Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Purification of the Virgin Most Pure

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Luke 2:22-40
When the days were completed for [her] purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord has been called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and although the Marian nature of this feast has been completely lost in the reformed calendar, at least the date has remained: As the new mother went to the Temple forty days after having given birth, so too the Blessed Virgin Mother of God came to fulfill the Law through her Purification.
But why did Mary come to the Temple to be purified? Was she not already most pure? Had her Son defiled her in his most wondrous Birth? No, certainly he did not – in being born of the Virgin, Christ did no harm to her virginal integrity but rather consecrated it. Simply speaking, Mary had no need of purification, but she humbled herself (after the example of her Son) to follow the precepts of the Law which was soon to pass away.

The Purity of the Virgin Mary
Mary was, of course, most pure in body and in soul. Principally, she was pure in her mind and in her heart. Having been conceived without original sin, she was filled with the Holy Spirit from the first moment of her conception. Her heart was a cloister, a walled garden, wherein God dwelt in hidden majesty.
In this purity of heart and mind, Mary’s body also participated perfectly. A virgin in her heart, she was likewise a virgin in her body. This virginal integrity was not ruptured or destroyed by the conception of her Holy Son – for he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of man. Likewise, she remained a virgin even in giving birth – he who entered without opening the womb, came forth in a manner most pure. Even as light passes through glass, so Christ came forth from the womb of his virgin Mother.
Hence, in Mary’s body and soul we see the perfect fulfillment of Solomon’s prophecy: “Bridegroom: My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up. […] Bride: Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat the fruit of his apple trees. Bridegroom: I am come into my garden, O my sister, my spouse, I have gathered my myrrh, with my aromatical spices: I have eaten the honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends, and drink, and be inebriated, my dearly beloved. […] Bride: My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the bed of aromatical spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I to my beloved, and my beloved to me, who feedeth among the lilies. […]Daughters of Jerusalem: The daughters saw her, and declared her most blessed: the queens and concubines, and they praised her. Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array? […] Daughters of Jerusalem: Who is this that cometh up from the desert, flowing with delights, leaning upon her beloved? Bridegroom: Under the apple tree I raised thee up: there thy mother was corrupted, there she was defloured that bore thee. […] Bride: I am a wall: and my breasts are as a tower since I am become in his presence as one finding peace.”
The Mother follows the example of the Son
In all things, Mary followed the example of her Son. Thus, as Christ submitted to the observances of the Law (though he was not subject to the Law by nature, he willed to become subject to it and so to free from the law all those under the Law), so too the Blessed Virgin Mary desired to fulfill all the prescripts of the Law. In this voluntary submission to the observances of the Law, Mary gave to us an example of humility and obedience, and also took away from the Jews any excuse for calumniating either her or her Child. She who had no uncleanness, willed to observe the ritual of purification, not for her own sake, but on account of the precept of the Law – for this reason, St. Luke states “according to the Law,” i.e. that the Law might be fulfilled in her who had no need of purification in herself.
Indeed, “as the fullness of grace flowed from Christ on to his Mother, so it was becoming that the mother should be like her Son in humility.” (ST III, q.37, a.4) For this reason also, Mary, who was in no way subject to death as she was entirely without sin, willed to suffer death in order that she might follow the example of her Son who died. In this regard, the Greeks seem to have erred, for they refuse to admit the expiration of the Virgin, calling it rather a sleep or dormition – they are not yet bound to embrace the Latin tradition; therefore, there is some freedom for speculation in this regard. [see my correction/clarification of this point in the comment box, Feb 2 at 6:26am]
The impiety of some modern scholars
There is, however, no freedom for speculation in regards to the purity of the Virgin Mother. Some scholars have gone so far as to impinge upon the corporal virginity of Mary – impiously claiming that the first act of the Christ Child, upon coming into the world, was to harm the virginal integrity of his mother!
These “scholars” betray their insincerity when they cite Luke 2:23, “As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” They will claim that, because Luke applies the precept of the Law to Jesus; this entails that the Child did “open the womb” of his Mother, and so remove her virginity. Yet, it is well known that these same “learned” men will regularly doubt the historical veracity of the sacred text – declaring that what has been written is the reflection not of history but of the belief of the early Christians. Why, then, do they insist so strongly on the historical certainty of this rupture of Mary’s virginity? When else have these “scholars” ever taken the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy so literally?
In any case, the citation of the Law is from the Second Book of Moses: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Sanctify unto me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the  children of Israel […] Thou shalt set apart all that openeth the womb for the Lord.” (Exodus 13:1,12) However, Christ had in himself no need of being sanctified through the rituals of the Old Law; therefore it is clear that he did not open the womb of his Mother.
Moreover, Moses wrote that “If a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days, according to the days of the separation of her flowers. And on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised: But she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification.” (Leviticus 12:2-4) However, Mary did not conceive the Christ Child through the reception of the seed of any man, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, “Moses seems to have chosen his words in order to exclude uncleanness from the Mother of God, who was with child without receiving seed.” (ST III, q.37, a.4, ad 2)
Therefore, it is clear that neither was she made unclean by the Birth of Jesus, nor did she suffer the loss of her virginal integrity. Rather, in body and in soul, Mary remained always the Most Pure Virgin.


