Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
April 30, 2001
Virgin before, during and after
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Mary, the woman who suffered at the foot of the cross.
Mary, the woman whose suffering was foretold by Simeon. Mary, the woman who pondered much in her heart, confused by her divine Son who was beyond human understanding.
In discussing Mary's place in the Christian tradition, we must talk about her virginity. While Mary's role of Theotokos, the Mother of God, is the central Marian dogma, her virginity is so much a part of her personal identity that we typically call her "the Virgin Mary."
Catholics see her as virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus. Her virgin conception of Jesus is so well rooted in Scripture and the beliefs of the early Church that there was never any need for popes or councils to "define" this dogma. Likewise, her perpetual virginity remained uncontroversial until relatively recent times.
It was her virginity in partu, the belief that she remained physically intact and without the normal pains while giving birth to Jesus, that gave rise to discussion. The Church's teaching was rooted in Matthew's novel view of Isaiah 7:14 which he interpreted as "the virgin shall conceive and bear a son" (Matthew 1:23).
St. Ambrose read Ezekiel 44:2, which spoke of the eastern gate of the Temple remaining shut except for the Lord passing through it, as symbolic of Mary remaining virginally intact through child birth. Likewise, St. Thomas Aquinas saw Jesus' coming forth from a closed womb as akin to the risen Lord passing through locked doors (John 20:19).
The Eastern Church focused less on Mary's physical intactness through the birth process and more on her painless and joyful giving birth to the Saviour. It read the punishment in Genesis 3:16 — "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children" — as overcome in Mary, the New Eve.
Various popes upheld Mary's virginity in partu, but the topic was never disputed widely enough to be the subject of an ecumenical council. The Second Vatican Council upheld the teaching, saying "the Mother of God showed her firstborn Son, who did not less her virginal integrity but sanctified it to shepherds and the Magi."
Mary's virginal conception of Jesus was an historical fact. It also contains powerful symbolism. It is a sign that the world is not closed in on itself.
There is a transcendent God who directly intervenes in human history. We are poor, powerless creatures unable to procure our own salvation. But God brings us salvation through the active consent of a woman who, when asked, freely gives her body, her whole self, to God's purposes.
Virginity in her is not a barren, shrivelled-up existence. It is fruitful. This virginity, in total union with the Holy Spirit, gives birth to the author of our salvation.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the 20th century's great theologians, speaks of Mary's pregnancy as a time of pain. While not referring to the teaching on virginity in partu, von Balthasar speaks of Mary surrendering her fertility to God and of her pain as sharing in the fruitfulness of Christ's cross and resurrection.
Mary's unconditional availability to God, her whole life of virginity and also of suffering, gives birth to heaven. "Indeed, one can truly talk of giving birth to one's heaven at the end of an earthly pregnancy," wrote von Balthasar.
Mary was unique. She was chosen and prepared by God for his sacred purpose. And she gave herself freely and totally to that purpose. But Mary was not free from the fatigue, the wounds and the travail of human life.
Because of her sanctity and purity, and because she has suffered what we suffer, Mary is a refuge for us. We can go to her with our troubles and fears, joys and hopes, and be confident that she will find room for them in her heart.
She will take our concerns to her Son and also help us to weather the storms of our own "pregnancy" as we give birth with God to eternal life.
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