Was Mary a Virgin?
The Annunciation, by Fra' Filippo Lippi, 1443
Sometimes when I ask Sister Alma Rose a question and she doesn’t want to answer, or (rarely) she doesn’t know the answer, she says, “Honey, it’s one of the Mysteries.” Usually it’s a question about God or the Afterlife. If it’s a scientific question, like why did God make cockroaches, Sister Alma Rose might take me to the library and we both learn about The Cockroach’s Place in the Ecosystem, and, even after I understand, I still think cockroaches were one of God’s Mistakes, like Muffy Shea, who picks her nose and eats her boogers ALL the TIME, even in French class.
Marine ecosystem near Hawaii, U.S. NOAA
Back when Pablo and I were 7 or 8 years old and we were playing Uno with Sister Alma Rose on her big wraparound porch with the grass-green floor and the grass-green wicker table and chairs, Pablo tells Sister Alma Rose that his mama and daddy have had a great big fight and they are not speaking to each other because Pablo’s daddy believes that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, exactly like it says in the Bible, and Pablo’s mama believes that Mary was absolutely not a virgin and that the Holy Spirit did not impregnate her, and the whole idea, Pablo’s mama says, is “sick and wrong,” and Pablo says it is getting so he hates the Christmas season because every year his mama and daddy don’t speak from the beginning of Advent until after Epiphany.
Epiphany: Adoration of the Magi, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio)
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. —Luke 1:26-28
The Annunciation, from a mural in Ubisi, Georgia
“Jesus wept!” says Sister Alma Rose in her Exasperated voice. “Honey, why can’t y’all’s mama and papa argue about money, like NORMAL people?”
She shuffles the Uno cards, making them bridge and then fall neatly into place with that snapping sound, which neither Pablo nor I can do and which we greatly admire.
Me, Fanny McElroy
The week before, Pablo had asked Sister Alma Rose if Santa Claus was real. “Honey, ain’t nothin’ much realer’n Santa Claus,” she answers. But Pablo is not going to be put off with that. He has been hanging with the Wrong Crowd, which is to say, kids who don’t GET Santa Claus.
In fact, tears are welling up in Pablo’s eyes, and I have never seen Pablo cry, never, not even when he fell out of a tree and ruptured his spleen. “But Sister Alma Rose,” he persists, “who puts the Christmas presents under the tree and in our stockings?” He has noticed that the writing on the Santa gift tags looks exactly like his mama’s writing, plus last year she got careless and wrapped the Santa presents in the same wrapping paper she used for Pablo’s present for his teacher, Mrs. Blount, which was a cube of personalized sticky notes, the present, I mean, not Mrs. Blount.
An 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, with Clement Clarke Moore, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus
“Honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “Santa Claus is one of the Mysteries. Do y’all want to take the mystery out of Christmas?”
Well, by now the tears have escaped and are coursing down Pablo’s face, making runnels in the dust that coats little boys’ faces when they have been playing outside. “No,” he sobs. “But someday I’m gonna grow up and get married and have children, and it’s gonna come Christmas Eve, and I’m not gonna know if I’m supposed to do anything or not!”
Sister Alma Rose promises Pablo that the Santa Claus Mystery will have been Revealed to him by that time, and Sister Alma’s promises are sacrosanct, so Pablo dries his eyes and we go to play in the dirt some more.
Many kinds of truth
But the following week, when we are playing Uno and Pablo is telling us about his mama and daddy’s annual argument, and Sister Alma Rose says, “Jesus wept!” and so forth, Pablo just looks at her and says, “So, Sister Alma Rose, who’s saying the truth, my mama or my daddy?”
“Honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “there are many kinds of truth. Let’s say y’all called up your sister Helen on the phone right now — she’s still living in Connecticut, right? — and y’all asked her what time it is. What would she say?”
“Well,” Pablo says, “it’s one hour later there than it is here. What time is it here?”
“It’s ten-fifteen in the morning,” says Mr. Truman Lafollette, who is setting down a tray of spiced apple cider instead of his usual crisp, tangy lemonade, because it is cool outdoors and the sun hasn’t yet made its way over the porch.
“Then I guess it’s eleven-fifteen in Connecticut,” I say, stirring my cider with a cinnamon stick.
“Well, then, honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “who is telling the truth: Helen, who would say it’s eleven-fifteen, or y’all, who’d say it’s ten-fifteen?”
“We’d both be right,” says Pablo, “but it’s because we’re in different places.”
“So, maybe,” says Sister Alma Rose, sipping her cider, which is still very hot, “y’all’s mama and papa are both right. They’re in different places, too, and speaking different languages.
“There’s story truth, you see, and there’s empirical truth, the kind you can prove in a laboratory. ‘Story truth’ is spiritually true, just as Jesus explained to the Pharisee named Nicodemus. Spiritual truth is eternal and everlasting and no matter how hard scientists try, they will never catch up with it.”
Some believe that Nicodemus was among those who removed the nails and took Jesus down from the cross; painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11 “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” —John 3:1-12
“Sister Alma Rose,” Pablo says, longsuffering, “you haven’t answered my question. Was Mary a virgin or wasn’t she?”
“Well, honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “that’s one of the Mysteries, ain’t it? But if scientists could prove in a laboratory that Joseph of Nazareth was the biological father of Jesus, would it matter? Would it shake y’all’s faith? Would it make the Good News — that God came to earth and lived among us and revealed himself as Life and Love, and continues to do so, and, because he loves us, pays the price for our mistakes, so that we might, at any time and as often as we choose to claim his promise, be new and innocent again — would that Good News be tarnished and our joy be diminished? Not mine, to be sure; not mine.”
“Cinnamon sticks” from a photo © Luc Viatour, GFDL CC
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