Tag Archives: virginity

The subversive power of virginity

dsc00821Today is the feast of St. Agnes, a virgin–martyr who was killed at the age of thirteen about the year 304.

The opening prayer of the liturgy notes that God chooses the weak in the world to confound the strong, a belief deeply embedded in the theology of the incarnation and in the reflections of St. Paul in his letter to Philippians (chapter 2) and throughout his second letter to the Corinthians, where he notes:

 “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”(2 Cor 11:30)

In his reflection of Saint Agnes in  All Saints, Robert Ellsberg reveals the subversive power of this virgin martyr:

In the story of Agnes, however, the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worshiped sets an altogether different value on her body, her identity, and her human worth. Espoused to God, she was beyond the power of any man to “have his way with her.” “Virgin” in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.

May this free woman, Agnes, move us all to worship not a God of power and violence, but a good of weakness and love.


I will return to this theme later, but I have to leave early this morning for the celebration of the closing of the centennial year of our diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima.

Agnes, the countercultural virgin

St. Agnes was martyred at the age of 12 or 13 for having refused to sacrifice to idols as well as for rejecting offers of marriage.

Having consecrated herself to Christ as a virgin at a young age, she was handed over to civil authorities. When she refused to sacrifice to the idols or to marry one of her suitors, she was placed first with the pagan Vestal Virgins and then in a brothel. It is said that when she was stripped naked, her hair grew to cover her.

In any case, the authorities tried unsuccessfully to burn her and finally killed her by the sword.

For some this is a story about sex and idolatry, but Robert Ellsberg in All Saints puts her life in a different context:

In the story of Agnes, however, the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to determine her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view of her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead.

Virginity is a way not only to consecrate her to Christ but a way to resist the powers of this world that reduce women to sexual objects to be conquered by men. The virgin is a woman who has obtained freedom to be who she is, made in the image and likeness of God.

Married women also partake of this freedom, as they live as true partners with their spouses, not defining themselves by their “man,” but living with their spouse as people united in love, respecting the dignity of each other. Faithful spouses resist the powers that identify people as merely genital or use sex as a form of power and conquest.

Ellsberg notes that in regard to St. Agnes,

“Virgin” in this case is another way to say Free Woman.

I would say that all women who recognize their dignity and live their lives in contrast to the sexualized culture of power and inequality can be Free Women.