Okay, I admit it. There is no virginity debate. But that, as I have written before, is a problem. There is, of course, a marriage debate, and the following is not the first time that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has weighed in on it, but I found these words of his 2013 Christmas Encyclical to frame the terms of the debate for Christians especially well:

The Lord assumed and sanctified all of human nature. The pre-eternal God condescended to become for us an embryo and be borne inside the womb of the Theotokos. In so doing, He both honored human life from its earliest stage and taught us respect toward humankind from its earliest conception. The Creator of all accepted to be born as an infant and be nurtured by a Virgin. In so doing, He honored both virginity and motherhood, spiritual and natural. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian exhorts: “O women, be as virgins, so that you may become mothers of Christ.” (Homily XXXVIII on Epiphany, PG36.313A)

So the Lord appointed the marriage of male and female in the blessed family. The institution of Christian family constitutes the cell of life and an incubator for the spiritual and physical health and development of children. Therefore, the manifold support of the institution of the family comprises the obligation of the Church and responsibility of leadership in every country.

Notice that, while weighing in on the hot-button issues of the sanctity of human life, including embryonic human life, and the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, the Patriarch takes the time to include virginity, noting the significance of the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ and the words of St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzen).

For my part, I commend this recent witness of His All-Holiness in this regard, even though only a few sentences, and hope that more of the same can be expected from him and other Christian leaders in the future. He underscores the fundamental nature of the right to life and then begins his discussion of the family by including those too-often excluded: the single, virgins in particular. The family is bigger than the nuclear family, and we need a healthy appraisal of virginity in order to have a healthy appraisal of the family, a concern with which many are intensely interested. Virginity, I argue, is a vital witness to our transcendent end, and therefore also to the subordinate place of marriage, too often under-appreciated today.

The Patriarch’s encyclical is more of an exhortation than an argument, but there is an underlying theme (other than Christmas, of course) connecting each issue: witness or, understood broadly, martyrdom (the Greek for witness being martyria). The Patriarch ends his encyclical with a litany of ways in which Christ is still persecuted among the oppressed of all kinds today:

2013 years have passed since the birth of Christ in the flesh

2013 years have passed and, like then, Christ continues to be persecuted in the person of the weak by Herod and all kinds of contemporary Herods

2013 years have passed and Jesus is persecuted in the person of Christians in Syria and elsewhere

2013 years have passed and Christ still flees like a refugee not only in Egypt, but also in Lebanon, Europe, America and elsewhere, seeking security in an insecure world

2013 years have passed and the child Jesus remains imprisoned with the two hierarchs in Syria, Paul (Yazigi) and Youhanna (Ibrahim), as well as the Orthodox nuns and many other known and unknown Christians

2013 years have passed and Christ is crucified with those who are tortured and killed in order not to betray their faith in Him

2013 years have passed and Jesus is daily put to death in the person of thousands of embryos, whose parents prevent [them] from being born

2013 years have passed and Christ is mocked and ridiculed in the person of unfortunate children, who experience the crisis of the family, destitution and poverty.

This relates to virginity by highlighting its spiritual significance. It is not merely the absence of something good (sex) but an unique way of witnessing to Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin, was himself celibate, and whom we ought to love more than anyone. The Patriarch himself, of course, is celibate, as are the kidnapped bishops and nuns in Syria. It is their chosen way of life, which includes a virginal vocation, that has led them to a place of persecution, making them martyrs (witnesses) for Christ.

How, then, does virginity witness to Christ?

From a Christian perspective, virginity, and celibacy in particular, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, is spiritual matrimony to Christ. Rightly practiced, it is total devotion to him, forsaking wife or husband, sons and daughters to find one’s joy in him alone and one’s family in his Church alone. Those who embrace this sort of spiritual purity, according to Dietrich von Hildebrand, cultivate a being “redolent of something ‘not of this world.’” Far from being a purely private matter, however, those who embrace this vocation and find their joy in Jesus Christ witness to others through this otherworldly disposition, highlighting the good of chastity and, moreover, the transcendent destiny for which we were all created and called, for Christ is the Bridegroom of us all.

And it is a witness that we need more of today. Countries in the developed world are debating the meaning of marriage, a dialogue I commend, but if marriage itself is not put in its place relative to our ultimate telos, can we expect to understand it rightly, no matter what side of the debate we fall on?

In fact, the greater value of virginity was so important to the ancient Church that when the writer Jovinian claimed that virginity and marriage were of equal merit, he was excommunicated as a heretic! While St. Jerome’s refutation of Jovinian was considered overly harsh even in his own day, the basic idea that while both are good, virginity is better can be traced to the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I wish that all men were even as I myself [i.e. celibate]. But each one has his own gift from God” (1 Corinthians 7:7). Both are “gift[s] from God,” but one is preferable to the other.

And if this is so, and if Christians still side with the ancient Church contra Jovinian (though I’m not sure many do anymore), then why so little praise for virginity today? Chastity is still (well, sometimes) commended as a virtue, but what was once considered “the life according to excellence” is now, in practice, often treated as a distant second place for the unlucky in love. What witness, we must wonder, does such a degradation of our own transcendent destiny bear?

Arguments are important, but our way of life is much more so. I hope that Christians in general would take more seriously their own angelic vocations, whether single or married, and in so doing be a better witness to the world of the joy of their Lord.