Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mary, Ever-Virgin (Part 2, examining the scriptural and historical evidence)

In Part 1 of our examination of the Church's teaching of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, we looked at the common objections to the teaching based on misinterpretations of the biblical texts that seem to indicate that Mary had other children. Having shown that the biblical "evidence" against Mary's perpetual virginity is inconclusive, at best, and, further, showing the dearth of historical testimony to such a position, let us turn our attention now to what else the Bible has to say with regard to the subject of Mary's Perpetual Virginity, as well as look at the Church's historical testimony regarding this doctrine. Finally, we will conclude by discussing what we can learn from this teaching in order to help us grow in our Christian faith.

"Material Sufficiency", not "Formal Sufficiency" of Scripture
The first thing to note, with regard to the biblical proof for Mary's perpetual virginity (or any Catholic teaching, for that matter), is that Catholics do not believe in the concept of "Sola Scriptura"--that is, we do not believe that the Bible must specifically teach something for it to be a part of the Faith, nor do we believe that the Bible alone is the sole infallible judge of all such doctrines. That said, many Catholics including myself believe that everything the Church teaches is, at least implicitly or by way of logical extension, contained in the Bible. That is, we believe in the "material sufficiency" of Scripture, but not in its "formal sufficiency". Since most non-Catholic Christians believe in Sola Scriptura, it is important when defending the Catholic faith, to show that, a) the Church does not contradict the Bible, when properly understood, and b) that Scripture does, in fact, point to a particular Catholic teaching, even if it never explicitly asserts it.

This is the case with various Christian teachings, such as the Trinity itself, or the two natures of Christ--divine and human. Catholic doctrines such as Purgatory or praying to the saints also have implicit support in Scripture, though they are never explicitly taught. It is also the case with Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Nowhere does the Bible emphatically state that Mary never had marital relations with Joseph, or that she was consecrated to virginity for her life. However, like the Trinity, the Bible does provide certain indications that Mary had intended to, and had followed through on the intention to, remain a virgin her whole life. Moreover, the Bible also attests to the fittingness of such a state when it teaches that virginity is a higher state of life than regular married life.

Exhibit A: The Annunciation
So where does the Bible imply that Mary had intended always to be a virgin? Let us look first at Luke 1:26-38, the account of the Annunciation:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. He went in and said to her, 'Rejoice, you who enjoy God's favour! The Lord is with you.' She was deeply disturbed by these words, and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, 'Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favour. Look! You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor, David; he will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his reign will have no end.' Mary said to the angel, 'But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. And I tell you this too: your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.' Mary said, 'You see before you the Lord's servant, let it happen to me as you have said.' And the angel left her (NJB).
Mary's Question
When the angel announces to Mary that God wants her to bear a son, she asks either a very poignant or a very stupid question, depending on what side of the Perpetual Virginity fence one is on: "How can this be, for I have no knowledge of man?" (v. 34). Luke had told us in verse 27 that at the time that Gabriel appeared to Mary, she was already betrothed to Joseph. Had Mary expected to enter into a normal marriage with Joseph, surely she would know by that time how babies are made. Surely her parents weren't so negligent as all that! Nevertheless, she is genuinely puzzled by the angel's announcement. Recall that the angel Gabriel had only told her that she would conceive--not when this would occur. Logically, had Mary been intending to have a normal relationship with Joseph, she would have assumed that such a birth would take place in the normal way of things. That she felt it necessary to ask how this was to happen clearly implies that not only had she not had any previous "knowledge of man", but that she clearly intended not to with Joseph, either.

Angelic Visitation as Sign of Conception's Impossibility
A second point to draw from this passage, is the fact of its very occurrence. Every time an angel announces the conception of a baby, that child is to be someone great in God's plan (consider Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist). The other key thing, however, in every other angelic announcement, was that it was physically impossible for the child's mother to conceive. In every other case, the mother was barren. In two of the four cases, the mother had also undergone menopause. And in each situation, this difficulty was very clearly stated by the sacred authors. When we come to Mary, however, while other similarities are present, Luke does not tell us that Mary is barren. Rather, Mary herself tells us why it would be impossible for her to conceive, thus warranting angelic visitation--and that takes us back again to her odd question. Not only was she a virgin when Gabriel showed up, it was a state of life to which she had consecrated herself.

