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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Original Sin & Mary’s Birthing of Jesus

Back in my college seminary days, I remember watching with a large number of other men the wonderful television miniseries, JESUS OF NAZARETH. During the scene where Mary gave birth to Jesus, a group of the guys verbally objected that it was not right and that Mary did not experience birth pangs. They reminded everyone in the room that the pain of labor was a consequence of the fall and original sin. Since Mary was sinless, they argued, the whole birthing process should have been easy and free of any sort of distress. A number of the Church fathers concurred about the ease of Mary’s birthing of Jesus. One compared it to water passing through a straw. Nevertheless, the girl on the screen was pushing, grunting and screaming. The more liberal guys disagreed with the conservative ones and before long there was a very loud and vocal debate going on. I had very little theological training at the time and just wished they would be quiet so that we could enjoy the movie. We had to ask them to take it outside the room. I fully accept Church teaching about Mary, but at the time I wondered about it quietly to myself. This was a new question for me.

Published in 1566, The Catechism of the Council of Trent had this to say about the question:

“Besides, what is admirable beyond the power of thoughts or words to express, He is born of His Mother without any diminution of her maternal virginity, just as He afterwards went forth from the sepulcher while it was closed and sealed, and entered the room in which His disciples were assembled, the doors being shut; or, not to depart from everyday examples, just as the rays of the sun penetrate without breaking or injuring in the least the solid substance of glass, so after a like but more exalted manner did Jesus Christ come forth from His mother’s womb without injury to her maternal virginity. This immaculate and perpetual virginity forms, therefore, the just theme of our eulogy. Such was the work of the Holy Ghost, who at the Conception and birth of the Son so favored the Virgin Mother as to impart to her fecundity while preserving inviolate her perpetual virginity.”

 “The Virgin Mother we may also compare to Eve, making the second Eve, that is, Mary, correspond to the first, as we have already shown that the second Adam, that is, Christ, corresponds to the first Adam. By believing the serpent, Eve brought malediction and death on mankind, and Mary, by believing the Angel, became the instrument of the divine goodness in bringing life and benediction to the human race. From Eve we are born children of wrath; from Mary we have received Jesus Christ, and through Him are regenerated children of grace. To Eve it was said: In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. Mary was exempt from this law, for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate she brought forth Jesus the Son of God without experiencing, as we have already said, any sense of pain.” [Part 1, Article 3]

Other than these few paragraphs, the Church gives us little further guidance on this question, placing the stress upon Mary’s perpetual virginity and sinlessness. While we can speculate, I would not want to say anything that would harm true faith and the devotional life of believers. Jesus was sinless and yet he would pay the terrible price for our sins in his flesh through his passion and death. His death would make possible our rebirth in him.

Although Mary’s integrity is not compromised, this in itself does not mean that Mary’s lifelong participation excluded elements of the pain and struggle connected to his saving activity. If not the birthing itself, certainly there was the struggle of the journey and anxiety to find a place for the birthing. What they did find was no more than a cave or barn. She might have straw but no fine bed to rest upon. Mary certainly suffers at the Cross, even if vicariously, witnessing her Son’s saving sacrifice. This notion of suffering through another’s pain is worthy of reflection.  I am told that men sometimes have phantom birth pangs when their wives go into labor. Might Mary’s birthing possess solidarity with the Cross on a level about which we do not know? She does not share original sin with her sisters in the world, but helped her cousin Elizabeth with her birthing of John the Baptizer. She knew well what other women endured in bringing new life into the world.  Might she have offered up her miraculous pregnancy and birthing on their behalf?  If there were no physical pain, she might have endured something on an intentional and/or a spiritual level. Further, if she knew anything about the high calling and work of her Son, then there must have been both joy and the beginnings of that piercing into her immaculate heart. After all, Jesus was born to die. The powers of the world would conspire against her Son from the very beginning of his life among men.  Soon after his birth, Joseph would spirit them off to Egypt with Herod hot on their heels, seeking to kill the newborn king.

