The Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II (553), calls our Lady aeiparthenos, semper virgo, “ever-virgin,” the title with which she is acclaimed in the liturgies of both East and West. (1) According to the teaching of the Church, after conceiving and giving birth as a virgin, the Mother of God remained for ever a virgin. Her marriage to St. Joseph was a true one, endowed with all the goods of marriage, but it was never consummated. She and her spouse most chaste lived together in perfect and perpetual continence. The so-called brethren of the Lord mentioned in the Gospels are, therefore, not the physical children of Mary and Joseph but close relatives from the extended family. In the early centuries, the perpetual virginity of our Lady was denied by such heretics as Jovinian, Helvidius and the so-called Antidicomarianites and defended with chivalrous zeal by, among others, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Augustine. In 1555 Pope Paul IV condemned the denial of the perpetual virginity by rationalistic Protestants. (2)
One of the signs of the perpetual virginity of our Lady in Scripture is our Lord’s entrusting of His Mother to the care of St. John. From Origen onwards, Catholic exegetes have argued that this shows that, after the death of Joseph, there was no one else within the immediate family to look after Mary, and that she therefore conceived no child but Jesus. (3) In the Tradition of the Church, from the earliest days, our Lady has been called “theVirgin,” suggesting that virginity was her defining attribute and permanent state. At the beginning of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch presents the virginity of Mary as an indispensable truth of the Faith, a deep mystery that eludes the grasp of the devil’s mind, “to be cried aloud” but “hidden from the prince of this world.” (4)
The Fathers and Doctors are agreed that our Lady’s words at the Annunciation—”How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (cf. Lk 1:34)—signify that, before the arrival of the angel, she has already resolved to remain a virgin throughout her life. (5) Many authors believe this resolution to have been, from the beginning, a formal and absolute vow of virginity. St. Thomas takes a slightly different view. In the Old Law, he says, both men and women were required to get married and have children, because the worship of the true God was to be spread through the physical increase of God’s people. For this reason, before her betrothal to Joseph, Mary did not vow virginity absolutely, but she did desire it, and vowed it conditionally, the condition being, “If it be pleasing to God.” After it had been made known to her that it was pleasing to God, (6) and before the Annunciation, she and St. Joseph together made the vow absolutely. (7)
In the Old Testament, lifelong virginity was not generally esteemed as a religious state of life. The vocation of the righteous Israelite, man or woman, was to marry and to have a large family, in order to swell the numbers of the chosen people. Faced with dying without marriage and offspring, Jephthah’s unmarried daughter bewails her virginity (cf. Judg 11:38). Now both before and during the earthly lifetime of our Lord, there were signs of a more positive attitude towards virginity as a religious state. The great prophets of the desert, Elijah and St. John the Baptist, were unmarried, and in the mysterious Essenes and Therapeutae we find whole communities devoted to prayer and asceticism. (8) However, Pope John Paul II insisted that we must not interpret our Lady’s desire or vow of virginity in this merely sociological way:
The unique privilege of the Immaculate Conception influenced the whole development of the young woman of Nazareth’s spiritual life. Thus it should be maintained that Mary was guided to the ideal of virginity by an exceptional inspiration of that same Holy Spirit who, in the course of the Church’s history, would spur many women to the way of virginal consecration…. Filled with the Lord’s exceptional gifts from the beginning of her life, she was oriented to a total gift of self—body and soul—to God, in the offering of herself as a virgin. (9)
The Pope suggested that our Lady accepted motherhood with the same divinely infused bridal love with which she desired virginity:
Mary accepted her election as Mother of the Son of God, guided by spousal love, the love that totally consecrates a human being to God. By virtue of this love, Mary wished to be always and in all things “given to God” (Deo donata), living in virginity.
