Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

During Advent we contemplate the mysteries surrounding the Birth of the Savior. We await His coming with the Virgin Mary, whose journey to Bethlehem becomes our own. We will never fully comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation and yet through faith we may grasp the unfathomable. So much of what the Church teaches has been distorted in our times. The teaching on Our Lady's perpetual virginity is often misunderstood, as Fr. Mark explains:
Even in the minds of many of the faithful, enfeebled by a forty year dearth of popular orthodox catechesis, a tragic confusion holds sway concerning the privileges of the Blessed Virgin Mary and, in particular, her virginity before, during, and after childbirth. There are many, alas, who, affected by various mutations of creeping Nestorianism and Arianism, have no grasp of what it means to call the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Those who do not confess the privileges of the Blessed Virgin Mary, honouring them and celebrating them, fall inevitably into one or another of the classic Christological heresies.
Fr. Mark further discusses this beautiful and ancient teaching, as follows:
Ever since the Council of Ephesus in 431, icons of the Mother of God have been marked by three stars: one on her forehead, and one on each shoulder, The three stars signify her perpetual virginity: before, during, and after the birth of her Son....

Ancient liturgical texts reflect the language of the first great Christological councils of the Church. It was crucial, in the context of the prevailing heresies, to invoke Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God, or as Ever-Virgin. It was feared that by referring to Mary as a woman called simply by her ordinary name, something of the mystery of Christ, True God and True Man, might be obscured or compromised. The liturgy in both East and West reflects this ancient preference. While, in preaching and in works of devotion, we often hear the name of Mary without her theological titles, the liturgy calls her Sancta Dei Genetrix (Holy God-bearer) and Semper Virgo (Ever-Virgin).

The most ancient prayer to the Virgin Mother is the Sub tuum praesidium, found on an Egyptian papyrus from the 3rd century. It does not include the name “Mary,” but invokes her as Holy God-bearer (Sancta Dei Genetrix) and Virgin glorious and blessed, (Virgo gloriosa et benedicta).

The liturgy through the ages is consistent in confessing that God Himself is the author of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The same thought is carried over into the ancient rites for the Consecration of Virgins. Virginity, before being something offered to God, is a gift received from Him. It is a gift wholly ordered to union with Christ. Christ is the Spouse of Virgins; He is, at the same time, the blessed Fruit of a virginity received from God and offered back to Him. The liturgy does not separate virginity from motherhood. The virginity given by God is characterized not by sterility, but by an astonishing fecundity.

More on this de fide teaching in the Catechism:
The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it." And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin."
Here are some beautiful quotes from Fathers of Church:
Believe in the Son of God, the Word before all the ages, who was...in these last days, for your sake, made son of Man, born of the Virgin Mary in an indescribable and stainless way, -for there is no stain where God is and whence salvation comes.... (St. Gregory of Nazianzen, Oration on Holy Baptism, 40:45; 381 AD)
According to the condition of the body (Jesus) was in the womb, He nursed at His mother's breast, He lay in the manger, but superior to that condition, the Virgin conceived and the Virgin bore, so that you might believe that He was God who restored nature, though He was man who, in accord with nature, was born of a human being. (St. Ambrose of Milan, Mystery of the Lord's Incarnation, 6:54; 382 AD)
Who is this gate (Ezekiel 44:1-4), if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity. (St. Ambrose of Milan, The Consecration of a Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, 8:52; c. 391 AD)


Sara said...

I'm not sure I understand the statements made here- The Bible clearly speaks of literal brother and sisters of Jesus Christ (for instance, in Mark 6:3), which would clearly indicate that Mary was not a virgin for her whole life. Although the Bible makes it clear that Mary was a virgin at the conception and birth of Christ, surely the birth of Jesus brothers and sisters would have taken away that status. In any case, what is the value of reinterpreting the Bible's view of Mary to fit a teaching that so obviously derives from the "virgin goddess" worship or pagan religions? There is no mention in the gospels of the first century Christian congregation worshiping Mary or focusing on her supposed virginity.

elena maria vidal said...

