Last December a movie called The Nativity Story was released in theaters, that, as its title implies, relates the events surrounding the nativity of Jesus Christ. After the success of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, more Christian-inspired movies were to be expected from the Hollywood industry, which had so far ignored, or even attacked Christians and their beliefs.
Although any effort to put Christ back into Christmas must be commended, this new movie was a big let-down for many Catholics, since it depicted the birth of Jesus in a Protestant tradition (showing the Virgin Mary in labor pains), totally ignoring the Catholic teaching about the virgin birth of Jesus. Commenting on this new movie, Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, a Franciscan Father of the Immaculate, wrote:
Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger
"Not only does the movie get the Virgin Birth wrong, it thoroughly protestantizes its portrayal of Our Lady… The Passion is a fundamentally Catholic film, while The Nativity is clearly a Protestant one. While scriptural blanks exist in both cases, Gibson provided the necessary details through the help of Catholic mystics, ultimately yielding a multi-layered, contemplative, and wholly reverential film. In stark contrast, Catherine Hardwicke (the producer of the Nativity Story), a Presbyterian, directs a much more ‘ecumenical’ Nativity, one in which the filmmakers consulted ‘as many historians and theologians as possible,’ yielding a film that is predictably muddled. Consensus theology generally renders an ecumenism of the lowest common denominator. As such, this portrayal of the Nativity manifests this tendency where one would expect it to, in regard to the character of Mary.
"The essential truth of the Virgin Birth, as taught continually by the Fathers and defined by the Church, does not concern the presence or absence of pain during Jesus’ birth. The central truth of the Virgin Birth is that Christ was born of Mary miraculously, as a sign and confirmation of His divinity. The Virgin Birth has always been distinguished from the Virginal Conception, because it was a separate and distinct miraculous event. It was not a natural birth, nor is it explainable by natural causes. Our Lady’s physical virginity, with all that it implies, remained integral and intact before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent all teach the painlessness of the birth as a logical consequence of its miraculous nature."
In a video posted on the website of the Franciscan Fathers of the Immaculate, Fr. Geiger explains:
"The perpetual virginity of Our Lady is a dogma of the Church, part of the deposit of the Faith, from which no Catholic may dissent. The Church has always defined the dogma of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity as Her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.
"The virginity of Mary before the birth of Jesus refers to the fact that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, flesh of Her flesh, by the power of the Holy Spirit, without a father. Virtually all Christians, Catholics and Protestants, hold this position.
"The virginity of Our Lady after the birth of Jesus concerns the fact that Mary never had marital relations with St. Joseph and therefore, of course, conceived no other children. Her whole life was that of consecrated virginity. Most Protestants do not hold this position. They argue that the brethren of the Lord referred to in the Gospel are the other children of Mary. The short answer to this problem is that the brethren in these passages refer to relatives such as cousins, and not siblings born from the same mother.
"But my purpose today is to speak to you about the Virgin Birth, of the virginity of Our Lady during the birth of Jesus. This is an essential part of the Church’s definition of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. This truth is based on Sciptures; in Isaiah 7:14 we read: ‘Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel.’
"St. Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica that this verse teaches both the virginal conception and the virgin birth of Jesus from Our Lady: "A virgin shall conceive AND bear a son…" Both the conception and the birth are miraculous, with no natural explanation.
"The Fathers and the medieval theologians continually used the analogy of light passing through glass: just as light passes through glass without breaking it, so Our Lord is born of the Virgin Mary without breaking the seal of Her virginity.
"The definition of the Lateran Council in 649 A.D. states that, in addition to conceiving Jesus without the seed of man, that She gives birth to Him ‘without any detriment to Her virginity.’ The Council of course goes on to say that Her virginity "remained inviolable even after His birth."
"Less than fifty years later, at the Council of Toledo, in 693, the Church teaches the doctrine very clearly: ‘And, as the Virgin acquired the modesty of virginity before conception, so also She experienced no loss of Her integrity, for She conceived a virgin, gave birth a virgin, and after birth retained the uninterrupted modesty of an intact virgin.’ This obvious sense of this definition indicates that we are speaking of physical virginity.
"The Fathers of the Church are careful to treat this mystery with reverence and prudential mortification of the tongue. Never do they speak about the physiology of the virginity in regard to Our Lady because, after all, She is the mother of God, and not a scientific case study… Notice the delicacy of St. Ambrose in the 4th century: ‘Mary is the gate through which Christ entered the world when He was brought forth in the virginal birth, and the matter of his birth did not break the seal of virginity.’
