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 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2, 4-7
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.
Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, during his birth, and after she gave birth to him. Moreover, Catholics have always believed since earliest time that Mary’s union with the Holy Spirit was redolent of a marriage in a spiritual sense, as the relationship between YHWH and Israel was, and thereby moral in nature. If Mary chose to remain chaste her entire life and stay continent in her marriage with her legal husband, whoever that might be, it was by the prompting of the Holy Spirit at an early age, whose virgin spouse in a spiritual and mystical sense she was chosen to be from all eternity (Lk. 1:35).
God willed that a matrimonial type of covenant should exist between Him and His handmaid Mary with all the dignity contained in the sacrament. It was becoming, therefore, that a partnership, which reflected that of the whole of life and which was ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring and nurturing them, should exist between the two. As a man and a woman should become one flesh in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony to meet the Divine purpose of consummating their marriage, so too should the Holy Spirit and Mary become morally one in spirit in their quasi-physical union in accord with the Divine moral law for the same Divine purpose.
In a sense, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, God proposed to Mary when she was a young girl living and serving in the Temple. He claimed her as his own virgin bride and possession, not only so that they should beget the holy Child together, but also that through their consummation they might beget all His children who would be regenerated unto God by being reborn in the Spirit (Jn. 3:3; Rom. 8:29). All members of Christ’s Mystical Body are the only other children Mary begot following the birth of her divine Son, who belong to the spiritual family of God that transcends all blood ties in the natural world (Mk. 3:31-35) and are the seed of the free promised woman (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 12:17).
By the influence of divine grace, Mary felt compelled to remain chaste her entire life so that she could devote herself to God entirely in body and spirit. Once she became the mother of our Lord, she could focus all her attention on her divine Son and, in union with God, raise and nurture him until it was time for his public ministry to begin, on which occasion Mary’s motherhood would be spiritually redefined and extended to all humanity (Jn. 2:3-8; 19:26-27).
Indeed, Mary had consecrated herself to God when she was still a young girl without really knowing all the implications that her sublime act involved. She could hardly have imagined that she was predestined to be the mother of her Lord. Yet God had preordained to single His handmaid out from fallen humanity and establish His covenant with her, as He had with Israel, before she was even conceived in her mother’s womb. For this reason, God preserved Mary free from all stain of original sin and its ill moral effects: concupiscence of the eyes, concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life. God sanctified Mary’s soul at the first instant of her conception and endowed her with a perfect and complete abundance of lasting grace (kecharitomene), so that she would be worthiest of being the mother of His Only-begotten Son and the unblemished bride of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:28). Her marriage covenant with God required a shared moral and spiritual disposition which presupposed that she lives a supernatural life of grace raised above the natural state of fallen humanity (Lev. 20:26; Ezek. 16: 8-14).
Luke portrays Mary as the antitupos of the pure and undefiled Ark of the Covenant by referring to the Book of Exodus and the Second Book of Samuel among other Old Testament texts. The Ark was so holy by Divine consecration, that if any common man should touch it without first having had himself ritually purified, despite any good intention, he would certainly die (2 Sam. 6:6-7). God sanctified the Ark of the Covenant by His physical manifestation, as it was constructed by His specifications to serve as His sacred dwelling place. Nothing profane was permitted to touch it.
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 be used to gestate and bring forth common sinful offspring by the tainted seed of man (Summa Theologica, lll, Q.28, a. 3.). As a devout Jew, Joseph must have revered Mary’s womb as much as he would have revered the Ark and the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Certainly, he wouldn’t have dared enter the Holy of Holies. Mary’s sacred womb was God’s personal sanctuary – not his “foot-stool” (Isa. 66:1).
Having conjugal relations within the holy bond of matrimony isn’t sinful by any means. A marriage blessed by God is intrinsically good, whereas pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations deeply offend Him by violating His will for what is good for a man and a woman. A jewel chest is a good thing to have for one who is in possession of many valuable jewels. But to put these jewels inside the Ark of the Covenant for safe keeping would amount to sacrilege. Joseph knew that he would not only have committed sacrilege, but also adultery in a moral sense, if he had had marital intercourse with Mary and opened her womb with his tainted seed after his wife had been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and conceived the holy Son of God by Him without opening her womb with tainted seed.
Morally, Mary was espoused to God as His virgin bride. She was “overshadowed” by “the power” or authority (resuth) of the Most High God: a Hebrew euphemism for having conjugal relations. Thus, Mary was under God’s rule and authority as a wife is under her husband by Divine ordinance. As God’s spouse, she morally belonged exclusively to him, as Eve had under the rule or authority (resuth) of her husband Adam (Gen. 3:16).
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 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 Mary being a virgin before and after the birth of Jesus, our conventional understanding of the word virgin should come to mind. We take it to mean that Mary had no sexual relations with her husband Joseph before and after our Lord’s birth. However, when Catholics speak of Mary as having been a virgin during the birth of Jesus, they don’t mean that she abstained from having conjugal relations with her husband during the time of her pregnancy or at the time of her Son’s birth.
Rather, what the Catholic Church has traditionally believed and taught from earliest time is 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 labour, 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 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 man, was kept at bay by Divine intervention. The appointed time that Mary should be delivered and give birth to her Son was set by God to be “before” she would naturally go into physical labour.
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).