Thus, Mary's question is crucial to understanding the Perpetual Virginity. If she had not intended to remain ever-virgin, what other meaning could her question have had?

Exhibit B: Jesus Gives Mary to John's Care
Going from the beginning of Jesus' earthly life, we jump now to the end of it. The second biblical text indicating Mary's perpetual virginity is also the one which I find most compelling. John 19:25-27 tells us,
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, 'Woman, this is your son.' Then to the disciple he said, 'This is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (NJB).
Care For Parents: It's the Law
We mentioned this text in the article about Mary being the Mother of God, in the context of her being the Mother of all Christians, as well. But this passage also indicates her perpetual virginity, as well, for if Mary had had other sons, it would have been their duty, under the Law, to take care of their mother (see Exodus 20:12, Prov. 23:22, Sirach 3:12ff, and, in the New Testament, 1 Tim. 5:8). Yet Jesus' last act from the Cross is to entrust her to the care of John the Apostle, who is nowhere indicated to be any relation of Jesus whatsoever. Doing this would have been a grave insult to James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, were they actually Jesus' brothers and the sons of Mary. He essentially would be disowning them from His family, as would Mary herself, by accepting this arrangement!

Not Qualified Due to Lack of Faith?
Now, some object that Jesus' brothers didn't believe in Him until after the resurrection (cf. John 7:3-10), and that is why Jesus didn't entrust His mother to them. But this objection makes no sense, since they were still, ostensibly, Mary's children, and honour- and law-bound to care for her. Furthermore, at least some of them did, in fact, believe in Jesus after His resurrection (consider James and Jude, authors of their respective epistles), and Jesus, in His divine foreknowledge, would have known that. Thus, there was no reason for Jesus to not have entrusted them with the care of Mary, unless, in fact, they were not His brothers and her children, and therefore had no legal claim on them to care for her! As such, the fact that Jesus felt it to be necessary to entrust Mary to John quite definitively indicates that she had no other children. This, combined with her otherwise unusual question in Luke 1:34, shows rather clearly, if implicitly, that Mary was perpetually a virgin.

Exhibit C: Virginity the Higher Calling
While these two are the most direct passages with regards to Mary's perpetual virginity, there are a few other points to consider before leaving the question of the Bible's position. First, while the Bible affirms that marital relations and childbearing are definitely good things, there are passages that tell us that virginity is a higher calling. Revelation 14:1-5 describes a group of people known as the 144,000. While their identity is far from certain (to the chagrin of the Jehovah's Witnesses), there are some definite descriptors about them which make them worthy to be numbered in this group. Verse four begins the description: "These are the ones who have kept their virginity and not been defiled with women..." Their life of perpetual virginity heads the list of qualifications for the specific honour awarded to them in this passage--to have learned "a new hymn" and to sing it "in the presence of the four living creatures and the elders" (v. 3). Furthermore, St. Paul writes at length about the blessing and the merits of a celibate life, as freeing one to be more able to devote him- or herself fully to the will of God (1 Corinthians 7). He begins this chapter by saying, "Yes, it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman" (v. 1). Later on, he explicitly states, "If someone with strong passions thinks that he is behaving badly towards his fiancee and that things should take their due course, he should follow his desires. There is no sin in it; they should marry. But if he stands firm in his resolution, without any compulsion but with full control of his own will, and decides to let her remain as his fiancee, then he is acting well. In other words, he who marries his fiancee is doing well, and he who does not, better still" (vv. 36-38, emphasis mine). Finally, Jesus Himself advocates celibacy for those to whom it is given:
The disciples said to him, 'If that is how things are between husband and wife, it is advisable not to marry.' But he replied, 'It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted. There are eunuchs born so from their mother's womb, there are eunuchs made so by human agency and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can' (Matthew 19:10-12).
From these three passages, we see that virginity is a higher state than married life, though it is not the call of every person. Being, however, that Mary herself is the highest honoured of all human beings, it is greatly fitting that God would have graced her to live according to a higher state of life.