Witness also St. Augustine’s faith in the miraculous quality of the virgin birth: ‘That same power which brought the body of the risen Jesus through closed doors brought the body of the Infant forth from the inviolated womb of the Mother.’
"St. Gregory the Great, in the 7th century, makes it clear that the virgin birth is a miracle only comparable to the Resurrection, and one in the face of which reason must give way to faith.
"Finally, all this seems to be fairly simple if we understand that the virgin birth is not a natural but a miraculous birth, matched only by the escape of Jesus from a sealed tomb… The Fathers of the Church tell us, interpretating Isaiah (7:14), that if a virgin conceives and bears a son, that son must be God. The miraculous physical virginity of Our Lady is the fundamental guarantee of the divinity of Christ."
In the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, we read: "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. In fact, Christ’s birth «did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.» And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the ‘Ever-virgin’." (Paragraph 499.)
Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this dogma in an address to a Marian Study Conference in Capua, Italy, on June 10, 1992 teaching that: "The Church, in confessing her faith in the Mother of God’s virginity, proclaims as factually true that Mary: a) truly conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit without human intervention; b) truly and virginally gave birth to her Son; c) remained a virgin after His birth in everything that concerns the integrity of the flesh. She lived in total and perpetual virginity after Jesus’ birth. Together with St. Joseph, who was also called to play a primary role in the initial events of our salvation, she devoted herself to serving the Person and work of her Son."
Mary ever virgin
During the general audience on August 28, 1996, Pope John Paul II explained the teaching of the Church on Mary ever virgin:
"The Church has always professed her belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. The most ancient texts, when referring to the conception of Jesus, call Mary simply ‘virgin’, inferring that they considered this quality a permanent fact with regard to her whole life. The early Christians expressed this conviction of faith in the Greek term aeiparthenos — ‘ever virgin’ — created to describe Mary’s person in a unique and effective manner, and to express in a single word the Church’s belief in her perpetual virginity. We find it used in the second symbol of faith composed by St. Epiphanius in the year 374, in relation to the Incarnation: the Son of God ‘was incarnate, that is, he was generated in a perfect way by Mary, the ever blessed virgin through the Holy Spirit’.
"The expression ‘ever virgin’ was taken up by the Second Council of Constantinople (553), which affirms: the Word of God, ‘incarnate of the holy and glorious Mother of God and ever virgin Mary, was born of her’. This doctrine is confirmed by two other Ecumenical Councils, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Second Council of Lyons (1274), and by the text of the definition of the dogma of the Assumption (1950) in which Mary’s perpetual virginity is adopted as one of the reasons why she was taken up body and soul to heavenly glory.
"In a brief formula, the Church traditionally presents Mary as ‘virgin before, during, and after giving birth’, affirming, by indicating these three moments, that she never ceased to be a virgin. Of the three, the affirmation of her virginity ‘before giving birth’ is, undoubtedly, the most important, because it refers to Jesus’ conception and directly touches the very mystery of the Incarnation.
"From the beginning it has been constantly present in the Church’s belief. Her virginity ‘during and after giving birth’, although implicit in the title virgin already attributed to Mary from the Church’s earliest days, became the object of deep doctrinal study since some began explicitly to cast doubts on it. Pope St. Hormisdas explains that ‘the Son of God became Son of man, born in time in the manner of a man, opening his mother’s womb to birth (cf. Lk 2:23) and, through God’s power, not dissolving his mother’s virginity’. This doctrine was confirmed by the Second Vatican Council, which states that the firstborn Son of Mary did not diminish his Mother’s virginal integrity, but sanctified it (Lumen gentium, n. 57).
"As regards her virginity after the birth, it must first of all be pointed out that there are no reasons for thinking that the will to remain a virgin, which Mary expressed at the moment of the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:34) was then changed. Moreover, the immediate meaning of the words, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’, ‘Behold, your mother’ (Jn 19:26), which Jesus addressed to Mary and to His favourite disciple from the Cross, imply that Mary had no other children.
"Those who deny her virginity after the birth thought they had found a convincing argument in the term ‘firstborn’, attributed to Jesus in the Gospel (Lk 2:7), almost as though this word implied that Mary had borne other children after Jesus. But the word ‘firstborn’ literally means ‘a child not preceded by another’ and, in itself, makes no reference to the existence of other children. Moreover, the Evangelist stresses this characteristic of the Child since certain obligations proper to Jewish law were linked to the birth of the firstborn son, independently of whether the mother might have given birth to other children. Thus every only son was subject to these prescriptions because he was ‘begotten first’ (cf. Lk 2:23). Several degrees of relationship are implied by the term ‘brother’.
