It is of divine faith for Catholics to hold that our Lady not only conceived the divine Word as man “without seed, by the Holy Spirit” but also gave birth to Him “without corruption.” (1) According to the Church’s Doctors, this freedom from corruption means that the God-Man leaves His Mother’s womb without opening it (utero clauso vel obsignato), without inflicting any injury to her bodily virginity (sine violatione claustri virginalis), and therefore without causing her any pain. (2) Pope St Leo the Great teaches the doctrine of our Lady’s virginity in partu in his famous Tome, which was read and approved at the Council of Chalcedon:
“Mary brought Him forth, with her virginity preserved, as with her virginity preserved she had conceived Him.” (3) The Catechism speaks of our Lady’s virginity being preserved “even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God” (etiam in partu Filii Dei) and quotes the strong reaffirmation of the dogma by the Second Vatican Council: “Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it’.” (4) In 1992, on the sixteenth centenary of the Council of Capua, Pope John Paul II vigorously proclaimed the virginity of our Lady in partu, comparing our Lord’s birth from the “intact virgin” with His Resurrection from the “intact tomb.” (5)
This faith, so boldly affirmed by popes and councils, is beautifully enunciated in the liturgical prayers of Christian West and East. In the Byzantine liturgy, on the feast of her Synaxis, the Theotokos speaks thus to her Child: “As thou hast found my womb, so thou hast left it.” (6)
And, on Christmas Day, the Church herself directly addresses our Lady: “According to His good pleasure, by a strange self-emptying, He passed through thy womb, yet kept it sealed.” (7) The Roman rite is no less explicit: “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, whose womb abideth intact, has today given birth to the Savior of the world.” (8) Moreover, throughout the Christmas Octave, a special communicantes in the Roman Canon commemorates “that most sacred night (or day) in which the inviolate virginity of Blessed Mary brought the Savior into this world.”
Isaiah prophesied that the Mother of Emmanuel would be a virgin not only in conceiving Him in the womb (Ecce virgo concipiet) but also in bringing Him forth from the womb (et virgo pariet, cf. Is 7:14). The angel Gabriel tells our Lady, in words that in the Greek have a strange syntactical structure, “The Holy (agion) which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). It is hard to parse the neuter adjective. Some scholars have argued that it should be taken adverbially, as a description of the way in which our Lord’s birth is holy, that is, sanctified and sanctifying. This seems to be the sense of St Cyril of Jerusalem’s statement: “His birth was pure, undefiled.” (9) The Fathers find types of the virginity in partu in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the closed gate of the Temple (cf. Ex 44:2) and in the “garden enclosed” and “fountain sealed up” of Solomon’s canticle (cf. Song 4:12). (10) The reverence and modesty shown by the Fathers towards this beautiful mystery is in stark contrast with the prying crudeness of the heretics. St John Chrysostom, for example, is content to assert the fact of the miraculous preservation of our Lady’s virginity during childbirth and refuses to delve into the details. (11) It was probably the Arian controversy that brought the miraculous birth to the forefront of the Catholic mind. That controversy was concerned chiefly with the true Divinity of the Son, and thus with His eternal generation from the Father. However, the Fathers found it necessary to bring His temporal birth into the discussion. The Arians, especially in the radical Eunomian party, were rationalists, presuming to enclose God in a definition. Against such arrogant folly, the Fathers cited the miracle of the Virgin Birth: How can men claim to have fathomed the infinite abyss of the divine and eternal generation of the Word from the Father when even His human and temporal birth from the Virgin is such an enigma? (12)
In the late fourth century, the doctrine of the virginity in partu was denied by Jovinian, a monk turned playboy, whose attack on the maidenly motherhood of Mary was part of a wider campaign against the consecrated state of virginity. Jovinian’s heresy was condemned by synods held in Rome and Milan. The Synod of Milan, under the chairmanship of St Ambrose, invoked the words of the Apostles’ Creed, natus ex Maria Virgine, which imply that the very act of giving birth to her Son, not just her conceiving of Him, was maidenly in its manner. (13)
The chief objection raised by the heretics to the virginity in partu is that, in the eyes of its adversaries, it makes our Lord’s human birth and thus His human nature itself seem unreal.
