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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).

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