The Virgin Birth

It is a matter of Catholic faith that Mary was a Virgin at the conception and at the birth of Christ, and that she always remained a virgin after the birth of Christ. (The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception was declared in 1854, and is based on Catholic Tradition & the following information.) The virginal conception of our Lord denotes a conception without the cooperation of a human father. The thrice holy germ in Mary's womb, out of which the Chief of the human race was fashioned, received from the miraculous activity of the Holy Ghost its impetus to become animated, to grow and to develop. This supernatural influence of the Holy Ghost extended to the birth of Jesus Christ, preserving Mary's integrity and causing Christ to pass through the barriers of nature without injuring them. The doctrine of the virginal conception and birth of Christ is found in the Nicene Creed as well as in the oldest forms of the Apostles' Creed. It has always been the constant and uniform tradition of the Church, and is taught explicitly by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Justin Martyr, Aristides and St. Ignatius. It is formulated in the Roman Catechism, in some Protestant Confessions and apparently in the Catechism of the Socinians, which considers the birth of Christ miraculous without explicitly declaring the virginity of Mary.

The two Evangelists of Christ's virginal conception are St. Matthew and St. Luke. In the accounts of both writers, an angel announces the heavenly origin of the Infant even before He is conceived: "Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 1:20); "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy Which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). St Luke twice repeats that Mary was a virgin at the time of the Annunciation, and consequently at the time of the Incarnation; the Angel Gabriel was sent "to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the Virgin's name was Mary" (Luke 1:27). The angel, wishing to give Mary a proof that nothing is impossible to God, informs her that Elizabeth, notwithstanding her advanced years, is to have a son. He represents the birth of John the Baptist as something miraculous. But of what import would be these words of the angel, if Mary were to bring forth a son under ordinary conditions? Did not the angel imply that Christ's conception would be more miraculous than John's? Was the Messias to be placed in a position of relative inferiority to His Precursor?

In their genealogies the two Evangelists expressly imply that Joseph's relation to Mary's Son was that of a legal or foster father. In the one case it is said: "Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ" (Matthew 1:16). In the other it is stated that "Jesus Himself was beginning about the age of thirty years, being, (as it was supposed,) the son of Joseph" (Luke 3:23).

In the episodes of the Magi and of the flight to Egypt St. Matthew repeatedly asserts that Christ is the Child of Mary and not of Joseph, and represents Joseph as simply the guardian and protector of them both. "And entering into the house, they found the Child with Mary His mother, and falling down they adored Him" (Matthew 2:11): "And after they were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the Child and His mother, and fly into Egypt" (Matthew 2:13); "Who arose, and took the child and His mother by night, and retired to Egypt" (Matthew 2:14, 20, 21). It is noteworthy that in all these passages the angel who addresses Joseph concerning our Lord, never refers to the latter as "thy child."

The supernatural activity of the Holy Ghost extended to the birth of Christ. As a ray of light penetrates a crystal without injuring it, as the risen Christ entered into the midst of the disciples through closed doors, so He also came forth from His mother's womb without any injury to her virginity. His birth was accompanied by no injury to Mary's organs, no pangs nor throes of childbirth. It did not introduce those physiological conditions which would place Mary - at least materially - in a state of non-virginity, conditions which presuppose and follow from natural conception. In affirming the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, the Fathers appeal to the following passage in Isaias: "A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son" (Isaias 7:14); in this passage "virgin" is the subject of both verbs - Mary was a virgin in the birth of Christ as well as in the conception of Christ. The Purification (Luke 2:22) offers no difficulty to this doctrine. The sacred writer cites a provision of the Mosaic Law to which Mary in all humility and obedience submitted. The virginal conception and birth were as yet known to only a very few. In addition, the Mosaic Law required that every first-born be consecrated to the Lord.

Theology advances several reasons to show why Christ was born of a virgin. The First Person of the Blessed Trinity is the real and true Father of Christ; it would be unbecoming that He transfer His dignity to a mere man. Secondly, it was fitting that He Who was born in a virginal manner in the bosom of the Father from all eternity, should also be born in a perfect virginal manner in time. Thirdly, Christ wished to avoid the mode of man's procreation which is infected with original sin. He decreed not to incur that taint He had come to destroy. Born of a virgin who was conceived without sin, He was clothed with a pure and holy flesh. He was a Man as we are but without semblance or stain of sin.

In the bitter controversy which a few years ago ensued between the Fundamentalists and Modernists, the Virgin Birth was one of the first doctrines attacked and rejected by the latter. Now, on what arguments do the Modernists rely? In the first place, they call attention to the fact that St. Luke in three places makes mention of the Saviour's "parents" (Luke 2:27, 41, 43). These passages, however, can hardly be construed as contradicting St. Luke's doctrine concerning the Virgin Birth. Having once described the virginal conception of Christ, St. Luke did not deem it necessary to be forever repeating that Jesus was not the real son of Joseph. Besides, St. Joseph by his marriage to the Blessed Virgin was a legal and foster-father of Christ, and as such had real paternal rights. It is possible, too, that in these passages the Evangelist is speaking from the viewpoint of the multitudes who were unacquainted with the mystery of the Incarnation.

At the finding in the Temple Mary says to her Son: "Behold, Thy father and I have sought Thee" (Luke 2:48). Since the Blessed Virgin was speaking in the hearing of strangers who did not know of the Virgin Birth, Mary refers to Joseph as the "father" of Christ; any insinuation that Joseph was not the real father of Christ would have immediately aroused serious suspicions in the minds of the Jews.