Does the doctrine not betray Gnostic or Manichean disdain for the flesh? Was it not a Gnostic, Valentinus, who taught that the Son of God merely “passed through” His Mother, as through a channel? (14)
In reply to this objection, we must again invoke the distinction made within the Tradition between what Christ is as man and how He comes to be man: as St Leo says, just because His conception and birth (how He comes to be man) are miraculous, it does not follow that His human nature (what He is as man) is dissimilar to ours. (15) In the manner of His human birth, says St Thomas, Christ wants to reveal the truth not only of His humanity but also of His Divinity. That is why “He mingled marvelous things with humble ones. Thus, to show His body was real, He is born of a woman, but to show His divinity, He is born of a virgin, for, as St Ambrose says in his hymn on the Nativity, ‘Such birth befits the God of all.'” (16) The heretic Valentinus denied that the Son of God took anything from His Mother, whereas the Church confesses that He is man “from the substance of His Mother,” (17) that His flesh is fashioned by the Holy Spirit from His Mother’s pure blood. The virginity in partu is a miracle of the bodily order, a cherishing and beautifying of the Virgin’s flesh. Such a miracle would be of no interest to the Gnostics or Manicheans, who despised the body and sought for it no splendor. The preservation of virginity in partu manifests a God who not only creates the biological realm but also descends to its depths in person. Our Lady’s virginity is a quality of her soul as well as of her body. But the rational soul is the substantial form of the human body, making it to be what it is, the body of a human being. It is therefore fitting that its beauty should be manifested through the beauty of the body. We could even say that the virginity in partu is a kind of divinely instituted sacrament of the virginity in Mary’s soul. The matchless maidenhood is both corporeal and spiritual. As St Bernard says, “She was a virgin in body, a virgin in mind, a virgin in profession, a holy virgin in spirit and body.” (18)
But why was it necessary for the Son of God to be born as man in a way that would not injure the integrity of His Mother’s virginity? The necessity is again one of fittingness, of harmony and thus of beauty, like the need to fit a third and a fifth alongside the root to achieve the lovely consonance of a major chord. The virginity in partu is what is needed for Christ’s human birth to be in accord with the rest of His work in creation and redemption. St Thomas and the other Doctors of the Church hear the following harmonies in the mystery:
First, a birth without corruption is in harmony with the personal property of the person who was born, namely, the Word of God. Now “a word is not only conceived in the mind without corruption, but also comes out of the mind without corruption.” (19) St Hilary answers the Arian charge that if the Father generates the Son eternally from His essence, He must be thereby diminished in His essence, by arguing that the same Son was born as man from His Mother without damaging her bodily integrity. He then draws this conclusion: “Surely divine law requires us not to regard as impossible with God something that was possible by His power in man.” (20) Cardinal Bérulle argues that, since the temporal birth is a kind of image of the eternal, the perfections of the latter should so far as possible be mirrored in the former:
“Jesus is the Son of the Father; He proceeds from His Father’s bosom without opening it. This bosom remains eternally closed despite the procession and mission of the Son of God in the world. He also wants to proceed from the virginal womb of His Blessed Mother. This womb remains closed as before, symbolized by the Enclosed Garden and the Sealed Fountain, and by the East Gate through which God passes.” (21)
Thus the preservation of integrity in the human body of the Mother mirrors the preservation of immutability in the divine nature of the Son who is born. As St Augustine says, “Before He became, He was; and because He was omnipotent, He could become while remaining what He was. He made a mother for Himself, while He was with the Father; and when He became (man) from the Mother, He remained in the Father. How could He cease to be God in beginning to be man, He who granted His Mother not to cease be a virgin when she gave birth?” (22)
Secondly, the miracle of the Virgin Birth is in wonderful harmony with the saving purposes of the Incarnation of the Word. St Thomas argues that, since the Son of God became man to take away our corruption, it was not fitting for Him to corrupt the virginity of His Mother by being born. (23) Thus, as St Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, the fruitful maidenhood of Mary is like a rock upon which death is dashed. (24) It proves that this fallen world is not destined to be for ever a closed system of corruption. When He is born of a Virgin and rises from the dead in the flesh, the Divine Word breaks the cycle of Adam’s decay. That is why the Fathers compare the sealed womb of the Virginal Birth with the sealed tomb of the Resurrection, or His passage from the womb to His entering through closed doors into the Upper Room. (25)
The Son of God is born as man of the Virgin, suffers, dies and rises again as man, in order to halt the decline of mankind into dust. Christ’s body, in leaving the closed womb, did not have the subtlety it would have when it passed through the closed doors; it was in a state of mortality, not yet in that of glory. However, as a miracle of the bodily order, the coming forth of the Infant Word from the Virgin’s closed womb was a foretaste of that definitive transfiguration of the flesh which took place for Him on the third day after His death and for us will occur on the last day of all human history. The Divine Word is made flesh to restore man, disfigured through Adam’s sin, to beauty, the beauty of grace in his soul and the beauty of glory in His body. He, therefore, takes the way of beauty when He comes into the world.
