Thomas Aquinas was only one step from the Paul in his articulation of the so-called “cardinal virtues,” later reiterated to a modern audience by Josef Pieper (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 1966). While Aquinas distilled the biblical virtues down to four and Pieper followed the typically Aristotelean Thomas down Platonic waters, the Apostle to the Gentiles attributed temperance to the single but multi-faceted Fruit of the Holy Spirit, specifically the facet of “self-control” (Galatians 5:23). After all, temperance may be defined as self-restraint in thought, word, and deed resulting in moderation or abstinence of one’s appetites. That the baptized share in the Fruit of the Spirit is a result of the Gospel. Walking in a life of temperance or, better, self-control is the result of faith. It commends faith in Christ as our sufficiency, faith that our God-given vocations serve the Kingdom. It exhibits faith that obedience does not merit justification, but justification brings with it regeneration so that, having been re-created “in Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand,” we are now able to “walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Our children and our parishioners need to hear this Gospel message and be praised for the life of faith which results from it, for it is a life of blessedness.
Aquinas certainly had his insights into the virtue of virginity. He noted, like Pieper after him, how virginity is not merely a fact but an act, not only a condition but also a decision. This is to say it is a spiritual discipline, advancing our cooperation with the Spirit in sanctification. Having faith in Christ concerning the goodness, beauty, and dignity of one’s virginity goes hand-in-hand with not being, “...conformed to this world, but [being] transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Aquinas made much of the distinction to be made between the state of virginity, that is, a state of being of not having engaged in sexual intercourse, and the virtue of virginity. This distinction, Luther would teach us, arises from a proper distinction of Law and Gospel. Consider those who have received Christ and were baptized following an episode or period of sexual activity or, alternatively, may have been a victim of involuntary sexual engagement (like molestation, date rape, and violent rape) or, even more commonly, as the baptized having succumbed to the ways of the world and compromised a chaste life. Jesus Christ sanctifies us completely and, momentously for some, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Indeed, there is good news in Jesus our Redeemer. The shame and demoralizing loss of virginity can be restored in Christ and the virtue of virginity can be experienced, practiced, and enjoyed as the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, for Christ can and does cleanse us to the uttermost.
Really, the restoration of the virtue of virginity is part and parcel to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the abiding fact that the baptized are “clothed in Christ” (Galatians 3:27), the very Christ who has fulfilled divine expectations of abstinence, celibacy, and virginity for us as the best way to love ourselves and our neighbor. So, women who have suffered such loss whether by way of willfulness or violation but desire to walk in the virtue of virginity, wear a white wedding gown and bridegrooms and husbands who have strayed from biblical virtue may hold their heads high: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). The result of Jesus having fulfilled the Law for us, bearing our penalty and suffering injustice on our behalf, results in our cleansing and the restoration of a spirit of self-control. For those heading into or within matrimony, their virginal mindset presents a trophy, a triumph, indeed a precious and laudable gift to their spouse in holy matrimony. It is a gift which abates suspicion, jealousy, a sense of loss, guilt, and regret. And you have an example to follow: The Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ our Lord.
The virtue of virginity is back. It is back in the songs of the Church as the Annunciation approaches and tolerated in the public square during the seasons and feasts surrounding the Incarnation. Take advantage of it by proclaiming the Gospel along with the resultant ethic of the Kingdom, especially when the critical issue of our day is identity, particularly the identity of teens and young adults whose own identity has been coopted by identity-politics, sexual orientation and desirability, social media, consumerism, and body-image. Christians have an identity impervious to the machinations of the world: Our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). It is an identity bound up with the virtue of virginity exemplified by Mary and perfectly fulfilled for us by Christ Himself. We, then, are at liberty to discover just who we are—purified in body and spirit—without sin, without guilt, and without shame.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching the Annunciation.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach the Annunciation.