The Virginitas In Partu (virginity during the birth) has belonged to the Apostolic Tradition of the Catholic Church from the beginning. What the Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church have taught about Mary’s virgin birth has been handed down by faithful transmission (paradosis) from the Apostles through the oral tradition. St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, was a student of Bishop St. Polycarp of Smyrnaea, who in turn was a disciple of the Apostle St. John, with whom Mary lived the rest of her life until c. A.D. 48 (Jn. 19:27). This is what Irenaeus (180-190 A.D.) has written as a living testimony to the Apostolic Faith: “The Word will become flesh, and the Son of God the son of man—the Pure One opening purely that pure womb, which generates men unto God.” [Against Heresies 4, 33, 12].
Meanwhile, in his Gospel, John the Evangelist writes: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt (eskenosen) among us, …’ (1:14). The root word for this Greek verb is skene, which means “tent” or “tabernacle, such as the portable tent or tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant until the First Temple was completely built by David’s son, King Solomon. Where else, but in the most sacred womb of his Blessed Mother did our Lord “tabernacle” himself among us? His blessed mother’s womb was a sanctuary and personal dwelling place of God as sacred, if not more, than the inner sanctuary of the Temple. For God’s incarnation took place there by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s husband Joseph could no more open her womb with his tainted seed after the birth of Jesus than the High Priest could enter the Temple sanctuary that housed the Ark but only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) or be struck dead. God’s absolute personal holiness was not to be taken for granted.
Irenaeus certainly knew his Isaiah very well, and so, in a Christian context, he could interpret the verse as Messianic. He speaks of the Virgin Mary as being the anti-type of Yahweh’s virgin bride, Daughter Zion, from whose blessed womb redeemed offspring are born regenerated in spirit unto God after having been liberated from captivity in sin or Babylon. God shall suddenly and in an unexpected manner come into the world through his virgin bride without inflicting birth pangs and injury to the mother herself. He who is to come into the world to heal mankind of the malady of sin shall not be the cause of the effects of sin. Nor can he who offers himself as the only remedy for sin have his mother, the new Eve, be made subject to what Eve wrought for all women by her transgression. The Virgin Mary is “most blessed among women” (Lk. 1:42).
Further, 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 labour, since her Son wasn’t conceived in sin by the seed of man. Both Mary’s conception and 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].
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. 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 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 be born in new conditions raised above the state of fallen man and creation.
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 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.
Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a
sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall call his name Immanuel: God with us.
Isaiah 7, 14
And while they were there,
the time came for her to be delivered.
Luke 2, 6
That Jesus would be born miraculously just as he had been conceived by the will of God, and Mary remain a virgin during the birth of Jesus, was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall “conceive” (παρθένος) in the womb, and shall “bring forth” (τέξεται) a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.’ (7:14). This passage from the Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew OT. The Hebrew word harah can mean either conceive (become pregnant) or be pregnant (be with child). Isaiah means “to become pregnant”. The Septuagint, which Matthew cites in his gospel (1:23) to show that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ real father, verifies this. The meaning of the Greek word εννοώ is “to conceive” strictly in the sense of “becoming pregnant” or “cause to be pregnant.”
Since virgins do not naturally conceive offspring, it follows that the prophet is speaking of a supernatural conception. Included with Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus is her virginal act of giving birth to him, which virgins naturally don’t give. Isaiah says that a virgin shall “bring forth a son.” The Greek word τέξεται (“bring forth” or “cause to be born”) is translated from וֹי ל דת (u·ildth: literally “one giving birth”), which is the intended meaning of the verb “to bear” (yalad) in the Hebrew OT. Hence, this verse must do with two miraculous events: the conception and birth of Jesus. The conception of Jesus was virginal, since Mary’s womb hadn’t been opened by the seed of man. The act of Mary giving birth was virginal, since Christ hadn’t opened his mother’s womb when he was born. Mary was a virgin at the time of Christ’s birth as well as at his conception. This is confirmed by another Zion prophecy of Isaiah (66:7): ‘Before she travailed (ta hil), she brought forth (ya-la-dah); before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child. It appears Luke confirms what God has intended to fully reveal (sensus plenior) through the words of the prophet.
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. We read in the English version of the Septuagint – the Greek translation from the 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 labour 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 child birth (passive voice). She causes this release or escape from travail by giving birth. So, what the Hebrew phrase implies is that Mary has escaped from going into labour and experiencing pain before she should when giving birth. The Alexandrian Jews who translated the 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 labour 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 labour 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 labour 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 labour 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).
In the first half of the 5th century, the great doctrinal controversies in the Christian world all revolved around the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Christ and how Christ’s divinity and humanity were related in him. The Council of Chalcedon presents us with the definitive dogmatic resolution to these controversies, which holds even today as the profession of the Catholic Church’s faith. The basis for this conciliar definition was a letter that Pope Leo I sent in advance to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Pope Leo’s letter, commonly known as the Tome of Leo, was originally written in Latin in 449 A.D. but was translated into Greek for use at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The following excerpt is the English translation from the Greek text, since the Conciliar Greek text is more authoritative than the Latin one. The Tome is primarily Christological in its topic, but the Church’s profession of faith in Mary being “Ever-Virgin” is equally ratified, though secondary in importance with respect to the dogma of the Incarnation. The words in the Tome of Pope St. Leo the Great include: “He was conceived from the Holy Spirit inside the womb of the virgin mother. Her virginity was as untouched in giving him birth as it was in conceiving him. So, without leaving his Father’s glory behind, the Son of God comes down from his heavenly throne and enters the depths of our world, born in an unprecedented order by an unprecedented kind of birth.”
I will declare the decree:
the LORD hath said unto me,
Thou art my Son;
this day have I begotten thee.
Psalm 2, 7