Chatto said...


this is interesting stuff, but I'm unsure about a few things. Would natural birth be considered as having violated Our Lady's virginity? My understanding is that virginity is only lost at the beginning of the natural conception act.

Is there testimony from the Fathers as to the miraculous nature of Christ's birth? Is it not fitting that she experience a natural birth? I ask because her Son experienced the penalty of Original Sin which God had placed on Adam (i.e. death) even though He was exempt. Wouldn't Our Lady, who followed her Son in all things, as you rightly say, also experience the penalty given to Eve (i.e. pain in childbirth) even though she too was exempt?

Also, I was under the impression that Latin Christians believe that Our Lady was assumed into Heaven before death, while the Greeks believe she died a natural death but was immediately assumed into Heaven, all of which they call the Dormition. Hence the wording of the declaration of her Assumption that she was assumed "at the end of her natural life", which deliberately leaves room for either interpretation.

Thank you in advance.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Good questions:
1) It is necessary to hold that Mary's virginity remained integral before, "during", and after birth...the only way that Mary is a virgin "during birth" is if Christ passed through her womb in a miraculous way. It is quite striking that we claim not merely that Christ was conceived of the Virgin Mary, but "BORN of the Virgin Mary."

2) This is strongly testified by the Church Fathers of both east and west...in particular we can mention Ignatius of Antioch, Augustine, and Chrysostom. So strongly did Ignatius of Loyola affirm the physical virginity of Mary (in giving birth) that he nearly killed a Muslim over the issue [this was before he entered religious life].

Hence, the Catechism states unequivocally, "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)
It is a heresy for any to deny the physical integrity of the Virgin Mary.

Nevertheless, you do ask a good question...indeed, as Christ took on our sufferings, so too Mary. However, as Mary conceived the Child miraculously, so too she bore him in a mysterious manner. This was to show forth the greatness of the Word, who proceeds from the Father without any division or demolition of the Divine Essence.
Christ is like us in all things -- but both his conception (without male seed) and his birth (without harm to his Mother) are unique.

3) Regarding the question of the Dormition of Mary: The Latin tradition is so strongly in favor of Mary having died, that it was very nearly declared dogmatically at Vatican II (when, at first, the Council Fathers had intended to produce a specific document on Mary, which was later set aside). The wording in the definition of her Assumption was chosen in order to remove any cause for objection from the East. [it is not clear to me what exactly the Greeks believe, since Dormition seems to be similar to death].
Nevertheless, there are many in the west who, in modern times, have begun to speculate that Mary did not die -- this, however, is not our tradition.

In any case, very good questions! I hope that my responses are clear...obviously, there is much more to be said on all these topics; however, there is simply not space in the comment box for all the books which would be written! :)

Nick said...

Mary's purity is a great sign of Christian obedience: Going beyond necessity to obey God. May she obtain for us perfect obedience.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It occurs to me to ask that all comments on this subject -- the purity and virginity of Mary -- be made with care. Something so personal as virginal integrity is a subject not to be treated lightly...especially when we are speaking of the Ark of the Covenant, Mary most holy.