Mary offers up her flesh in her pregnancy and in birthing Christ. Yes, she is sinless, but the whole reason for this favor was the incarnation. She opened her heart to sinners and desired their salvation. The Sorrowful Mother probably knew a measure of suffering at both the end and beginning of this story. If so, it would not be because of any sin or fault on Mary’s part, just as Jesus did not deserve the agony of the Cross. All that Jesus was and would be was present throughout. Death was also a consequence of sin, but both John Cardinal Newman and the late Pope John Paul II thought that Mary, though never corrupted by the grave, did indeed die. In this regard she stood with Christ and the rest of humanity. By contrast, along with those of us who find the notion of birth pangs difficult to reconcile with Mary’s sinlessness, the Eastern churches would prefer to speak of Mary “falling asleep” and being translated into heaven.

The text from Genesis is clear: sin, suffering and death are on our side of the equation. We read in Genesis 3:16: “To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply your pain in child bearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Based upon her not suffering from concupiscence or any other consequence of original sin, magisterial teachers would contend that she had a painless delivery. This was the assessment from the Church fathers of Trent.  There is even the stress upon a spiritual or supernatural birth over a natural birth. While some might find that this challenges credulity, there are stories about ordinary women (not so holy) who have had easy deliveries. Given this case for them, then why not something unique for Mary? If God could conceive a child in her by the power of the Holy Spirit, he could certainly bring that child of promise forward in a manner that would leave Mary’s bodily integrity intact and free from the usual distress of delivery.  I suppose if the incarnation were to occur today we would insist upon St. Joseph documenting the whole event with a video camcorder. Thankfully, the truths of Scripture and Sacred Tradition are of an entirely different order than the voyeurism reported by the network news or by reality television programs.

There are certain dangers or risks in talking about Mary’s virginity. First, there is the invading atheism where critics scoff at the miraculous. Second, and this flows from the first point, people might easily mock the teaching and women might despair of any real association with Mary. While the marital act consummates and renews their marriage covenants, women often have mixed feelings about the sexual gymnastics required to get pregnant. They are intensely aware of how it is a means to an ends. Not only is Mary removed from such a repetitive duty, it is also insisted that Jesus was born with no trauma to her body. As one woman I know asked, then how is Mary really like the rest of us who are mothers? If the authorities are right, then Jesus exits the womb as easily and mysteriously as he enters the locked upper room after his resurrection. The current universal catechism also insists that Mary’s virginal integrity is unassailed (not mentioning birth pangs):

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’” (CCC #499).

Contraception, Gender Roles & Priestesses

Do you know that there is no single cell in the human body (with the exception of gametes for reproduction) which is not sexually imprinted as either male or female? I will not go into an elementary lecture on the structural differences between the sexes or the differing roles in the marital act. Although a few contest it, there are differences in the characteristics of mind and spirit, too. While we must be careful of stereotypes, women seem to have a heightened receptivity and religious sense. Their powers of intuition and emotion also seem more pronounced over the male’s analytical approach to life and ideas. We cannot dismiss the wonderful gifts of women. These kinds of distinctions must be considered in any debate regarding women ministers, and even more so, about the possibility of women priests or priestesses. The differences between the sexes and any talk about the subordination of women do not imply inferiority and is ultimately the will of the Creator. Any degradation of womanhood would be a false interpretation of Scripture and impugn the work of God with creation and human nature.

