A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse;
a spring dried up, a fountain sealed.
Song of Solomon 4, 12
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church. Not unlike the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary body and soul into Heaven, this de fide doctrine derives its integrity from the first Marian dogma of Mary being the Mother of God, in virtue of her first-born Son’s divinity in his single-person hypostatically united with our humanity. Mary is the mother of God or the Divine Logos incarnate (Isa. 7:14; Lk. 1:35, 43; Jn. 1:14). So, the dogma of Mary ever-virgin basically holds that the mother of our Lord remained a virgin her entire life in view of the Divine Maternity, albeit her marriage with Joseph and the Jewish religious and cultural norms of the time.
The Catholic dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary simply stated means that Our Blessed Lady was “ever-virgin”. She was a virgin (Virgo) before (ante-partum), during (in partu), and after (post-partum) the birth of Jesus. With respect to the virginity of Mary in partu, or during the birth of Jesus, the Catholic Church has traditionally believed and taught from the earliest time that when Mary gave birth to Jesus, her physical virginal integrity remained intact. There was no breaking of the hymen, no physical pain or discomfort that is normally experienced by a woman in labor, no-issuance of water and blood, and no placenta and umbilical cord.
Mary’s bodily integrity remained inviolate in harmony with her chaste spiritual integrity. There was no profane element of anything natural or any form of physical corruption in her giving birth to Jesus that could violate the purity of her soul and her exemption from all stain of original sin, nor anything wholly natural at all that could defile and render impure her holy Child. Both the Mother and the Son were exempted from experiencing the corruption associated with birth because of original sin.
Thus, the birth of Jesus was as supernatural and miraculous as his conception was by the power of the Holy Spirit. The entire creative process of the Son of man proceeded from no seed (zera) of man who descended from fallen Adam. So, all that was profane in the natural process of procreation, from the time the male seed opens a woman’s womb to the time of the offspring’s birth, as the result of Eve’s transgression and the fall of Adam, was kept at bay by Divine intervention. The appointed time that Mary should be delivered and give birth to her Son was decreed by God to be “before” she would naturally go into physical labor. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that Mary’s womb was a sacred shrine infused by the Holy Spirit (Shekinah) and a personal dwelling place of God the Son made man, so it was unfitting that this holy sanctuary of the Lord is used to gestate and bring forth common sinful offspring by the tainted seed of man (Summa Theologica, lll, Q.28, a. 3.).
St. Irenaeus drew a perfect analogy between Adam and Jesus – the New Adam – to show the Gnostics (who believed Jesus only appeared to be human in the flesh) how God intended to redeem humanity in the most perfect manner; that is by way of recapitulation, which required that the Redeemer be as much man as Adam was, but not from tilled soil. So, to be fully human, the Divine Word had to virginally assume his flesh and blood from a woman. Up to the time of the Incarnation, Mary was that virgin, of whose untilled and virgin flesh Jesus would be formed by the power of the Holy Spirit, just as God had originally made Adam from untilled and virgin soil – not through paternal seed as his fallen descendants would be after the fall.
Thus, Jesus was fully God and fully man born of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s pure womb provided the source of untilled virgin flesh her Son would take from her by his virginal conception, for up to that time she had had no relations with Joseph, just as the soil was still untilled and virginal at the time Adam was created before the fall. Neither Adam nor Jesus had earthly fathers but, nevertheless, they were both fully human. Jesus was no more an appearance of man than Adam was. The implication here is that Mary couldn’t have begotten Jesus by naturally going into painful labor since her Son wasn’t conceived in sin by the seed of man. Both Mary’s conception and the birth of Jesus were virginal. [cf. Against Heresies 3: 21.10: A Vindication of the Prophecy in Isaiah (VII. 14) Against the Misinterpretations of Theodotion, Aquila, the Ebionites, and the Jews. Authority of the Septuagint Version; arguments in Proof that Christ Was Born of a Virgin].
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (350 A.D.) implicitly taught Mary’s virginal integrity remained inviolate when she brought forth her divine Son. He writes in his Catechetical Lecture Xll.25: “For it became Him who is most pure, and a teacher of purity, to have come forth from a pure bride-chamber.” Clearly, the pure bride-chamber refers to Mary’s moral union with the Holy Spirit in begetting Christ together free from the taint of sin. In the same lecture, he speaks of Mary’s virginity and chastity as finding its culmination during the nine months she carried Jesus in her womb. The height of Mary’s spiritual and bodily purity was reached when God became incarnate in her womb and sanctified it with His presence, as much as His theophanies sanctified the tabernacle of the Ark and the Temple in Jerusalem. We can recall how grievously Jesus reacted to the mercenary activities of the merchants and money changers in the Temple precincts (Mt. 21:12-13).
