Catholics believe, and the Church has long taught it, that Mary remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus.
I did not see The chosen, the hugely popular series about the life of Christ, until some friends told me about the recent Christmas episode. They correctly assumed that, after spending four years writing a doctoral thesis on the birth of Jesus, I had an interest in how the episode portrayed that moment.
During the reenactment of the events of the Nativity, the episode shows Mary in labor as she gives birth to Jesus. The chosen here follows the pattern of other popular adaptations, including the famous 1977 series by Franco Zeffirelli jesus of nazareth and the lesser known 2006 film The story of the Nativity. The scene of Mary’s labor pains in each is brief and tasteful, and also entirely untrue. To understand why, we need some information about what it means to affirm Mary’s virginity.
The perpetual virginity of Mary is one of the least known and most misunderstood Catholic doctrines. We frequently refer to the “always Virgin Mary”, but what exactly does this title mean? Insofar as Catholics think about all of this, they widely assume that it means that Mary never had sex. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Mary and Joseph remained continent throughout their married life. All of this is true, but it is not the whole truth. Mary’s abstinence from sexual activity is but a consequence of the most important aspect of the doctrine, one that we can appreciate only when we examine the full extent of Mary’s virginal status.
Catholics believe, and the Church has long taught it, that Mary remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus. We have already seen the before and the after, the meaning of which is quite simple. It’s that middle word, during, this may seem strange. If virginity means a lack of sexual activity, how can we speak of a person who remains a virgin in the very act of giving birth? It is not enough to simply claim that Mary, who was a virgin, gave birth. There would be no need for that middle word during; the before would suffice.
The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is not primarily concerned with the absence of any sexual relationship throughout her life. Rather, it is first and foremost a doctrine about one’s body, particularly one’s physical integrity. That is, the physical seal of her virginity remained intact, unbroken by subsequent intercourse or childbirth. The doctrine is obviously tricky, and lewd speculations about the mechanics of Jesus’ birth have no place in this discussion. Similar to the resurrection, we don’t know exactly how it happened, only that it happened. Various Church Fathers used poetic metaphors to describe the event, such as light passing through glass. What we hold to be divinely revealed is that however Jesus’ birth took place, Mary’s body remained intact.
With this understanding, we can go back to the films mentioned above. While bodily integrity forms the essence of Mary’s virginity at birth, the painless nature of birth is inextricably linked to doctrine. Part of this link is deductive: the absence of the physical effects of childbirth would prevent the pains that accompany it. The link is also theological. As part of the punishment for original sin, God told Eve, “I will greatly multiply your pain during pregnancy; in pain you will bear children” (Genesis 3:16). Here the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception inform each other. Mary, preserved from all taint of original sin, would not have suffered the consequences that all women suffer when giving birth.
The doctrine is unfamiliar to many Catholics and may arouse initial surprise, even skepticism. It sounds a bit fantastical, something out of a pious legend. A miraculous birth, however, is no more impossible than a miraculous conception. Like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, Holy Scripture does not explicitly affirm the doctrine, which means that it would have been transmitted by the apostles in sacred Tradition. The Church Fathers unanimously affirm the doctrine, and many ecumenical councils have supported their teaching. The doctrine faced serious challenges in the mid-20th century, as some prominent theologians reduced it to Mary’s virginity before birth (arguing that there was nothing miraculous about birth itself, only in design). In the face of such confusion, the Second Vatican Council explicitly endorsed the traditional understanding of the virgin birth. The Council quotes the prayer from the Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, stating that the birth of Jesus “did not diminish but consecrated his integrity” (Lumen gentium 57). To reinforce this point, the text notes various Fathers and councils who affirm the doctrine. Among these is the most vocal champion of the virgin birth, Saint Ambrose, who directly affirms the “genital integrity” of Mary.
The question then becomes not what we believe about the virgin birth, but why? Why did God preserve Mary’s body intact in this miraculous and painless birth? Any truth about Mary is ultimately a truth about Christ, that is, about God himself. In the first place, then, the supernatural virgin birth forms a logical complement and extension of the supernatural virgin conception. Birth is the outward sign that this child was not conceived in the flesh, emphasizing the unique and divine filiation of Jesus. Mary always presents herself as an icon of the Church, whom we both call our Mother. His physical integrity in the proclamation of the Word presents itself as an image of the Church, which receives and transmits the apostolic faith whole and intact, without loss or corruption. In this light, the virginity of Mary is not a negative reality, concerning the lack of sexual relations. Instead, it has a positive value: her virginal body completes her virginal soul, together signifying her total union with and consecration to God.
The virgin birth also draws our attention to the importance of the body itself. To be human is to be both soul and body, and Mary’s virginity reminds us of the role that the material world plays in the drama of redemption. God uses his own creatures to do his saving work – bread, wine, oil and water – and our bodies are part of that plan. This reminder allows us to anticipate our final and celestial objective. The doctrine of the virgin birth has always enjoyed a special connection with the Assumption.
As God preserved Mary’s body intact during childbirth, he also preserved her from any corruption of the tomb. Death and decay were not part of God’s original plan for the human race, and each of us is called to share in the bodily glorification that Mary already enjoys.
What might seem like a trivial detail in the cinematic representations mentioned above therefore has important consequences for a correct understanding of what God has revealed to us. If we are wrong about Mary, chances are we are wrong about Jesus. Her painless birth is not an isolated curiosity. Rather, it forms an essential part of God’s saving work: how and why he came and dwelt among us, and, as Mary illustrates, how he plans to restore, heal and bring us back. at home.