February 2nd, Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord”. (Luke 2:22-23)
The Church teaches, as a matter of dogma (de fide) which every Catholic must believe, that Mary was a virgin not only before birth and after birth, but also during birth. This dogma states that Mary, even during the very act of giving birth, remained a virgin – hence, the word “virgin” refers not merely to refraining from sexual pleasure, but also to physical integrity.
Mary, as ever-virgin, suffered no harm to the physical closure of her virginal womb when she brought forth the Savior. Rather, he came forth from her as he came forth from the sealed tomb and as he entered the closed upper-room. The Church Fathers and Doctors (as well as the great mystics) tell us that Our Lord passed through the virginal cloister of Mary’s womb as thought proceeding from intellect and as light passing through glass. [we have already discussed this in previous articles – here, here, and here (in this last, we show that Jesus is still human even though he was born miraculously)]
However, the above verse from St. Luke’s Gospel seems to be against the Catholic dogma of Mary’s perpetual (physical) virginity. It seems that the Evangelist is telling us that Jesus was presented in the Temple precisely because he had opened the womb of his Mother, violating her physical integrity. How can the Catholic answer this objection?
Was the presentation for Jesus’ sake, or ours?
It must be clear to all that Jesus was not presented in the Temple on account of his own need, but for us. It was not that Jesus needed to be consecrated to God through the observance of the Law, but rather that he humbled himself under the Law to redeem from the Law those who had been subjected to it.
Consider the words of St. Athanatius, who points out that our Savior was ever in the presence of his heavenly Father: “But when was the Lord hid from His Father's eye, that He should not be seen by Him, or what place is excepted from His dominion, that by remaining there He should be separate from His Father unless brought to Jerusalem and introduced into the temple? But for us perhaps these things were written. For as not to confer grace on Himself was He made man and circumcised in the flesh, but to make us gods through grace, and that we might be circumcised in the Spirit, so for our sakes is He presented to the Lord, that we also might learn to present ourselves to the Lord.”
No, Jesus was not presented in the Temple for his own benefit, but it was for our sake. It was not that our Savior was bound by the Law, but rather he willingly subjected himself to the Law so as to bring salvation into the world.
Why the first-born of the Jews was presented
If we consider why it is that the first-born son (i.e. every male that opens the womb) was presented in the Temple and consecrated to the Lord, we will quickly see that our Savior is not naturally subject to this precept.
St. Luke refers to Exodus 13:1-2,12-13: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Sanctify unto me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, as well of men as of beasts: for they are all mine. […]Thou shalt set apart all that openeth the womb for the Lord, and all that is first brought forth of thy cattle: whatsoever thou shalt have of the male sex, thou shalt consecrate to the Lord. The firstborn of an ass thou shalt change for a sheep: and if thou do not redeem it, thou shalt kill it. And every firstborn of men thou shalt redeem with a price.
To this, St. Luke also adds a reference to the precept in Leviticus 12:6, that when the days of [the mother’s] purification are expired, she is to offer a young pigeon or a turtle dove in behalf of her child. Thus, St. Luke specifies that Mary and Joseph were to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
However, when he ask why it was that these offerings were to be made, we see that the offering of the turtledoves or pigeons was a sin offering [cf. Leviticus 12:6]. It was for the sin in which the child was conceived that the parents had to make this offering to the Lord.
In regard to the reference to Exodus 13, in which it is specified that the first-born son who opens the womb must be redeemed – this is on account of the fact that the child had been spared slavery in Egypt through the death of the first-born son of all the people and animals in Egypt. Again, this is a mystical signification of the fact that the new-born son had to be freed from sin.
But, of course, our Savior did not incur any sin in his generation. Entirely free from all sin, our Lord did not require (for his own benefit) that a sin offering be made in his behalf, nor even that he be presented in the Temple (since he was always before his heavenly Father). Rather, it is for our sake that he underwent these things.
Did Jesus “open the womb”?
Now, it should be clear that the citation to Exodus, which references the “opening of the womb”, cannot be applied directly to Christ – at least not in the same manner as it is applied to other first-born sons.
If our Savior had “opened the womb” of his Mother according to the normal process of birth, then he would be subject to the Law – but this would be most unfitting, since then the sin-offering of Joseph and Mary would truly be on behalf of the Christ Child (who is without sin).
No, just as our Savior was not conceived in sin, so neither did he violate the virginal integrity of his Mother – but St. Luke refers to both Exodus and Leviticus for our sake, to show us that Christ did truly humble himself to be made subject to the Law, not on account of any impurity in his human nature, but for us.
St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. Bede the Venerable, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and all the other Fathers who commented on St. Luke’s reference to Exodus [every male that opens the womb], points out that “the opening here spoken of does not imply the unlocking of the enclosure of virginal purity; but the mere coming forth of the infant from the maternal womb.” [ST III, q.28, a.2]
Thus, if by “opening the womb” we mean a true and real birth – then yes, we may say, after a fashion, that Christ “opened the womb”. However, if by this we imply that the virginal integrity of the woman is ruptured – then no, we do not say that our Savior “opened the womb.”
Frankly, I cannot help but suspect ill motive on the part of those who would cite this verse as a “proof” that Mary lost her virginity while giving birth. Indeed, in every case to which the Exodus quote would apply, the woman’s womb would already have been opened through intercourse – and thus, no first-born son in Israel had every truly “opened the womb” (since the seal of integrity had already been ruptured by the son’s father). How bizarre it is that some will take this verse from Exodus out of context as though it is referring to a child virginally conceived who would then harm and indeed rupture the virginity of his mother by his birth!
Magisterial teaching on the virginity of Mary
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, the Church speaks in Mary’s voice saying: “Am I to give birth to my King who will not violate the cloister of my virginity?” [This is utterly lost in the English translation.]
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 birth as “miraculous” in the encyclical Mystici Corporis, paragraph 110.
If Jesus was born according to the ordinary mode, then we may wonder what exactly would the “mystery” of the third joyful mystery be?! 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.