By Rev. Fr. B Joseph Francis –
The importance of the question about the virginal birth of Jesus
In this chapter we reflect on the profound mystery of the virginal birth of Jesus. The CCC (The Catechism of the Catholic Church) devotes many numbers to this question (CCC 496-507 + 510-511), perhaps because this is one question that vexes the modern mind very much. Catholics should understand clearly what the Church holds. Resolutely and unflinchingly the Church holds to the ancient formulation that Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit i.e., the conception took place without the intervention of any human male seed (CCC 496). Mary, obviously, is a passive contributor in this drama. Her activity is only in the active “behold the hand-maid of the Lord”. No doubt, she cannot say even this if she had not been prepared by the Holy Spirit through his presence in her life, leading her from the very first moment of her life as the Immaculate Virgin. Therefore, the initiative is totally from God and not any man for that matter. It is thus that Mary’s conception of Jesus is virginal.
Virginal conception of Jesus was neither a legend nor a theological construct
The Gospel of Mathew and Luke clearly portray this belief of the ancient Church in the virginal birth of Jesus (CCC 497). The next number takes note of the fact that Mark does not speak of the virginal conception. He is silent and this has raised the wonder of some people who think that the “virginal conception was merely a legend or a theological construction and not history”. To this, the CCC offers an answer that the postulate of the virginity of Mary and the virginal birth of Jesus Christ is not an idea borrowed from any prevailing pagan myth because there was incomprehension among Jews of the first and second centuries when Mary’s virginal conception was asserted. St. Justin’s controversy with Tryphon and Origen’s controversy with Celsus bear witness to this. Therefore, it is not a borrowed myth. If it were a borrowed myth, both Tryphon in the time of Justin (2nd century) and Celsus in the time of Origen (3rd century) would not have raised the question at all since they would have been accustomed to such tales. Because it was not a tale and believed in by the Christians to be what it is that they raise the controversy denying it! We should not also claim that it is a theological construct since St. Ignatius of Antioch (first century) says clearly that the understanding of the fact is accessible only to faith and that the virginal birth, life and even the death of Jesus are all connected realities and they were accomplished in God’s silence.
In other words, we cannot hold a belief regarding the understanding of the death of Christ as bringing us salvation without holding a belief regarding his virginal birth. If we have no such faith in the virginal birth of Jesus, then his death would only be an insignificant death of a good man of the first century.
On the contrary, we see in that death, God dying on the cross to save man; for indeed he is God who makes his entry into history not at the bidding of man, but on his own terms. That Jesus is God can be more easily held when you speak of the virginal birth whereby God takes the initiative and comes into the world. However, we must be quick to add that it is not a proof but only an indication (for that matter, we do not try to prove anything in theology but only show the reasonableness of Faith).
Mary is “ever”Virgin CCC 499-500 address the question of her “ever virginity’. CCC 499 speaks of Mary’s giving birth as not diminishing but sanctifying her virginity. This in traditional Latin terminology is called “virginitas IN partu” (virginity in childbirth). This has been controversial in the sense that medically it is impossible. Otherwise you would have to hold Gnostic or Docetic views of a kind of spiritual and not a real, material i.e., tangible body for Jesus. Virginity here is to be taken in a symbolic meaning, namely, a virginally conceived child does not destroy the virginity of the mother but sanctifies it. Virginity here is not to be considered as a biological or physical breaking of the hymen and what is considered as contrary to virginity is only when the hymen is broken by consenting sexual intercourse.
A further traditional statement in Latin terminology is “virginitas post partum” i.e., Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus. In other words, it means not only did she not have sexual intercourse with Joseph before the birth of Jesus or after the birth of Jesus but also it means she did not have other physical children. CCC 500 tries to answer the question of brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels and points out to the passage in Mathew where he clearly speaks of the “other” Mary. Therefore, these are close relatives of Jesus. Perhaps they were his first or second cousins. Regarding the question of brothers and sisters of Jesus note the following also: Mk 15. 40+47+16.1 speak of Mary, mother of James the younger and of Joses; Mt 27. 56 speaks of Mary, mother of James and Joseph; Mt 27. 61+ 28.1 speak of “the other Mary”; Jn 19.25 enumerating those who were beneath the cross of Jesus crucified mentions:
1) Jesus’ mother;
2) His mother’s sister (unnamed);
3) Mary the wife of Clopas
4) Mary Magdalene.
Therefore the brothers and sisters of Jesus could refer to the children of this “mother’s sister” or of “the other Mary” or of “Mary the mother of James the younger, Joses and Joseph”. The problem, however, is in Greek where we have a separate word for cousin and that is ANEPSIOS. Why is it not used since the New Testament is written in Greek? The answer seems to be they wish to keep in line with the Hebrew practice of calling all such as brothers and sisters even as in our South Indian vernaculars we do while speaking in English though there is a separate word in English to designate cousins different from blood brothers and sisters. There is also a further spiritual meaning for “other” children of Mary. We are her other children whom she begot beneath the Cross when she received from her son the commission to care for us. We are her spiritual sons and daughters (CCC 501). CCC 502-507 speaks of other reasons globally as to why virginity of Mary is fitting. We could schematize it as follows:
- Why should Mary be a virgin is God’s way of showing clearly his initiative? Salvation is from God alone. The human being is only to accept the offer.
- Jesus is to be the New Adam. So there has to be a new beginning. Though there is continuity, there has also to be a break from the past.
- This new is continued in all of us born of the Spirit and united to Jesus. It is a new that began in the womb of the Virgin Mary. We may ask: How can this be? The answer is: “Not of blood nor of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man but of God” (Jn 1.13).
- Virginity is further a sign of Mary’s faith… her whole hearted commitment to God i.e., to belong totally to God.
- Mary is thus both Virgin and Mother. Note the Virgin here would signify that she belongs to God and this is the vertical dimension; Mother would signify that she belongs to us and this is the horizontal dimension of this great spiritual event.
To be continued next Thursday…