Thursday, December 15, 2022

Mary Was Not an Unwed Mother

 From Catholic Answers:

Jewish weddings have two distinct stages: kiddushin and nisuin. After the first stage, there is a legal marriage that only death or divorce can break. These days, the two stages typically occur in a single ceremony, but because “bachelor pads” weren’t really a thing in antiquity, first-century husbands had a short time (upwards of a year) after the wedding to prepare a home for his new wife. By bringing his wife into the home and beginning married life together (nisuin), the marriage process was completed.

Thus, when we hear Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3), we should recognize the marital imagery. He’s saying to the Church that she’s already his bride, and that this life is the short space between the kiddushin and the nisuin—the wedding ceremony and the marital homecoming.

That’s also where we encounter Mary and Joseph on their journey towards Christmas. When we hear that Mary is “betrothed” to Joseph (Matt. 1:18, Luke 1:27), this is a poor translation. They’re not “betrothed” in the sense of a modern “engagement.” They’re legally married, and could licitly have sexual relations. That’s why Joseph considers a quiet divorce: because he’s “unwilling to put her to shame” (Matt. 1:19). There was no shame, because everyone would assume that Mary’s child was the son of Joseph (Luke 3:23), and it was perfectly acceptable to get pregnant by your husband in the time between the kiddushin and the nisuin.

And so the first thing we notice is that Mary and Joseph are legally married, and were free to have sexual relations. The second is that, for some reason, they don’t. We see this in the responses of both Mary and Joseph. Yes, the RSVCE records Mary as asking Gabriel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34). But as we just saw, she does have a husband. What she actually says is, “How will this be, since I know not a man?”

In other words, she’s not saying that she doesn’t have a husband. She’s saying that she doesn’t have sex with the husband she has. That’s a much stranger response, but it’s consonant with Joseph’s own response. Remember that he knew both a) that everyone would assume the child of Mary was his, since they were married, and b) that the child couldn’t possibly be his. The only reason he wouldn’t assume he was the father of the child is if he weren’t (public assumption to the contrary) having relations with his wife.

Early Christian texts claimed that Mary had taken some kind of vow of perpetual virginity in the temple. Whether that’s true or not, we know this much: Mary and Joseph are free to be engaging in licit marital relations, but aren’t. They aren’t at the time the angel Gabriel shows up, and they aren’t after the nisuin, when they start living together. (Read more.)


The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is the constant and ancient teaching of the Catholic Church. This de fide teaching is 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 upholding the same teaching:

Believe in the Son of God, the Word before all the ages, who 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)


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