The question of women in the priesthood arose after the so-called sexual revolution. The legalization and endorsement of artificial contraception tended to escalate the separation of womanhood from motherhood and the home. The role of women went through a drastic reappraisal. Sexual expression was also increasingly severed from marriage and the desire for a family. After the Anglican decision to tolerate contraception, at least for married couples, in 1930, the Catholic Church felt compelled to respond with a clear repudiation of such a stance. I am among the school of thought holding that Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on the ends of marriage, Casti Connubii, fulfills the requirements for infallibility within the universal ordinary Magisterium. All the world bishops were consulted and it was received everywhere, by the shepherds and laity alike. Dr. William May and Dr. Germain Grisez are also of one mind about this. The encyclical condemned artificial contraception. But, what is more, it corrected the modern view about the “equality of rights” of the spouses. The Holy Father wrote, “. . . there must be a certain inequality . . . which is demanded by the good of the family and the right ordering and unity and stability of home life” (paragraph 77). This “hierarchical” ordering of marriage implied not denigration of women, “for if the man is the head, the woman is the heart” of the family (paragraph 27f). Similarly, Pius XII emphasized that the particular qualities of the sexes had to be given recognition, especially the social leadership of men and the maternal traits of women. The voice of the true Vatican II, not the nebulous and often contradictory “spirit of Vatican II,” signifies that the differences between the sexes be acknowledged and nurtured. In the Declaration on Christian Education, we read, “. . . pay due regard in every educational activity to sexual differences and to the special role which divine Providence allots to each sex in family life and in society” (#8).

I digress into all this to stress that the sexes are not the same. Further, the Church and her tradition puts much weight on the marriage analogy in understanding the priesthood and ecclesial identity as expressed in the Mass. Seen in this light, many observers would argue that it appears the ordination of women is counter to female human nature as it arises from the creative providence of God.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

Mary & the Brethren

No one denies that the Bible mentions brethren of Christ, as in Mark 6:3. Such references are a real stumbling block for Protestants to believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Many Catholics might also suffer from such confusion, particularly in the absence of good catechesis and preaching on the Blessed Mother. While there are biblical supports, Marian teaching is an area where the importance of Sacred Tradition is proven. Our beliefs about her have been passed down from the days when she was treasured as our Lord’s most intimate living witness in the early Church. Since she was not the direct mother of the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus, she is entrusted to John at the Cross. The family of faith will take care of her and in return she will manifest a spiritual motherhood among them.

Protestants generally agree with Catholics that prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary was a virgin. The prophecy of a virgin with child in Isaiah 7:14 is fulfilled in Matthew 1:23. The scene of the annunciation confirms her virginity. The angel Gabriel tells her that she will conceive and bear a son (Luke 1:31). Mary immediately asks how this could be since she has not known man, in other words, had sexual relations. The angel makes it clear that the agency for her pregnancy would be divine power: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).

Precedent for Improbable Births Before Mary

Mary’s own birth to the aged Joachim and Ann would be deemed as improbable but possible, in line with a pattern seen again and again in Scripture with the parents of special children called forth by God. Her own cousin Elizabeth would be another example as the mother of John the Baptizer. Sarah gave birth to Isaac when she was in her 90’s; Manoah’s wife is another and she would deliver Samson; and the barren Hannah only became pregnant with the prophet Samuel after she desperately promised God that he would be dedicated to his service. These were all children “of promise” and they were singular in that there would be no others to pass through their mothers’ wombs. God stretched the rules of nature in these miraculous births. But, in Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus, the laws of nature were superseded. It was a miracle of an entirely different order. Isaac would become the father of a great nation, God’s people. Jesus ushered his kingdom, first through his own person and later through his mystical body, the Church. Samson was a mighty deliverer of his people from the bondage of the Philistines. Jesus lays down his life as the redeemer of mankind from the slavery of Satan and the afflictions of sin and death. Under Saul and David, the prophet Samuel brought God’s word to his people. Jesus is the revelation of the Father, showing us the face of God. He is the true mediator between heaven and earth. He testifies to the truth, the Good News of the kingdom.

Priestesses: Can Women Become Men?