Besides, in the reply which Christ gave to His mother saying "Do you not know that I must be about my Father's business", do not the words, "My Father", constitute a very strong argument in favor of the supernatural conception of Christ?

The Modernists also call attention to the following remarks concerning the Saviour, recorded in the Gospel: "Is not this the carpenter's son?" (Matthew 13:55); "Is not this the son of Joseph?" (Luke 4:22); "We have found him of whom Moses did write, Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth" (John 1:45); "Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" (John 6:42), These examples reflect the popular opinion which went by appearances and which knew nothing of the Virgin Birth. They were terms used by the public to characterize a situation which it understood only superficially. They do not express the conviction and teaching of the sacred writers. The Evangelists well knew that these statements - inserted into their narratives - would be easily understood by the reader.

In 1892 a Syriac manuscript of the Gospels - seemingly of very great antiquity - was found in the library of the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. This Codex Syrus Sinaiticus, as it is called, was discovered by Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson.

According to this manuscript, Matthew 1:16 reads: "Joseph, to whom was espoused Mary the Virgin, begot Jesus who is called Christ." The Modernists immediately hailed this reading as an important argument against the Virgin Birth. One codex, however, cannot prevail against all the rest. Furthermore, in the immediate context we read that Mary conceived Christ through the operation of the Holy Ghost. Hence, one solution would be to posit a contradiction in the version although this is not very probable. Possibly "begot" is a slip of the scribe who mechanically repeated the verb "begot" in place of "was begotten" or "was born".

Most probably the verb "begot" is taken here in a legal sense and refers to Joseph's legal paternity. For Joseph was a legal husband of Mary and an adoptive father of Christ, and as such enjoyed all the rights and privileges of a father.

Some writers point to the silence of St. Mark, St. John and St. Paul concerning the virginal conception. The Gospels, however, were not systematic biographies, but each one of them was called forth by a specific purpose in the mind of the author.

The silence of St. Mark causes no difficulty since he does not speak of the birth of Christ at all. St. John knew and used the Synoptics. St. Ignatius, who was a contemporary of St. John and lived in the same country, and whose writings are permeated with Johannine ideas and phraseology, repeatedly speaks of the Virgin Birth. There may be a reference to the Virgin Birth in John 1:14: "And the Word was made flesh." St. Paul's Epistles were not systematic treatises of theology but letters evoked by the needs of the missions. St. Paul was a friend of St. Luke, and hence we have every reason to believe that the Apostle knew and accepted the doctrine. There may be an allusion to Christ's virginal conception in Galatians 4:4: "Made of a woman, made under the law." Finally, we must remember that the mystery of the Holy Family was not generally known in Nazareth and among the early Christians. Christ Himself did not refer to it in His public preaching since it would have exposed Him and His mother to public criticism.

Not much need be said of those theories which derive the Virgin Birth from contemporary heathenism. The early Christians manifested so profound an abhorrence for heathenism that it is antecedently improbable that they would have borrowed from the immoral mythologies of paganism. Besides, the differences between the Virgin Birth and the legendary origin of the pagan deities and heroes are so great that it is incorrect to speak of the second as parallels of the first. The strong Semitic coloring of the narratives of the Infancy shows that they arose in Palestine - in a Jewish and not in a pagan atmosphere. Since St. Matthew gives prominence to St. Joseph and St. Luke to Mary, it is probable that the account of the first Gospel goes back to St. Joseph and the Lukan narrative to the Blessed Mother (Luke 2:51).

We must carefully distinguish the Virgin Birth of our Lord from the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The Blessed Virgin had not only a real mother but also a real father, and her conception was brought about according to the human laws of generation. But at the moment that her soul was joined to her body, God - in view of the merits of Christ - filled her soul with sanctifying grace. Whereas men receive sanctifying grace only at Baptism, and whereas John the Baptist received it at the Visitation, Mary, on the other hand, received grace at the first moment of her conception. In our case, the merits of Christ cleanse our soul from sin; in Mary's case, the merits of Christ prevented sin from entering into and tainting Mary's soul. In other words, Mary was preserved from original and from all sin.

Discussion Aids

1. What is meant by the virginal conception of Christ?
2. On what grounds is the doctrine of the virginal conception and birth of Christ based?
3. What is the teaching of St. Matthew and St. Luke concerning the virginal conception Christ?
4. How is the miraculous birth of Christ established by a comparison with the birth of John the Baptist?
5. How is the fact that St. Joseph was only a foster-father of Christ established by;
     a) the genealogies;
     b) the flight to Egypt?
6. What is meant by the Virgin Birth of Christ?
7. Does the Purification of the Blessed Virgin offer any obstacle to this doctrine?
8. How can reason show the fitness of the Virgin Birth?
9. Is the Virgin Birth disproved by the Scriptural reference to;
     a) Joseph and Mary as Christ's "parents"
     b) Christ as the "son of Joseph?"
10. How explain the silence of St. Mark, St. John and St. Paul concerning the Virgin Birth?
11. Did the doctrine of the Virgin Birth arise from contemporary heathenism?
12. What is the difference between the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception?
13. What is the ultimate reason why many non-Catholic sects attack the Virgin Birth?
14. Why is the modern paganistic world unable appreciate or grasp the Virgin Birth? Why is it frequently hostile to it?
15. Name the various forces at work today which are trying to destroy respect for the purity of soul and body.

Religious Practices

1. I will have a great respect for the human body which existed in a state of such absolute purity in Our Lord and in the Blessed Virgin Mary.
2. I will try to understand that the human body is good in itself but that the use we make of it is sometimes evil.
3. I will pronounce with great reverence that well known title of our Lady, "Ever-Blessed Virgin".

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