We would never want to speak too casually or too gruffly of the virginity of Mary -- so precious to her Son is her purity, that Christ was willing to allow people to doubt his divine origin (thinking him the son of Joseph) rather than to allow any to doubt the purity of his Mother!

Chatto (1:14am) has given a good example of how one can question about the dogma in a respectful and charitable manner.

Mary, cause of our joy, Pray for us!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In the article I state a bit too strongly that the Greeks "refuse to admit the expiration of the Virgin, calling it rather a sleep or dormition." I do not intend to claim that the Eastern Orthodox actually deny that Mary died; rather, I mean to emphasize that they call it "sleep" -- whereas (in the west) we have traditionally called it death.

For this reason, western Catholic art depicting the subject has been traditionally called "the death of the Virgin Mary"; but eastern art of the same is called "the dormition of the Theotokos"...

Still, I maintain that the modern claim of some (mostly western) theologians that Mary did not die (either in death or in "sleep") is extremely speculative and not well grounded in the Tradition.

Unknown said...

I have learned a great deal about my faith through this site and today is no exception. I confess ignorance on this issue because I too thought ever virgin involved only conception. Of course, I believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity and purity but thought only conception mattered. Maybe I am confud=sed by physiology. If a virginal woman has some kind of surgery that “opens the womb” she is still a virgin , correct? Any help in righting my wrong is appreciated.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ronconte, you make a good point -- though it is a dogma that Mary's physical virginity remained intact during and after birth, the particular means by which this occurred is still a great mystery (one, which I think should be handled with great care and reverence).

@michael, the main difficulty for modern man in understanding Mary's virginity is that we think of it as purely "moral" and not "physical". The Church has always understood it as both virginity in soul and in body (i.e. physical integrity).
Thus, we maintain, as dogma, that Mary's womb was never opened.
Obviously, the Tradition has used the title "Virgin" in a much stronger way than we usually use it in modern speech -- however, we must hold not merely to the words used by the Tradition, but also (and most importantly) to the meaning of those words: The womb of Mary has never been opened.

Blessings and peace!

Solomons Chariots said...

Another great post Reg! I like the issues that you tackle.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this explanation.

Anonymous said...

If Revelation 12:2 refers to the Blessed Mother: "Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth." She went through the natural process of giving birth. The child, Jesus was flesh and blood, just as She was. He went through circumcision, with the removal of the foreskin and subsequent bleeding. What happened to the placenta, the afterbirth. As it passed out of the body it expanded the birth canal, it was part of the birthing process.As a flesh and blood woman She experienced menstruation. Where do you draw the line between fact and fantasy of the church fathers which is not substantiated by the Bible. Too many of them were sexually repressed. This unfortunatelly is the sin the Church has carried in all its denominations for the past 2000 years. Perhaps this IS the original sin. Cunegund J. Lewandowska

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I suppose you think that your very vivid and disgusting language about our Blessed Lady will offend me...

In fact, many of the Fathers are quite free in speaking of bodily functions, and even of those of the saints and of Mary. They were not nearly so ignorant or repressed as you seem to think. [Might I suggest that your comment seems to point to some sort of repression on your part? Since, you seem to think you are "being bad" by speaking of placentas and menstruation.]

In any case, if you think that being human requires natural birth, then you are obviously confused -- many children die before birth and (as I understand) some children are gestated in test-tubes. Opening a woman's womb is not required for a true human nature.

Second, the quotation from Rev 12:2 is apocolyptic and highly simbolic. You may as well say that the Lamb (which is Christ) is said to have a two-edged sword coming out of its mouth -- but Jesus of Nazareth was neither a Lamb nor did he have a blade protruding from his mouth, therefore he must not be the Christ.
It is a foolish argument and an testifies to your inability to read Scripture.

As to the attestation in the Scriptures: Immediately after the birth, Mary took the child and wrapped him in swaddling cloths...how many women are able to do that immediately after a natural birth, and with no pain killers!
Perhaps you are the one who are not able to "draw the line between fact and fantasy".

Take your blasphemes elsewhere...you are most unwelcome here.

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