The words “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” express the fact that from the outset she accepted and understood her own motherhood as a total gift of self, a gift of her person to the service of the saving plans of the Most High. And to the very end she lived her entire maternal sharing in the life of Jesus Christ, her Son, in a way that matched her vocation to virginity. (10)
Our Lady, the perfect Daughter of Zion, gives God that pure bridal love to which His people had been called, but which they had signally failed to give. The prophets condemned the chosen people for playing the harlot by consorting with the other nations and their gods (cf. Hos 2:1ff), and yet they never abandoned hope for a virginal Jerusalem over which God would rejoice as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride (cf. Is 62:5). In vowing virginity, Mary discloses her desire to be that pure bride of God.
Mary herself wanted to be the personal image of that absolutely faithful bride, totally devoted to the divine Bridegroom, and therefore she became the beginning of the new Israel in her spousal heart. (Her question “How?” signifies) I am a virgin devoted to God, and I do not intend to leave my spouse, because I do not think that God wills it—He who is so jealous of Israel, so severe with anyone who betrays Him, so persistent in His merciful call to reconciliation! Mary is well aware of her people’s infidelity, and she wants personally to be a bride who is faithful to her most beloved divine Spouse. (11)
But how could our Lady allow herself to be betrothed and married if she had already made a vow of virginity, at least in desire? Would such a vow not have made the marriage invalid? In answer to the first question, it must be said that our Lady accepted marriage, as she embraced virginity, in obedience to the Father and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It was, says St. Thomas, “by the intimate impulse of the Holy Spirit that our Lady was willing to be married, trusting that by divine help she would never come to carnal union. Still, she left this to the will of God, and so she suffered no harm to her virginity.” (12) Moreover, our Lady and St. Joseph both gave the consent that makes a marriage: they consented to union in marriage but “not expressly to sexual union, except with the condition, ‘were it to please God.'” (13) In other words, had it pleased God that our Lady and St. Joseph should have had conjugal relations, they would then have done His will in that way, just as now they do so by vowing their lifelong virginity.
Why, if she was to be for ever a virgin, did God want His Mother to be married? St. Thomas says that it was fitting for His own sake, for His Mother’s sake and for our sake. For His own sake: to protect Him from being rejected by unbelievers as illegitimate, to ensure that He had a genealogy of the kind that was then customary (running through the male line), to conceal Him from the attacks of the devil and to give Him the care of St. Joseph. For His Mother’s sake: to save her from scandal and from stoning as an adulteress, to protect her good name and to give her the care of St. Joseph. For our sake: among other reasons, so that St. Joseph’s testimony might add supporting proof that Christ was born of a virgin; to provide us with a sign of the Church universal, which is both a virgin and yet married to one husband, namely, Christ; and, since our Lady was both married and virgin, to honor in her person the two Christian states of life, virginity and marriage. (14) St. Ambrose again underlines the chivalrousness that God showed our Lady: even though He was born of a virgin, He wanted the Virgin Mother to be married, because He “preferred men to doubt His own origin rather than His Mother’s innocence. He knew the extreme delicacy of a virgin’s modesty, how easily it is questioned, and He was not willing that our faith in His birth be strengthened at the cost of dishonor to His Mother.” (15)
The objections to the perpetual virginity of our Lady raised by heretics over the course of the centuries include the following:
First, St. Matthew tells us that “before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost” (Mt 1:18). According to the heretics, the phrase “before they came together” implies that at some later time Mary and Joseph did come together, that is, have conjugal relations. St. Jerome offers a linguistic solution to this apparent difficulty: “The preposition ‘before,’ (16) though it often indicates consequent events, sometimes refers to things that have only been thought about beforehand. Moreover, the things thought about do not necessarily take place. So if someone says ‘I set sail before lunch in the port,’ it does not mean that he had lunch in the port after setting sail, but that he was thinking about having lunch in the port.” Again, says Jerome rather naughtily, if we say “before Helvidius repented, he was cut off by death,” we do not mean that he had the opportunity of repenting after death. And so, when St. Matthew says, “Before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost,” he does not mean that subsequently they did come together, but at the very time when the world thought they would soon be living together as man and wife, Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and so they did not subsequently come together. (17)