God is born of the Virgin, says the Franciscan Doctor, “not by opening, not by corrupting, since ‘this gate shall be shut’ for ever; ‘it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it’ (Ezek 44:2), but by making it fruitful and beautiful (fecundando et decorando),” (26) The Franciscan poet sings of the same truth:
Without break of the seal, the beautiful Son is born,
With its gates still fastened, of His palace He takes His leave.
Unfitting would it surely be for Divine Power
To do violence to His home and hospice (casa albergata). (27)
Thirdly, the virginity in partu is in harmony with the commandments. God, who commanded us to honor our parents, did not want to “diminish the honor of His Mother by being born.” (28) Even in the way He is conceived and born, God the Son shows He is faithful to His own law: He honors His Mother, because when He leaves her womb He does not destroy the physical seal of her virginity. The outward sign of the Virginal Conception remains intact when Christ is born. The Virginal Birth is thus further proof of the courtesy of God, of His curtayse love, as Lady Julian of Norwich would say. (29) The Father’s Word and Wisdom “orders all things sweetly” (cf. Wis 8:1), that is, with an infinite delicacy and tact. That is why, in taking flesh from the Virgin, He does not employ her as a passive instrument but, with divine chivalry, invites and inspires her active consent. As He enters Mary’s womb, so He leaves it—without hurt or harm of its maidenly wholeness. “He came all so still/ To His Mother’s bower. . . .” The guarding of His Mother’s virginity in childbirth was not necessary by an absolute necessity, as if God were unable to act otherwise, and yet it is a lovely and entirely congruous gift bestowed by the Son upon the Mother. Almighty God can do what no other child can do: He can choose His Mother and the manner in which He enters and leaves her womb.
Our Lord Jesus, who was with the Father before He was born of His Mother, chose not only the Virgin of whom He was born, but also the day on which His Birth took place. Men subject to error very often choose days. . . . No one, however, can choose the day of his birth. But Christ the Lord was able both to create and to select the day of His birth. (30)
Fourthly, since our Lord is born as man and later dies and rises again in order to bring us the fullness of joy with Him in Heaven (cf. Jn 15:11), it is fitting that He should bring joy, not pain, to His Mother when He comes forth from the womb.
The pain of childbirth is caused by the opening of the passages through which the child comes out. Now, as we said above, Christ came out of the closed womb of His Mother, and so no violent opening of the passages took place. Thus there was no pain in the birth nor corruption, but only gladness that the God-Man should be born into the world, as Isaiah says: “It shall bud forth and blossom, like the lily, and shall rejoice with joy and praise” (Is 35:1f). (31)
The Son of God makes His birth a cause of gladness, not of sadness, for His Mother, so that she can say with the prophet Habakkuk, “I will rejoice in the Lord, and I will joy in God my Jesus” (Hab 3:18). (32) Thus, by His gifts to her of joy, the divine Babe makes His Mother “the lyre of His melodies.” (33) He comes to wipe away every tear from our eyes. Suffering, when offered up in faith and love in union with Christ, can be a beautiful apostolate, but in itself it is an evil and is never multiplied by God without good cause. According to St John Damascene, the pains that our Lady was spared in Bethlehem she endured on Calvary; the birth of the Head was in joy, but the birth of the Mystical Body was in sorrow. (34)
Fifthly, the virginal manner in which Holy Mother Mary brings forth Christ the Head of the Mystical Body in the flesh anticipates the virginal manner in which Holy Mother Church brings forth the members of the Body by water and the Holy Spirit. As St Augustine says:
The only-begotten Son of God deigned to take upon Himself a human nature drawn from a virgin so that He might thus link a spotless Church to Himself, its spotless Founder. . . . Since the virginity of His Mother was in no way violated in the birth of Christ, He likewise made His Church a virgin by ransoming her from the fornication of demons. (35)
Fr. John Saward, former Professor of Theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, and at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, was recently ordained a priest and is exercising his priestly ministry in England. This article was excerpted from Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery, Ignatius, 2002.