Exhibit D: Old Testament Typology
Further, the early Church Fathers have seen in Ezekiel 44:1-3 a type of Mary. In chapter 43, Ezekiel sees the Lord enter into the new Jerusalem from the Eastern Gate, and proceed to show to Ezekiel the New Temple. In chapter 44, Ezekiel writes,
He brought me back to the outer east gate of the sanctuary. It was shut. Yahweh said to me, 'This gate will be kept shut. No one may open it or go through it, since Yahweh, God of Israel, has been through it. And so it must be kept shut. The prince himself, however, may sit there to take his meal in the presence of Yahweh. He must enter and leave through the porch of the gate.'
The Fathers allegorically interpreted this as Mary's virginal conception of Jesus--that is, the Holy Spirit, who is Yahweh, the God of Israel, had "been through" the "gate" of Mary when He overshadowed her; thus, it was fitting that no one else should do so. Only the "Prince", Jesus, Son of God and Prince of Peace, would be permitted to "sit there and to take his meal", that is, to derive His nourishment in Mary's womb, and then "leave through the porch of the gate" at His birth. Do not mistake me to mean that Ezekiel 44 is a prophecy of Mary's perpetual virginity. Rather, it is a type of it, just as the Bronze Serpent of Numbers 21:4-9 was a type of the Crucifixion (cf. John 3:14-15).

Finally, another type in Scripture clearly connects to Mary's perpetual virginity. That is, the type of the Ark of the Covenant, fulfilled in Mary, which we discussed at length during the Rosary series. That is, as Mary fulfils the type of the Ark, in that the Ark held the 10 Commandments, the Manna, and Aaron's priestly rod which budded, so Mary held in her womb the Law Giver, the Bread of Life, and the true High Priest in Jesus Christ, so too as the Ark was the holiest of all sacred objects, Mary is the holiest of all God's people, and, finally, as no one could touch the Ark, so Mary was "untouched", perpetually a virgin.

Calling Witnesses
This, then, summarises the "positive" biblical proof for Mary's perpetual virginity. I personally found it quite compelling when I was becoming a Catholic. Moreover, the Church has always found it compelling, as it has consistently, from the earliest times, upheld belief in Mary's perpetual virginity. As we mentioned in the last article, the early Christian writing, The Protoevangelium of James, written probably around AD 120, was composed primarily as a defense of Mary's perpetual virginity. About it, Origen would later write,
"The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity" (Commentary on Matthew 2:17 [A.D. 248]).
Later, in AD 354, St. Hilary of Poitiers, in his Commentary on Matthew, would argue for Mary's perpetual virginity based on Jesus' giving Mary to John's care at the crucifixion. St. Epiphanius of Salamis argued for Mary's perpetual virginity from her very name, for even by his time (AD 375), Mary was always known as "the Virgin Mary" or "the Blessed Virgin Mary". He states, "And to holy Mary, 'Virgin' is invariably added, for that holy woman remains undefiled" (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 78:6 [A.D. 375]).

We mentioned in the last article as well St. Jerome's treatise, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, which he wrote around 383. In it, he himself marshals Sts. Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr in defense of Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Other notable defenders of and believers in this doctrine include St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Pope Siricius I, and Pope Leo I, among many others, whom it would be tedious for me to quote at length. Of course, Catholic Answers already did that, here.

Official Church Promulgation
With this much historical weight behind it, it seems almost unnecessary for the Church to have officially promulgated it at an Ecumenical Council. Yet, it was declared at the Second Council of Constantinople. In AD 553, at the Council of Constantinople, the Church labeled as heretics those who denied "that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her" (Anathemas against the 'Three Chapters' 2). After the Second Council of Constantinople, the title was universally accepted and promulgated by the Church. Later, in AD 649, Pope Martin I convened the Lateran Council, which issued this statement:
If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.
Hostile Witnesses
Thus belief in Mary's Perpetual Virginity was universally held by the Catholic Church, and, after the Schism of 1054, the Orthodox Church continued to teach and believe it, as well. In fact, all of the early Reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and even John Wesley are on record as affirming the teaching. (For the Zwingli quotations, follow the link and scroll to the end of Calvin's section.)