Another apparently troublesome text is Matthew 1:25: “He knew her not till she brought forth her first-born son.” Does this not imply that after the birth he did “know” her? This statement can be interpreted in a number of ways. St. John Chrysostom argues that the “knowledge” referred to here is not carnal but intellectual knowledge: before she gave birth, St. Joseph did not know Mary in the sense that he did not realize how wonderful she was. Other Fathers believe it refers to the sense knowledge of ocular sight. Just as the Israelites could not look at Moses while he was speaking with God, because his face shone with so much glory, so Joseph could not look upon Mary while she glowed with the radiance she carried within. The most commonly favored resolution of the difficulty concentrates on the word “till,” which, whether in Hebrew or Greek, has two distinct meanings in Scripture. Sometimes it refers to a definite period of time, as, for example, when St. Paul says that the law was “set because of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom He made the promise” (Gal 3:19). Or it can refer to an indefinite period of time. When, for example, our Lord says that He will be with us “till the consummation of the world” (cf. Mt 28:20). He does not mean that He will then leave us but rather that He will be with us always, both before and after the end of the world. And so here the evangelist means that St. Joseph always honored the purity of our Lady, both before the birth of her Son and afterwards. (18)
Why do the Evangelists call Jesus the “first-born son” of Mary (cf. Mt 1:25; Lk 2:7)? These words are an enigma, for Blessed Mary is ever-virgin and has no other physical children, before or after conceiving Jesus. However, when we expound the text according to the mind of the Church and with the help of her Fathers, worry gives way to wonder. The first aid to understanding is again provided by St. Jerome. Every only child is a firstborn; what you need to be firstborn is to lack siblings who precede you, not to possess siblings who succeed you. (19) But why does the sacred author choose such a problematic term? Because in the mind of Israel it was not a problematic term but a profound title, with many levels of meaning in the vocabulary of faith: the firstborn male, of men or cattle, belongs in a special way to God. “Sanctify unto me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel” (Ex 13:2). The unprecedented offspring is an object uniquely precious, a gift of God’s goodness that deserves to be offered back in gratitude. This attitude is presupposed by the sacrifice of Isaac: the firstborn is a candidate for consecration, the sacred victim par excellence. But even that statement does not reach far enough into the mystery of the firstborn. Before the institution of the Aaronic priesthood, the eldest son of each family served as priest. In the Jewish way of thinking, then, to say “firstborn” is to suggest dedication to God in a twofold sense, both the destiny of a victim and the dignity of a priest. When Luke the Gentile, carefully reproducing the Jewish way of thinking, tells us that our Lady “brought forth her firstborn son,” he is imparting one of the chief truths of Divine Revelation: the Child of the Virgin, only born and therefore firstborn, is the fulfillment of all the worship of the Old Covenant. The only Son of God and Mary is the definitive Priest and ultimate Victim.
According to St. Paul, the Lord Jesus is “first-born” in a more than legal way: He is the “first-born from the dead” (cf. Rev 1:5), “the first-born among many brethren” (cf. Col 1:18). He is the firstborn Son of God, the Only-Begotten of the Father, Son by nature, who in the flesh He assumed is the first to be born to the new life of the Resurrection. Through our Baptism, we are His members and brethren and so become reborn sons of God, sons by grace with the hope of being sons in glory, in the Resurrection. St. Bede quotes St. John, “But as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God” (Jn 1:12), and makes this comment: “He is rightly called the ‘first-born’ of these (adopted sons of God), because in dignity He comes before all the sons of adoption, even those who preceded by birth the time of His Incarnation.” (20)
Several times in the New Testament we hear of the “brothers” of the Lord (cf. Mt 12:46; Jn 2:12). One man is singled out for special mention as “the brother of the Lord,” namely, James (cf. Gal 1:19). Do these titles not imply that Mary and Joseph had other children? Not at all. It is de fide, of divine and Catholic Faith, to hold that the brothers of the Lord were not His blood brothers, but some other kind of close relative. St. Jerome says that some people think that they were children of St. Joseph by another marriage. (This was the position of a few of the Fathers, most notably St. Epiphanius in the fourth century.) However, St. Jerome himself takes a different line.