Back in 1989, many Europeans celebrated the anniversary of the French Revolution. The Church was heavily criticized for not taking an active part in the festivities. Why did the Church refuse to join in the memorial of an uprising that espoused, “liberty-equality-fraternity”? Well, the answer went deeper than the religiosity of the fallen crown. Liberty for some meant persecution and death for others. Catholic priests were murdered by the thousands. Church properties were confiscated. The faith was mocked. No, the revolution might have been a watershed in French history, but it was also a tragic instance of man’s inhumanity to man. What does the Church have to show for this revolution? Less than 18% of the French go to Sunday Mass. The cathedrals are empty. Their over-emphasis upon individual freedom found its way into existentialist philosophy.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her book, The Second Sex, that she envisioned young girls as “thwarted boys, that is, children that are not permitted to be boys,” and defined the adult female as an “abortive man.” Akin to our radical feminists, although they might deny it, she concludes that women can only achieve true emancipation by liberating themselves from their femininity. This changes the question, “Can women become priests?” to “Can women become men?” This is not a ridiculous question. My old rectory cook used to keep a small television running while working in the kitchen. Sitting with her one day she told me of a talk-show hosted by a panel of women who through hormonal treatments and drugs had undergone sex changes. They were literally seeking to become men.  It seems that “liberty” and “equality” have gone mad!

Men are also confused about gender and sexuality. Doctors are seriously considering experiments with the implantation of embryos into the stomach linings of homosexual men. Yes, they want to be mothers! It is in this context of gender confusion that the question of women priests or priestesses arises. Many proceed with the unattenuated assumption that sexual differentiation is primarily a sociological matter. Minimizing the underlying biology, the social roles are interpreted as interchangeable.

A radical feminist theology, analyzed within a Marxist matrix, is one of the contemporary liberation theologies. Its ultimate end is an androgynous utopia in which there is full “mathematical” equality between the expectations and assignments of the sexes. This is in contrast to the Christian goal of a state of holiness and the acquisition of the greatest good, God. This end is achieved by divine grace and through the complementary (but not always identical) instrumentation of gender-differentiated human beings. I sometimes have to wonder even in regard to their official feminist stratagem, if radical feminists are honest; is it really equality they want or superiority? How does the old song from a musical go? Ah, yes, “Anything you can do, I can do better than you!” I suspect this is part of their not so well disguised agenda.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

The Impossible is Made Possible for Mary

Joachim and Ann conceived Mary in the normal course of marital human interaction. Tradition claims they were elderly but as with Zachariah and Elizabeth, it only made such a pregnancy improbable, not impossible. The most sensational divine intervention was left unseen in the unblemished soul of Mary. This preservation from sin also spares her from the most serious consequences of the fall; she is conceived already as an inheritor of eternal life. This was only fitting because the Lord of life would make her into his Ark for entering this world.

Mary asks the question which would initially trouble Joseph. “How is this going to happen?” (see Luke 1:34). The angel lets her know that the impossible will be made possible by God. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you” (see Luke 1:35). God shall come down from heaven and reveal his face in Jesus Christ. The eternal Word and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity shall enter into the human family.

I recall reading in public junior high school a short story (probably banned now) about a Jewish boy upsetting his rabbi with questions on Jesus. (The title and author escapes me.) The rabbi’s response to the incarnation and miracles of Jesus was one word, “Impossible!” But the boy nagged him, “If God can do anything, why not this?”

IN THE NEWS

Embryos with Animal Genes Secretly Mixed with Humans

This is wrong on so many levels that I do not know where to begin. Professor Robin Lovell-Badge said the scientists were not concerned about human-animal hybrid embryos because by law these have to be destroyed within 14 days. In other words, we plan to kill any potentially sentient life before it says, “Mama,” or “Daddee.” Planet of the Apes… here we come!

Couple Ordered by City to Stop Feeding the Homeless

God forbid that charitable people should try to feed the poor without city approval and a permit… NOT! Instead of allowing this couple to feed the poor, the homeless will have to return to scavenging through dumpsters! Remember Scrooge’s rejection of charity and the desperation of the poor, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Town Council Bans Right of Assembly and Free Speech

Have we traveled back in time before 1989 and now find ourselves in the defunct Soviet Union?