The unanimity of belief, compounded with the Scriptural evidence for it, serve to overwhelmingly attest to the truth of Mary's Perpetual Virginity. In light of this, on what grounds does anyone fail to uphold that Mary was, in fact, Ever-virgin?

Implications of Mary's Perpetual Virginity
Nevertheless, some people still object to the doctrine, despite the abundant evidence, asking "what difference does it make?" This question implies that since a particular teaching does not specifically pertain to one's salvation, that it is somehow "negotiable", or "less true". However, such an opinion opens the door to questioning which doctrines are necessary to be believed in order to be saved, and which ones aren't. It is a question that has many different answers depending on to whose faith-tradition one belongs. Further, the truth of a doctrine is not dependent upon its relevance.

Safeguards Belief in Jesus' Virgin Birth
But the fact is, there are various implications to Mary's Perpetual Virginity for us. The first, as I mentioned in the Indroductory Post, is that it serves to safeguard belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. While belief in Jesus' virgin birth is not dependent upon belief in Mary's perpetual virginity, it's interesting to note that, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch (Anglican deacon and historian of the Reformation), during the Renaissance, Protestant rationalists began to deny the perpetual virginity in order to deny Jesus' virgin birth. They seemed to understand that the two stood or fell together. Thus the Reformers mentioned above regarded Mary's perpetual virginity as "the guarantee of the Incarnation of Christ."

Testifies to Higher Calling of Virginity
Belief in Mary's perpetual virginity also bears witness to us of the exaltedness of the celibate state. I mentioned above in the biblical defense of the doctrine that while the Bible (and the Church) does not view marriage and marital relations as bad or sinful, it does maintain that virginity is the higher calling. Mary is, therefore, the perfect exemplar of that calling, and an inspiration to those who pursue that vocation in their own lives.

Beacon of Purity
Finally, Mary stands, as ever-virgin, as a beacon against the degraded sexual mores of our culture. Where society screams sex, sex, sex, Mary points the way to a more blessed purity. While people would have us believe that we are just animals with instincts that demand satisfaction, and that we cannot control our baser desires and therefore should simply give in, Mary shows us by her example that this need not be the case. Moreover, through her prayers for us, she wins us the graces to persevere in purity and chastity. Let us thus turn and petition Mary for her prayers on our behalf in the words of the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J:
Immaculate Virgin Mary, I confide my chastity to your maternal heart. I ask your help to guard my senses, especially the eyes, for an unchaste eye is the messenger of an unchaste heart. Knowing my pride, I pray for that humility which invites the mercy of God. Knowing that I am human, I shall not be surprised at the urge of concupiscence, but trusting in your care I rely on your protection and all the graces that I need from your divine Son. Amen.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mary, Ever-Virgin (Part 1, responding to common objections)

Moving on to the second Marian Dogma of the Church, I must admit at the beginning that I am not really surprised that the Perpetual Virginity of Mary has caused no little stir of disputation in the comments so far, but I am a bit surprised at how much stir this particular belief has raised. But then, I remember looking back at my own journey to Catholicism, and the debates that I would have with my wife Melissa, whom I was dating at the time. The Perpetual Virginity doctrine seemed like such an easy win. I had, in fact, convinced her of the "truth" of the Protestant position when, seemingly inexplicably, one day I told her, "The Catholic Church is right about Mary." Ironically, and unfortunately, since then, sometimes it seems like I've had to almost reconvert her.

Ancient Belief
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is perhaps the oldest of the Church's beliefs regarding Mary, although it wasn't officially and dogmatically promulgated until the 4th and 5th centuries. It was something that met with disagreement only once or twice in the early years of the Church, and was otherwise believed by all Christians everywhere, until the time of the Reformation. Even then, all of the early Reformers believed it: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, even John Wesley, are all on record defending Mary's perpetual virginity. With such a weight of historical, universal Christian affirmation, from the Orthodox, the Catholics, and even early Protestantism, one does need to pause and wonder at how it came to be that modern Evangelicalism so heartily denies this doctrine.

