Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” (Lumen Gentium [Vatican II], 57)
The Church teaches de fide that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ our Savior. She conceived as a virgin, she gave birth as a virgin, and she remains a virgin forever. Yet, we ask, What does the Church mean when saying that Mary was a virgin “during birth”? What is the mystery we contemplate in the third joyful mystery of the Rosary? Why do the Popes and Church Fathers (together with the Doctors) insist that Christ’s birth was “miraculous”?
While we will briefly consider a few points from Scripture, our primary goal in this little article will be to describe just what exactly it is that the Church means when she professes that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.
What does the Church mean by “virginity”?
In modern speech, we use the term “virginity” and “virgin” to refer to refraining from sexual intercourse. “Virginity” is considered entirely in moral terms, and is not related so much to a physical description of the womb of a woman. This is often called, “sex-act” virginity – a “virgin” is one (male or female) who has never had sexual relations.
The Church, however, does not use the word “virgin” in this sense, when speaking of our Lady. Certainly, we mean all that the modern usage means – our Blessed Mother never engaged in sexual relations – but we mean even more still. When the Church says that Mary is a “virgin”, we mean that Mary’s womb has never been opened.
Mary is a “virgin” because, speaking in very plain terms, the closure of her virginity (i.e. her hymen) has never been ruptured [I know it is a bit difficult to speak of such things in regard to our Mother, but we must be clear and there is no other way around using the biological terms]. The womb of Mary is a sealed fountain, an enclosed garden, a cloister.
We may be a bit surprised to hear this – that “virginity”, in Mary’s case, means more than simple moral “virginity” but includes also this sense of physical integrity. Let us consider what this teaching would mean and why we must hold it.
Virgin “during birth”
The Church teaches that Mary was a virgin “in birth” (the Latin phrase is virginitas in partu). Consider the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.” (CCC 499) This paragraph of the Vatican II Catechism sites seven magisterial sources, from the Quamvis Patrum of Pope Zosimus (418) to the Cum quorumdam hominum of Pope Paul IV (1555).
Most notably, the Catechism continues with a citation of a dogmatic constitution from Vatican II: “In fact, Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’” (CCC 499, Lumen Gentium 57) Further, the post-Vatican II reformed Liturgy of the Hours explicitly professes that Mary remained a virgin in giving birth to her Son when, in the Advent antiphon for the mid-afternoon prayer time of “none” we read that the “closure of [Mary’s] virginity” will not be violated by the birth of the Savior [this is utterly lost in the English translation … yet another reason why priest should be praying the breviary in Latin].
This is the meaning of in partu virginity – Mary was a virgin even during the act of giving birth to her Son. This is the faith of the Church, we are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But what can this mean: Mary was a virgin in giving birth? Can this possibly refer to “moral, sex-act virginity”? Would it be anything at all to claim that our Blessed Mother did not engage in sexual relations during the act of giving birth to her divine Son? Why such is utter nonsense and blasphemy!
Rather, it is clear that, when the Church teaches that Mary was a virgin in giving birth, we mean to say that our Lady retained her physical integrity – the womb of the Blessed Virgin was not opened even in the act of giving birth to her Son. There was no rupture to the virginal cloister of Mary’s womb, when Christ our God came forth.
How Christ was born
The Savior, rather, passed through the womb of the virgin Mary without causing any damage whatsoever. Indeed, as he passed through the closed walls of the room after his Resurrection (without breaking the walls themselves), so too did he pass through the closed wall of our Lady’s virginity (without causing any rupture or break).
This is the constant teaching of the Fathers of the Church and of the Popes and Councils. Indeed, it is worth noting that the Apostles’ Creed specifically names the virginity of Mary in relation to the birth of our Savior: “Born of the Virgin Mary”.
By his power as God, the Savior passed through the closed womb of the Virgin Mary as light passing through glass, as thought proceeding from intellect. He did no harm to the physical integrity of our Lady’s virginal cloister, but rather consecrated it!
It is this reality, that Jesus came forth from the womb of Mary without rupturing her virginity, which is the miracle of the birth of Christ. Pope Pius XII (in 1943) refers to this miracle in the encyclical Mystici Corporis, paragraph 110.
If Jesus was born according to the ordinary mode, then we may wonder what exactly is the “mystery” of the third joyful mystery?! But Jesus was not born in the ordinary way, rather he was born in a marvelous and miraculous manner – for he passed through the walled enclosure of his Mother’s virginity causing neither rupture nor pain unto the Virgin.
For more on how this could happen, please consider our article on how Christ came forth from the tomb at his Resurrection (by walking through the walls) – [read it here].
Some biblical evidence, and an objection
The principal proof from the New Testament is that our Lady, immediately after giving birth, rises and wraps the Child in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger. Now, of course, such activity would generally be far beyond the powers of any woman who had just given birth. Thus, from this, it is reasonable to conclude that the birth of our Savior was miraculous and (involving no pains for his Mother) Christ came forth from the womb without doing any harm to the physical integrity of our Lady.
Some, however, will object that Luke 2:23-24 seems to affirm that our Savior did indeed open the womb of our Lady. For, when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple according to the Law, St. Luke points out that this action fulfilled the Law, “Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord: And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pare of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Indeed, it is quite ironic that any would cite this passage as a proof that Jesus opened the womb – since, it is clear that he had no need of being redeemed (and certainly not by any precept of the Old Law!), so too it should be clear that in fulfilling the precepts of the Law he was not bound by them and thus he most certainly did not open the womb as did all others before and after him.
Beyond this, there are many prophecies in the Old Testament which we will not name here.
The greater mystery
And the miraculous birth teaches us that, just as Christ came forth from his Mother without causing any rupture or physical harm, so too does the Eternal Word proceed from the Father without any rupture or separation of the divine Nature. The birth of the Lord from the Virgin Mary is a sign of his eternal birth from the Father.