The BVM, Challah, and Celibacy

A type of icon called “Virgin of the Sign”


SO, AS WAS EARLIER mentioned I’ve been wrestling with an article from First Things, published in 2002, called Celibacy in Context. I don’t mean “wrestling” as in struggling with, but rather as in Jacob saying to God, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Celibacy is not only hard for some folks to imagine doing, but it is also hard for some to even comprehend. Why? The issue of celibacy even came up in my Hebrew class, with the teacher explaining how strange it is to Jewish ears, to hear of a man willingly giving up on what is exactly the first command given to the couple in the garden: “be fruitful and multiply”. What is going on here? This is an ongoing meditation. I don’t pretend that this post will answer all your questions.

Two more images are coming to my mind. The first is Challah, the bread baked for the Sabbath (and a few other festivals in the Jewish year).

Take a look at Numbers 15:18-21:

Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land to which I bring you and when you eat of the food of the land, you shall present an offering to the Lord. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall present a cake as an offering; as an offering from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall give to the Lord an offering throughout your generations.


The Hebrew rendered as “coarse meal” there can either mean meal or dough. Of course, since the destruction of the Temple there is no place to make such an offering, so, in the modern tradition for this Sabbath bread the housewife who is baking it offers a lump of dough, torn from the raw loaf, and says a blessing over it. The lump of dough is burned in the oven. Although only a tiny portion of the batch is burnt, the offering of the lump makes the entire loaf holy. What is given up is real and a real sacrifice, part and parcel of the whole, but it makes everything else holy and, in the end, the reduction does no harm to the joy celebrated. Seeing celibacy in this light is, it seems to me, a good thing. We give up one thing in order to make other things stronger, more holy.

The second image also gets tied to Hebrew class, but not quite as directly. We are working on Psalms because I pray them daily and it seems good to me to learn them in Hebrew. Currently we’re working on Ps 51, one of the most commonly used Psalms, especially in Lent in the Latin rite. In the Byzantine tradition, the Psalm may be said 2 or 3 times a day even in personal prayer! In this Psalm there are many references to forgiveness, grace, and mercy. One of the more common words for forgiveness refers (in “King James style”) to the “bowels of mercy” but the word, itself, comes from the word for womb. God’s womb of forgiveness.

While we’re looking at that, I jumped over to my favorite Psalm text, Ps 18:1b-2, which in the Coverdale, used at my former Monastery, is read as one verse:

I will love thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.

The Hebrew is the same, a collection of first-person possessive nouns. I think it would make a wonderful song, maybe by Miqedem, but it was that first bit, “I will love thee” that caught my eye. It’s sometimes rendered in the present tense as “I love thee”. In the original text the “i love you” bit is the last part of the 1st verse. The whole phrase is only one word, אֶרְחָמְךָ֖ er’cham’kha. I’ve heard that word before, I thought. In Psalm 51. Click after click brought me to this word: רֶחֶם rechem meaning, “womb”. When we speak of God’s mercy (as in Psalm 51) one of the words used is rechem and from that same root we get racham and from that we get the future tense, er’cham or, to add a personal suffix, er’cham’kha. That is, “…to you.” Remember, this verb arises from the image of a mother’s womb. Our loving God “opens his womb of mercy” to us and yet, we do the same to God here! There are other “wombly” echos in Ps 51, but the idea that we can show “rechem” to God – as he can to us – is just mind-blowing. But it needn’t be symbolic. Suddenly, the yes of Mary is her literally offering her womb to welcome “the Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.”

The Eastern Gate of Jerusalem is sealed, although Ezekiel prophesied that it would be. Before the historical event, though, (c AD 1540–41) the verses in Ezekiel were read to be related to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Once the Messiah King had passed through the gate of her womb, no one else would. It is from there that we get to celibacy. Paul says that an unmarried man is concerned about things of the Lord whilst a married man is concerned about his wife.

The man or woman who vows celibacy is promising to give the Lord the best part of life – sacrificing one small part in exchange for the whole. They consume the Bread of Life (Jesus) and then leave the gate sealed. No one else may pass that way. The gate through which has passed the king becomes a spiritual womb, enclosing the “Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.”

Yes, it’s possible to press this image too far, but this touches on the Greek word used for Mary in the Bible (including in the Greek Septuagint) Parthenos which has the cultural echoes of sexuality set apart for God by choice. All vowed celibates are called Virgins – even those who are not, experientially, virgins.

The mercy of forgiveness can restore even the womb of compassion within us to its original form and intent that it may house the King who is Bread.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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