Contradicts Scripture?
On the other hand, those same deniers of the doctrine, Bible in hand, wonder how the Church for so long could be in such obvious error, when Scripture seemingly clearly contradicts the notion that Mary was always a virgin. To this point, that a doctrine that contradicts Scripture must therefore be wrong, one must concede wholeheartedly. But at the same time, I reaffirm my belief that there is nothing in Catholic teaching that contradicts the Bible, when it is properly understood. As such, let's move on to our examination of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

Let us begin our examination of the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary in Part 1 with a consideration of the typical objections to the teaching. In Part 2, we will examine the evidence for the doctrine from Scripture and from the historical witness to it in the Church. Finally, we will touch on its importance and meaning in the lives of the faithful.

Four Objections
Objections to the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity typically revolve around the Biblical texts which seem to contradict the notion of Mary's continued virginal state after the birth of Christ. There are four arguments typically raised from Scripture against the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. The first is that the Bible mentions Jesus' brothers and sisters. The second is that Matthew 1:25 states that Mary and Joseph did not enter into married relations until she gave birth to Christ, implying that after that point, they did enter into normal marital relations. The third objection is that in passages such as Luke 2:7, Jesus is called Mary's "firstborn", implying at least a "second born". The final typical biblical objection to Mary's perpetual virginity is that the Bible throughout divinely approves sexual intercourse between married couples, and that many offspring are a sign of God's blessing. These, then, are the four basic biblical objections to Mary's perpetual virginity, listed, for the record, in order according to my perception of their strengths.

Objection 1: The "Brothers" of Jesus
The first, and to my mind, strongest of the arguments against Mary's perpetual virginity is the seemingly clear mention in the Gospels and elsewhere to Jesus' brothers and sisters. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all reference an event where Jesus is teaching, and "His mother and His brothers arrived" (cf. Matt. 12:26-49; Mark 3:31-34; Luke 8:19-21). In Matthew 13, furthermore, Jesus was preaching in His hometown, and the people reject Him there, saying, "Is He not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother named Mary, and His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not His sisters all with us?" (Matt. 13:55, cf. Mark 6:3). The fourth Gospel, John, also mentions "brothers", first at the wedding feast at Cana, and later, when they express disbelief in Jesus in John chapter 7, vv. 3-10. Furthermore, Galatians 1:19 has St. Paul referring to St. James the Just as "the brother of the Lord." A final biblical reference often used to claim that Jesus had siblings--and that these siblings are specifically Mary's children--is Psalm 69:9, which says, "I have become an outcast to my kin, a stranger to my mother's children." Now, this may at first glance seem an odd proof for Jesus having brothers and sisters, but the Psalm is viewed as a Messianic prophecy, specifically because the very next verse, "Because zeal for Your house consumes me..." is quoted by John 2:17 as referring to Jesus' cleansing the temple. Further, verse 22 is cited in Matthew 34:48 and Mark 15:23 as prophesying a part of Jesus' passion.

Now, these texts all together serve a very compelling case that Jesus did, in fact, have brothers. I myself believed this all my life before my conversion. Surely a belief that Mary did not have other children, but remained a virgin throughout her life, in light of the overwhelming evidence, is quite silly, and it is difficult to see how the Church could have so completely ignored these texts.

The Church's Response:
So how does the Church deal with these numerous passages dealing with the alleged "brothers" of Christ? For as I said above, if a doctrine contradicts the Bible, it must be false; and, I assert that no doctrine of the Catholic Church does, in fact, contradict the Bible, when it is properly understood. What, then, is the proper understanding of these passages of Scripture?

The first, rather small point that I would make is that, despite the amount of passages referring to Jesus' "brothers", they really add up only to three Gospel accounts, one passing reference, and an Old Testament Poem. Now, that doesn't in itself mean the objections are without basis, for I would contend that if something is mentioned only once in Scripture, it doesn't necessarily make it less true or relevant than something mentioned a hundred times. But to hear the objections stated, one can easily get the impression that the Gospels are littered with references to Jesus' expansive family, as though He were the oldest Son of "Joseph and Mary Plus Eight." When we realise that there aren't, actually, that many references to Jesus' so-called siblings, it's easier to break down each individual passage and see what it actually says, without feeling quite so overwhelmed.