 

This town council needs a basic civics lesson about the Constitution and basic liberties that we cherish. Small town or not, it is demonstrative of a problem here at home. Growing numbers are too willing to surrender what many have died to maintain.

Fewer Parishes & Fewer Priests Who Must Say More Masses

The statistics are in… fewer parishes, fewer priests, more Masses being celebrated. What are they telling me that I do not already know? It is also ironic that the liturgy went from Latin to English and now, even apart from the restoration of the older liturgy, Masses in languages other than English are commonplace in parishes, albeit in the living languages of immigrants.

Seal of Confession is Threatened in Ireland

A priest must keep the seal of Confession even if it means his life.

Mary & Consecrated Virginity

Any precedent for virginity or celibacy that is used to substantiate claims about Mary, also applies to the discipline of celibacy by religious and clergy. Those who would malign such a lifestyle as unnatural do an injustice to good people who embrace purity. St. Paul, himself, affirms that it is a noble choice and one for which he has a preference.

A chief foreshadowing in the Old Testament is the prophet, Jeremiah. God commanded him, “Do not take a wife, have no sons and no daughters in this place” (Jeremiah 16:1-4). Mary was the first disciple and prophet of the Good News. Priests are also prophets and living signs of contradiction to the world. Their celibacy is an eschatological sign pointing to the fact that we are only pilgrims in this world. The kingdom is breaking into the world and time is short. Like Jeremiah, their lives are consumed by their relationship with God and their mission among his people.

Although there are translation disputes about whether it is best to use “maiden” or “virgin” in the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14; “a virgin is with child,” is regarded as being satisfied in Matthew 1:23. This testifies to the truth about Mary.

Single and religious should maintain a virginal life and the married must never confuse lust with passion.

Mary’s Virginity & the Celibate Priest

The virginity of Mary is often spoken about in reference to the lives of consecrated religious. But along with the witness of St. Paul and that of our Lord, himself, it also finds a correlation with priestly celibacy. Mary is the virgin who conceives and gives birth to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. By giving life to Jesus she is making possible the life of the world. Similarly, the celibate priest is called, “Father,” because he is a spiritual parent. The priest consecrates and makes Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament by the power of the Holy Spirit. As one who is specially configured to Christ, he makes Jesus present as the bread of life and, again, the life of the world.

Never had God given such responsibility to human beings as he had to the Holy Family and later to his bishops and priests. It is for this reason that the Western Church has preferred that its clergy manifest a single-hearted love of God and a service undistracted by a spouse and personal family. In her later years, Mary too had to go on without her faithful protector, Joseph. Priests have the support of the believing community, but in a real sense they also embrace an aloneness for the kingdom.

Mary was never ordained a priest, but there is a sacerdotal element in her life that resonates with the priesthood.

Mary as Virgin & Mother

Mary seems to benefit from both poles of emphasis: she is a virgin and a mother. While she was a wife to Joseph, such was in terms of partnership and as a confidant, caring for the domestic needs of the home. Few couples embrace a Joseph-Mary celibate love all throughout their marriages; however, while rare, some do make and keep such pledges. I knew of a couple who tried to live such a life as a special sacrificial offering to God. They made this promise before a priest and the day came a year later that they returned to see the pastor at the rectory so that they might be released from their sacrificial vow. They came to discern that God willed that they now embrace the physical and life-giving joys of their bond. The priest sent them home with his blessing.

Mary and Joseph perpetually lived out their chaste and celibate love in honor of the Christ who was the center of their home. The many brethren and sisters, actually cousins, insured that Jesus had many playmates as a child. The extended family life in the time of Christ was very different from the nuclear families of today. Households often included aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. The family meant everything and everyone worked and played together. Such would probably play a formative role in how Christ would relate to his apostles and disciples.

He was truly part of a human family.