Hi, Sara, thanks for commenting. There is an excellent article on the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus here:

[quote]'When Catholics call Mary the "Blessed Virgin," they mean she remained a virgin throughout her life. When Protestants refer to Mary as "virgin," they mean she was a virgin only until Jesus’ birth. They believe that she and Joseph later had children whom Scripture refers to as "the brethren of the Lord." The disagreement arises over biblical verses that use the terms "brethren," "brother," and "sister."

There are about ten instances in the New Testament where "brothers" and "sisters" of the Lord are mentioned (Matt. 12:46; Matt. 13:55; Mark 3:31–34; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19–20; John 2:12, 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5).

When trying to understand these verses, note that the term "brother" (Greek: adelphos) has a wide meaning in the Bible. It is not restricted to the literal meaning of a full brother or half-brother. The same goes for "sister" (adelphe) and the plural form "brothers" (adelphoi). The Old Testament shows that "brother" had a wide semantic range of meaning and could refer to any male relative from whom you are not descended (male relatives from whom you are descended are known as "fathers") and who are not descended from you (your male descendants, regardless of the number of generations removed, are your "sons"), as well as kinsmen such as cousins, those who are members of the family by marriage or by law rather than by blood, and even friends or mere political allies (2 Sam. 1:26; Amos 1:9).

Lot, for example, is called Abraham’s "brother" (Gen. 14:14), even though, being the son of Haran, Abraham’s brother (Gen. 11:26–28), he was actually Abraham’s nephew. Similarly, Jacob is called the "brother" of his uncle Laban (Gen. 29:15). Kish and Eleazar were the sons of Mahli. Kish had sons of his own, but Eleazar had no sons, only daughters, who married their "brethren," the sons of Kish. These "brethren" were really their cousins (1 Chr. 23:21–22).

The terms "brothers," "brother," and "sister" did not refer only to close relatives. Sometimes they meant kinsmen (Deut. 23:7; Neh. 5:7; Jer. 34:9), as in the reference to the forty-two "brethren" of King Azariah (2 Kgs. 10:13–14).

No Word for Cousin

Because neither Hebrew nor Aramaic (the language spoken by Christ and his disciples) had a special word meaning "cousin," speakers of those languages could use either the word for "brother" or a circumlocution, such as "the son of my uncle." But circumlocutions are clumsy, so the Jews often used "brother."

The writers of the New Testament were brought up using the Aramaic equivalent of "brothers" to mean both cousins and sons of the same father—plus other relatives and even non-relatives. When they wrote in Greek, they did the same thing the translators of the Septuagint did. (The Septuagint was the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible; it was translated by Hellenistic Jews a century or two before Christ’s birth and was the version of the Bible from which most of the Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament are taken.)

In the Septuagint the Hebrew word that includes both brothers and cousins was translated as adelphos, which in Greek usually has the narrow meaning that the English "brother" has. Unlike Hebrew or Aramaic, Greek has a separate word for cousin, anepsios, but the translators of the Septuagint used adelphos, even for true cousins.' [end quote]
(The whole article is worth reading.)

There is plenty of evidence from the Early Church fathers, some of whom I quoted in my article, that while Mary was never worshiped as a 'virgin goddess' she was held in reverence by the Church from the beginning. Certainly, she was never given what the Church calls "latria," the adoration which belongs to God alone. Rather she was honored as the Mother of the Savior. The honor shown to the Virgin Mary is called "hyperdulia," surpassing the honor which we Catholics give to other saints (dulia). Here is a link to some quotes from the early fathers about Mary:

I would also refer you to the link which I embedded in the original article, on the perpetual virginity of Mary.

I understand that for people unfamiliar with the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church, the notion of consecrated virginity, and especially of the perpetual virginity of Mary, can be difficult to grasp. However, as it says in the Bible, in both Catholic and Protestant versions: "Nothing is impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)