The Divine Maternity was Mary’s singular and personal glory because of her virginal state, the purity of her body, and her soul. And this glory of hers should always last for her to be the worthy Mother of our Lord. She had to be perpetually chaste and preserved free from all forms of the taint of sin and corruption to be the worthiest of all mothers for our Lord. Mary’s purity in body and soul had to completely conform to the inviolate purity of her Son in the fullness of his humanity.
Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. She was God’s virginal bride. Jesus came forth from “a pure bridal chamber”, exempted from putridity and corruption. Mary was God’s virginal and “holy bride” whose “nuptial pledges” were made to Him in their marriage covenant. The glory of Mary’s chastity would have been extinguished if she had given birth to Jesus in the natural way as all women do by the seed of sinful man. Cyril acknowledged two essential things about Mary: She was the “Virgin Mother of God” and she was God’s “holy bride” throughout her life, being the mother of His Divine Son. In verse 32 of Lecture Xll, Cyril states that our Lord’s “birth was pure, undefiled” which indicates he believed, along with the other Church Fathers and Doctors who explicitly taught the Virginitas In Partu, that Mary’s physical virginal integrity continued beyond the miraculous conception of Jesus and the months she had held him in her sacred womb. Mary was ever-virgin.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him
in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush;
and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning,
yet it was not consumed.
Exodus 3, 2
The holy presence of God in Mary’s sanctified womb couldn’t have defiled or violated her virginal integrity in any way. Nor could her Divine offspring have been subjected to the corrupt elements of the birth process because of sin, which would have rendered him ritually impure for his presentation in the Temple and subject to the ceremonial law of circumcision. The Virgin Mary was the bride of YHWH (the Divine Bridegroom) in the flesh who had put His bride at enmity with the Serpent and all its works (Gen. 3:15). Both the Mother and the Son shared a single enmity (Lk. 1;42).
There is absolutely no affinity between the sacred and the profane, or between the Divine holiness and corruption itself in all its forms because of sin. The burning bush was alight in flames but was not consumed and turned into ashes because of God’s immediate presence. What God sanctifies merely by His presence cannot be subject to putridity and corruption. Rather, it is made holy. Indeed, God commanded Moses to remove the sandals from his feet before he could approach the burning bush, for even the earth that surrounded it was made holy by God’s physical manifestation (Ex. 3:5). The soil on the soles of his sandals was implicitly declared to be impure.
The Divine Logos, Jesus, sanctified his mother’s womb while He was present there, and He preserved the sanctity of her body at the appointed time when the Father willed that he be born. All forms of physical corruption in creation are the result of Adam and Eve’s sin, by which they forfeited the original grace of holiness and justice for humanity. The Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin by her Immaculate Conception. She was exempted, therefore, from the law of sin which Eve brought down upon women, because she was chosen to be the mother of the Divine Messiah and Bridegroom (Gen. 3:16). Most blessed was the mother of the Lord among women and blessed was the fruit of her womb (Lk. 1:42).
Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, facing the
east; but it was closed. He said to me: “This gate is to remain closed;
it is not to be opened for anyone to enter by it; since the Lord, the God
of Israel, has entered by it, it shall remain closed.”
Ezekiel 44, 1- 3
The Universal Magisterium of the Catholic Church has infallibly defined as a de fide doctrine that “at the appropriate time, Jesus left his mother’s womb through the natural channels, but in a miraculous way, just as he had entered it without the least diminution of her virginal integrity” (Lumen Gentium, 57). Jesus was born without in any way opening his mother’s womb, just as the Holy Spirit had overshadowed Mary without opening it. In other words, there was no dilation of the birth canal, no opening of the vagina, and no breaking of the virginal hymen. Jesus passed through the birth canal and entered the world like he had entered the room where his disciples were gathered with the doors locked (Jn. 20:19).
In defense of the miraculous and painless birth of Christ, St. Thomas Aquinas drew the analogy of light passing through glass without damaging it (Summa Theologica, III, Q. 28, a. 2. ). With this imagery in mind, he argued that Jesus passed through his mother’s womb without opening it and without any harm to her physical virginal seal. This was only fitting because Mary was the pure and perfect tabernacle of Christ, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. The birth of her Son ought to have been an experience that drew her into closer spiritual communion with God rather than one that could have momentarily distanced her soul from God because of physical distress (Heb. tumah).
St. Augustine contended that he who was the light of the world and “came to heal corruption” should not “by His advent violate integrity” (Sermon 189). Jesus came to save and re-create mankind (Adam) and renew the state of the world. His mother’s pure womb was his first work of re-creation in the physical order. The miracle was an eschatological sign of the restoration and renewal of creation with the coming of the Messiah: a long-awaited hope of the Jews. Therefore, it was fitting that his mother’s virginal integrity be preserved intact and he is born in new conditions raised above the state of fallen humanity and creation.