(1) Cf. Lateran Council (649), can. 3; DS 703. St Augustine says that “the Virgin conceived without male seed, gave birth without corruption, and remained in integrity after childbirth” (Sermo 215, no. 3; PL 38:1073).
(2) Cf. Summa Theologica (ST) 3a q. 35, a. 6. See also Scheeben, Handbuch der Katholischen Dogmatik, new ed. (Freiburg, 1933), vol. 2, p. 939. The recusant divine Matthew Kellison summarizes the argument as follows: “(T)he pain of the Mother in giving birth is caused by the opening of the passages through which the child comes out. Now Christ was born and came forth from a closed womb and so did not cause His Mother pain” (Commentarii ac disputationes in Tertiam partem Summae theologiae S. Thomae Aquinatis (Douai, 1633), p. 329).
(3) Cf. DS 291.
(4) Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 499, quoting LG no. 57. In his commentary on Lumen gentium, Monsignor Gerard Philips, who was a peritus at the Council and played a key role in the drafting of the Constitution, writes: “Quite a few of the Fathers asked for an unambiguous declaration not only to affirm the Virginal Conception of Jesus—which the Christian faith has never doubted—but also fully to safeguard the aphorism Virgo ante partum, in partu et post partum. The Council thought that the terminology it employed could suffice for this end, without going into biological details. One thing is certain: this virginity, in its threefold aspect, is not taught as a personal privilege of Mary; for the whole Tradition it constitutes a Christological datum. In coming into this world in order to save it, the Son of God did not harm this world in any way. This is the idea that quite a few of the Fathers of the Church defended against the attacks of authors they described as heretics” (La chiesa e il suo mistero: Storia, testa e commento delta Lumen gentium, new ed. (Milan, 1993), p. 544).
(5) L’Osservatore Romano, Eng. ed. (10 June 1992), 13ff. See my book Christ Is the Answer: The Christ-Centred Teaching of Pope John Paul II (Edinburgh, 1995), pp. 32f.
(6) Synaxis of the Mother of God, The Festal Menaion, tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London, 1977) p. 292. St Proclus of Constantinople likewise says: “He came from the womb just as He had entered through the ear; as He was conceived, so He was born. He entered without passion, and He went out without corruption, as the prophet Ezekiel says (Ezek 44:21)” (Oratio 1, no. 10; PG 65:692A).
(7) Feast of the Nativity, Menaion, p. 274.
(8) Fifth responsory, Matins of Christmas Day (Breviarium romanum, 1962).
(9) Catecheses 12, no. 32; PG 33:765A. The interpretation I am proposing here has been argued in detail by I. de la Potterie, SJ, in Marie dans le mystère de l’alliance, p. 65.
(10) “‘A garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up’ (Cant 4:12), whence flows the river of which Joel speaks (Joel 3:18), which waters the torrent of cords (or thorns), of the cords by which they were tied or of the thorns which choked the seed of the father of the family. This is the East Gate, as Ezekiel says (44:2), ever closed, ever clear, either covering within itself or bringing forth from itself the Holy of Holies, the Gate through which the Sun of Justice, our High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, goes in and comes out” (St Jerome, Epistola 48, no. 21; PL 22:510). “O mystery! I see miracles, and I proclaim the Godhead: I perceive sufferings, and I do not deny the humanity. For Emmanuel opened the doors of nature as man, but as God did not break through the bars of virginity” (St Proclus of Constantinople, Oratio 1, no. 10; PG 65:692A). According to St Modestus of Jerusalem, the Ever-Virgin Theotokos is the “sealed fountain . . . by whom the paradise of the orthodox Church is watered” (Encomium in dormitionem SS. Dominae nostrae Deiparae semperque Virginis Mariae, no. 6; PG 86B:3292C).
(11) “Although I know that a virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learnt to venerate in silence, and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech” (In salvatoris nostri Iesu Christi nativitatem oratio; PG 56:388).
(12) Cf. St Augustine, Sermo 195, no. 1; PL 38:1017-1018.