"According to some, Mary’s virginity after the birth is denied by the Gospel texts which record the existence of four ‘brothers of Jesus’: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Mt 13:55-56, Mk 6:3) and of several sisters. It should be recalled that no specific term exists in Hebrew and Aramaic to express the word ‘cousin’, and that the terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ therefore included several degrees of relationship. In fact, the phrase ‘brothers of Jesus’ indicates ‘the children’ of a Mary who was a disciple of Christ (cf. Mt 27:56) and who is significantly described as ‘the other Mary’ (Mt 28:1). ‘They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 500).
"Mary Most Holy is thus the ‘ever virgin’. Her prerogative is the consequence of her divine motherhood which totally consecrated her to Christ’s mission of redemption."
The betrothal of Mary to Joseph
In the previous general audience, on August 21, Pope John Paul II talked about the betrothal, or engagement, of Mary to Joseph:
"In presenting Mary as a ‘virgin’ the Gospel of Luke adds that she was ‘betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David’ (Lk 1:27). These two pieces of information at first might seem contradictory.
"It should be noted that the Greek word used in this passage does not indicate the situation of a woman who has contracted marriage and therefore lives in the marital state, but that of betrothal. Unlike what occurs in modern cultures, however, the ancient Jewish custom of betrothal provided for a contract and normally had definitive value: it actually introduced the betrothed to the marital state, even if the marriage was brought to full completion only when the young man took the girl to his home.
"At the time of the Annunciation Mary thus had the status of one betrothed. We can wonder why she would accept betrothal, since she had the intention of remaining a virgin forever. Luke is aware of this difficulty, but merely notes the situation without offering any explanation. The fact that the Evangelist, while stressing Mary’s intention of virginity, also presents her as Joseph’s spouse, is a sign of the historical reliability of the two pieces of information.
"It may be presumed that at the time of their betrothal, there was an understanding between Joseph and Mary about the plan to live as a virgin. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who had inspired Mary to choose virginity in view of the mystery of the Incarnation and who wanted the latter to come about in a family setting suited to the Child’s growth, was quite able to instill in Joseph the ideal of virginity as well.
"The angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said to him: ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 1:20). Thus he received confirmation that he was called to live his marriage in a completely special way. Through virginal communion with the woman chosen to give birth to Jesus, God calls him to co-operate in carrying out his plan of salvation.
"The type of marriage to which the Holy Spirit led Mary and Joseph can only be understood in the context of the saving plan and of a lofty spirituality. The concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation called for a virgin birth which would highlight the divine sonship and, at the same time, for a family that could provide for the normal development of the Child’s personality.
"Precisely in view of their contribution to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, Joseph and Mary received the grace of living both the charism of virginity and the gift of marriage. Mary and Joseph’s communion of virginal love, although a special case linked with the concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation, was nevertheless a true marriage (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris custos, n. 7).
"The difficulty of accepting the sublime mystery of their spousal communion has led some, since the second century, to think of Joseph as advanced in age and to consider him Mary’s guardian more than her husband. It is instead a case of supposing that he was not an elderly man at the time, but that his interior perfection, the fruit of grace, led him to live his spousal relationship with Mary with virginal affection.
"Joseph’s co-operation in the mystery of the Incarnation also includes exercising the role of Jesus’ father. The angel acknowledged this function of his when he appeared in a dream and invited him to name the Child: ‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Mt 1:21).
"While excluding physical generation, Joseph’s fatherhood was something real, but not apparent. Distinguishing between father and the one who begets, an ancient monograph on Mary’s virginity, the De Margarita (fourth century), states that ‘the commitments assumed by the Virgin and by Joseph as husband and wife made it possible for him to be called by this name (father); a father, however, who did not beget’. Joseph thus carried out the role of Jesus’ father, exercising an authority to which the Redeemer was freely ‘obedient’ (Lk 2:51), contributing to his upbringing and teaching him the carpenter’s trade.
"Christians have always acknowledged Joseph as the one who lived in intimate communion with Mary and Jesus, concluding that also in death he enjoyed their affectionate, consoling presence. From this constant Christian tradition in many places, a special devotion has grown to the Holy Family and, in it, to St Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer. As everyone knows, Pope Leo XIII entrusted the entire Church to his protection."
John Paul II