Psalm 69
To begin, I will address the question of Psalm 69's reference to "my mother's children." I will admit that, in my initial investigation of Catholicism, I had not encountered anyone use this passage as a counter to Mary's Perpetual Virginity. It wasn't until a few years later that someone first raised the point to me, and, I admit, it gave me a second or two of pause, because part of my dismissal of the biblical objections to that point was that nowhere are any of Jesus "brothers" specifically referred to as Mary's children (a point I will bring up again later). But here was a passage that specifically did do so--referred to "my mother's children." If Psalm 69:9 did truly and completely refer to Jesus, then it seems to clearly say that His mother did, in fact, have other kids.

However, the crux of the question depends squarely on whether the Psalm does, truly and completely, refer to Jesus. In answering this question, we have to take into account that oh-so-important concept of context. Above, I mentioned two verses (in a 37 verse psalm) that are specifically applied to Jesus in the New Testament. That leaves 35 verses (including the one in question), which the Sacred Authors did not cite in relation to Our Lord. That does not, ipso facto, mean that they don't apply to Him. But when we read the Psalm, we see that there was probably a good reason why only those two verses were applied to Jesus, and none of the others. If nothing else, a careful reading of the Psalm reveals at least a couple verses that most specifically cannot be applied to Jesus!

Verse 4, for example, states, "My eyes have failed, looking for my God." Now, Jesus, who is God, the Son of God, the very image of the invisible Father, of whom He Himself declares that "I and the Father are one", and, when St. Philip asks at the Last Supper, "Show us the Father," Jesus says to him, "If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father," could surely have not worn out His eyes in looking for His God!

Verse 5 continues, "Too many for my strength are my treacherous enemies." Shall omnipotent God have too many enemies for His strength to handle? Was Jesus taken against His will, unable to fight back if He so chose? No! A very word from His mouth caused the guards who came to arrest Him to fall to the ground (John 18:6). Later He tells Pilate that he could have had no power at all unless God had willed it so (John 19:11). Jesus' life was not taken from Him, but He gave it up freely!

Just one more verse should suffice to make my point. Verse 6 states, "God, you know my folly; my faults are not hidden from You." If Psalm 69 is to be taken as completely pertaining to Jesus, in that every detail of the Psalm is literally to be applied to His life, then are we to believe that Jesus had faults and folly? That He was a sinner? This goes beyond bad exegesis, into the realm of blasphemy!

So it is clear that the entirety of Psalm 69 cannot rightly apply to Jesus. Rather, there was a more immediate interpretation, that would apply specifically to King David, its author. That the Holy Spirit inspired portions to refer to Jesus does not mean that all of it can be equally applied to Him. The question remains, then, why verse 9, and not verse 6? We have the Apostles' own assurance about vv. 10 and 22, but beyond that is our own guesswork and presuppositions. As such, I assert that Psalm 69:9 cannot conclusively be marshalled in support of Mary having other children.

The New Testament
Let us now turn our attention to the New Testament references to "Jesus' brothers". As I said above, aside from Psalm 69:9, there is no passage of Scripture that specifically states that Jesus' so-called "brothers" were actually Mary's children. And since Psalm 69:9 more easily refers to David's brothers (of which he had seven, according to 1 Samuel 16), we can disregard it. If Jesus' brothers aren't Mary's sons, then who are they? There are a few theories about this, and since the Church has only declared that they aren't Mary's sons, any of the alternatives are just as acceptable until the truth is revealed once and for all. The key to establishing their identity hinges on the meaning of the term "brother": specifically, what it meant to the early Christians who wrote and read the Gospels.