(13) “Christ. . . being God came to earth in an unusual way, as He was born from the immaculate Virgin. . . . But they say perversely: she conceived as a virgin, but she did not give birth as a virgin. So a virgin could conceive, but a virgin could not give birth, though the conception always precedes and the birth follows. . . . They should believe the Apostles’ Creed, which the Roman Church always guards and preserves. . . . This is the Virgin who has conceived in the womb, the Virgin who has brought forth her Son. For thus it is written: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ (Is 7:14); for he says not only that a virgin shall conceive, but also that a virgin shall bring forth. For what is the gate of the sanctuary, that outer gate looking towards the East, which remains shut (Ezek 44: 1f.)? Is not this gate Mary, through whom the Savior entered this world . . . who conceived and brought forth as a virgin?” (Ep. 42. 4-6; PL 16:1125A-1126A).
(14) Tertullian (155-233), though defending and expounding the Virginal Conception as a primordial dogma of the faith, denies the virginity in partu, apparently in order to affirm the reality of the Savior’s birth against the Docetists: “If as a virgin she conceived, in her childbearing she became a wife. For she became a wife by that same law of the opened body, in which it made no difference whether the violence was of the male let in or let out: the same sex performed that unsealing” (De carne Christi cap. 23; PL 2:790B).
(15) The miraculous manner of our Lord’s temporal birth does not alter His human nature or make that birth any less real or human. St Leo gives us a singularly clear statement of the two moments of our Lady’s virginal childbearing: “He was begotten by a new kind of birth: conceived by a virgin, He was born of a virgin; without the carnal concupiscence of a father, without harm to the integrity of the Mother.” “Although Christ is born of the Virgin’s womb, and His birth is miraculous, His nature is not different from ours. True God, He is equally true man, and there is no lie in either of the two substances” (In nativitate Domini, sermo 4, no. 3; SC 22B:104).
(16) ST 3a q. 28, a. 2.
(17) See the Athanasian Creed (DS 76).
(18) St Bernard cited by St Bonaventure (see De annuntiatione Beatae Virginia Mariae,
sermo 2; Q IX:660). St Thomas says that the hymen pertains to virginity only per accidens, and that its rupture by any means other than sexual pleasure is no more destructive of virginity than the loss of a hand or foot (cf. ST 2a2ae q. 152, a. I, ad 3). However, he also holds that bodily integrity belongs to the perfection of virginity (see Quaestiones quodlibetales 6, q. 10, pro1).
(19) ST 3a q. 28, a. 2.
(20) St Hilary, De Trinitate lib. 3, cap. 19; PL 10:87.
(21) Pierre de Bérulle, Opuscules de piété, new ed. (Grenoble, 1997), p. 188.
(22) St Augustine, Sermo 186, cap. 1, no. 1; PL 38:999.
(23) “The Lord Jesus Christ came to take away our maladies, not to contract them; to bring a remedy to our vices, not to succumb to them… That is why it was necessary for Him to be born in new conditions…. It was necessary that the integrity of the One being born preserve the pristine virginity of the one who gave birth…” (St Leo, In nativitate Domini, sermo 2, no. 2; SC 22B:78).
(24) Cf. De virginitate, cap. 13; PG 46:377D.
(25) “In the flesh He was born, coming forth as small through a closed womb, and in that same flesh He was resurrected and came in as great through closed doors” (St Augustine, Sermo 215, no. 4; PL 38:1074).
(26) St Bonaventure, In nativitate Domini, sermo 12; Q IX:100A.
(27) Laude, no. 32; ed. F. Mancini (Rome, 1974), p. 88.
(28) Cf. ST 3a q. 28, a. 2.
(29) A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian Norwich, part 1, Short Text, chap. 3, ed. E. Colledge OSA and J. Walsh SJ (Toronto, 1978), p. 211.
(30) St Augustine, Sermo 190, cap. 1, no. 1; PL 38:1007.
(31) ST 3a q. 35, a. 6.
(32) Cf. St Bonaventure, In nativitate Domini, sermo 3; Q IX: 111B.
(33) Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Nativitate (Epiphania) 15; Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalum (CSCO), Scriptores Syri; GT, E. Beck OSB (Louvain, 1959), p. 146.
(34) Cf. St John Damascene, De fide orthodoxa, lib. 4, cap. 14; PG 94:1161D.
(35) Sermo 191, cap. 2, no. 3; PL 38:1010.