Before she was in labor she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son.
Who ever heard of such a thing, or who ever saw the like?
Can a land be brought forth in one day,
or a nation be born in a single moment?
Yet Zion was scarcely in labor when she bore her children.
Shall I bring a mother to the point of birth,
and yet not let her child be born? says the LORD.
Or shall I who bring to birth yet close her womb?
says your God.
Isaiah 66, 7-9
And while they were there,
the time came for her to be delivered.
Luke 2, 6
What Isaiah says in 7:14 about the Virgin Birth reflects what God intends to reveal in 66:7. Mary’s virginal integrity is never violated on either occasion, neither when she conceives Jesus nor when she gives birth to her Divine Son: “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.” We read in the English version of the Septuagint – the Greek translation from Hebrew: ‘Before she that travailed brought forth before the travail-pain came on, she escaped it and brought forth a male.’ (Isaiah 66:7). The original Hebrew expression for “she was delivered” is malat (maw-lat’), also meaning “she escaped it” as we have in the Greek translation. The above passage sheds light on the full meaning and implications of the Hebrew phrase חֵ֛בֶללָ֖הּ וְהִמְלִ֥יטָה זָכָֽר׃ (she was delivered) in Isaiah 66:7 found in the Masoretic Text. The Virgin Mary escaped the experience of having to go into labor before giving birth, as all mothers ordinarily must, by Divine deliverance. She didn’t deliver her child (active voice) but was delivered (passive voice) of her child at God’s appointed time and by His intervention.
Any woman who has given or gives birth (active voice) is delivered from or has been released from the travails of the act of childbirth (passive voice). She causes this release or escapes from travail by giving birth. So, what the Hebrew phrase implies is that Mary has escaped from going into labor and experiencing pain before she should when giving birth. The Alexandrian Jews who translated Hebrew into Greek understood the connotations of this expression. Thus, we have: “she escaped it and brought forth.” The woman is the physical cause of giving birth (active voice), but God’s intervention is the cause of when she shall give birth – that is before she goes into labor and is delivered from the natural pangs of childbirth (passive voice).
Mary miraculously gives birth to the male child by Divine intervention. God releases her from the prospect of going into labor and experiencing the pangs of childbirth, which she can have no control over and is unable to escape from causatively until she gives birth unless God causes her to give birth beforehand. Moreover, the Hiphil stem can be used to express a causative type of action with an active voice. It is causative of the Qal stem of a verb. In other words, the subject causes the action of the verb, but the subject does not directly perform the act. In many instances, we can take the Qal form of the verb and precede it with ‘to cause to’ or ‘to make to’. For example: ‘David reigned over Israel.’ (Qal stem with David as the subject of the verb); ‘God caused David to reign over Israel (Hiphil stem of the same verb with God as the subject).’
Mary, therefore, causes the action of giving birth, but she does not directly perform the action of giving birth before her time comes. It is God who directly performs or causes the act of her giving birth before she goes into labor and experiences pain. It is by a miracle and Divine intervention that the Virgin shall not only conceive, by no seed of man but also give birth to a Son with her womb unopened like a gate that must remain shut, that is before she naturally goes into labor and her pains set in. Not even the Prince of peace shall open it, let alone any offspring of Joseph, so Ezekiel prophesies. The Virgin neither conceives nor bears a Son in a completely natural or normal way. Isaiah’s sign points to a miracle that comprises the entire process of procreation from conception to birth, which points to the divinity of the coming Messiah King who shall inherit the throne of his father David and restore his royal dynasty. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the trigger sign or great sign in heaven of this eternal restoration (Rev. 12).
Early sacred tradition
“And concerning His birth, the same prophet [Isaiah] says in another place,
‘Before she who was in labor gave birth, and before the birth-pains came on, she
was delivered of a male child’ (Isaiah 66:7). Thus, he indicated His unexpected and
extraordinary birth from the Virgin.”
St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 54
“Among the myriads of men born of Adam, succeeding him as long as his nature will
continue through successive births, only Jesus came to light through a new way of
being born… In fact, his birth alone occurred without labor pains, and he alone
began to exist without sexual relations… Even the prophet Isaiah affirms that her
giving birth was without pain, when he says, ‘Before the pangs of birth arrived, a
male child came forth and was born’
St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Song of Songs 13
“How would it have been possible for her to give birth filled with birth-pangs, in the
image of the primeval curse? If Mary was ‘blessed of women’ [Luke 1:42], she would
have been exempt from the curse from the beginning, and from the bearing of
children in birth-pangs and curses.”
St. Ephrem of SyriaCommentary on the Diatesseron, 2.6
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
Luke 1, 28
On the Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
20 June 2020