One must be careful interpreting apocalyptic books, most particularly Daniel and the Revelation. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is not to teach, but to inspire and reveal—not in the sense of explain, but in the sense of pulling back the curtain of time and space to expose in symbol and metaphor some of the reality hidden behind reality. From the early days of the Church, Christians have gotten themselves into trouble and formed various sects around charismatic leaders who thought they had the key to interpret the apocalyptic books and passages of the Bible.
Nevertheless in these books faithful Christians throughout the ages have found grace-filled impressions, glimpses into the heavenly realm, that have inspired self control in the face of abundance and martyrdom in the face persecution. One image that has been particularly powerful is that of the 144,000 (12 X 12 X 1000: the full completion of God’s work throughout the ages—the twelve patriarchs representing the faithful before Christ’s advent, and the twelve apostles representing the faithful of the church, and one thousand representing all of the ages). These faithful witnesses are the “redeemed from the earth.” These are the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. Both St. James and St. Paul refer to all believers as the firstfruits of God, so it is not stretching it too far to say that the 144,000 of the Revelation represent all believers.
One statement concerning these 144,000 that is particularly inspiring is that they “were not defiled by women, for they were virgins.” Virginity throughout the Bible (Old and New Covenants) has been held up both metaphorically and literally as a standard for one’s relationship with God. Indeed, by the end of the Revelation, we discover that these 144,000 are none other than the Bride of the Lamb, who have keep themselves pure—the Bride of Christ. On the one hand, this virginity is metaphorical, for the Church recognizes many saints who were not biologically virgin, from former harlots and debauches to holy mothers and fathers of children. Furthermore there are the martyrs who as a part of their martyrdom suffered physical defilement of various kinds, none of which altered their status as virgins among the 144,000 redeemed of God. But on the other hand, the church has also valued biological virginity.
Even under the Old Covenant, where begetting was the name of the game, biological virginity was the only (righteous) norm for all relationships except between husband and wife. This norm is so ingrained in the Jewish culture that the prophets are able to hold up the woman who bestows her “favors” on “every high hill and under every green tree” as the powerful and easily recognizable image of the unfaithful people of God.
Under the New Covenant, or really at the juncture of the Old and New Covenants, virginity and begetting meet in one woman: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God. Mary is the prototype for all faithful followers of the Lamb. She is both Virgin and Mother. And for Christians throughout the ages, she has been seen the Proto-Christian, the first to carry Christ within her, the first to bear Christ and the first to follow, love and adore Christ. Mary’s virginity is both biological and metaphorical. And many Christians have followed her example, manifesting in their bodies the purity that is (or at least is developing) in their souls. Under the New Covenant, virginity, without forbidding marriage, becomes the preferred way of life for the one who wants to devote himself to caring “for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord.” Marriage is still holy, and “the marriage bed undefiled,” but now the Kingdom of Heaven has been revealed, and this passing world is no longer our home. No longer is the promise of God an earthly homeland to be inhabited by our biological decedents, but a heavenly one to be filled with those born from above.
In a few places in the world, where almost every village has a monastery nearby, it is not so difficult to see the value of biological virginity in helping one attain the spiritual virginity of which the first is a sign, metaphor and aid. But in western cultures, where virginity has been under attack and monasteries destroyed since the Reformation, and where nowadays it is popularly viewed as a curse to be remedied as soon as opportunity and equipment allow, virginity has no meaning to many Christians. Perhaps this is part of the reason why many Christians have a hard time relating to the Mother of God. Perhaps it is because there is no cultural impetus to value virginity that many people don’t realize that they need the intercessions of the most pure Virgin. And yet the image from the Revelation shines brightly: the Bride of the Lamb is a pure virgin. May God, through the prayers of His ever virgin Mother and of all the holy ones who throughout the ages have striven for pure devotion in both body and soul, grant us unworthy ones, who live in a world that laughs at virginity, virgin hearts and minds that can begin to see the value of virginity in all its manifestations.