Language Barrier
Now Jesus, as we all know, was a Jew, as were His first followers. In that day and age in Israel, the commonly spoken language for the Jews was Aramaic, with Hebrew known for the reading of Scripture and for liturgical reasons (much as Latin is used in the Catholic Church today). Koine, or common, Greek was also spoken as a sort of "Lingua Franca" between the Jews and the Gentiles living round about. It is very likely that Jesus, then, spoke Aramaic primarily during His ministry, and that His Apostles did, as well. This is important to keep in mind, because, although the earliest copies of the New Testament which we have today come to us in that koine Greek, it is not the language that Jesus would have preached in. Neither is it likely the language that at least a couple of the Gospels were originally written in. Matthew, for example, scholars most certainly agree, was likely written in Aramaic first, and later translated. If we accept current scholarship's dating, it is likely that St. Mark wrote his Gospel before St. Matthew, and it, too, was likely written in Aramaic originally, as Mark, an Aramaic-speaking Jew, drew on St. Peter, an Aramaic-speaking Jew, as his primary source of information, according to Eusebius, the Early Church historian. Matthew, of course, and John, both being Apostles and eye-witnesses themselves, had their own recollections to draw from. Luke, the only Gentile among the Gospel writers, likely wrote in Greek. However, his primary sources would have been the Apostles, as well as St. Paul, his close colleague, and, judging by the internal content of Luke, as well as ancient traditions, the Blessed Virgin Mary herself was possibly one of his sources. Furthermore, the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke which lead them to be called "synoptic", lead us to the conclusion that either they all drew from a single source (which scholars theoretically call the "Q document", or the latter two of them drew from Mark, and added their own recollections and personalities to the compositions (the interpretation which I favour, personally).

All that is to say that we have four Gospels. Two were likely written directly in Aramaic and later translated. John, likely written originally in Greek from either Ephesus, where John lived and served as Bishop, or Patmos, where he was later exiled, and wrote Revelation, was nevertheless a native Aramaic speaker. Luke, the only Gentile and native Greek speaker, was nevertheless heavily influenced by Aramaic-speaking Jewish sources. As such, any understanding of what the text means when it uses specific words and phrases must take into account the Aramaicisms embedded in the Greek texts of the Gospels. These Aramaicisms show through very clearly from time to time in the texts, for instance, when Peter is referred to as "Cephas", the Aramaic form of his name; or when John refers to the hill on which Jesus is crucified as "Golgotha", and then translates it into the Greek, "The place of the Skull" (which we have, as the Latinised "Calvary").

The Meaning of "Brother" in the New Testament
When it comes to our present concern, that of the meaning of "Brother", we first consider that the Greek term "Adelphos" has a wide range of meanings beyond simply a literal "brother". A simple perusal of a concordance's listing for "brother" will show that, besides the literal meaning, it can mean relative or kinsman, friend, neighbour, countryman, co-religionist, disciple, and so on. The simple fact, then, that "adelphoi" (the plural form) is used of Jesus' "brothers" does not, therefore make them sons of Mary. The same goes, of course, for Jesus' "sisters" (adelphe). This fact is further highlighted when one remembers, again, the overwhelmingly Aramaic roots of the Gospel narratives--namely, that in the Aramaic of Jesus' day, there was no word for "cousin", and, instead, "brother" was used in its place. While it is objected that the Gospel writers (at least Mark, Luke, and John) were writing to a Gentile audience, and, having a Greek word for "cousin" would have used that, this does not hold weight since, again, Mark and John were Aramaic-speaking Jews. Even if John, say, was writing in Greek, he was still writing from a Jewish mindset, and would likely have written the way a student writes a French term paper even when he is pretty fluent. That is, for myself, anyway, forming the thoughts in English, and translating it as I go (either mentally, or with the aid of a lexicon). Studies have shown that when a person immigrates to another country after puberty, he never loses his accent, except through disciplined practice and possibly the help of a linguistic coach. The principle applies here. Grown men raised speaking Aramaic would write in Greek, if at all, with a definite Aramaic accent. Thus, while Greek does have a word for cousin, it would not necessarily have crossed Mark and John's minds to use it.

But what about Luke, the Greek-speaking Gentile? He certainly knew the word for cousin, and in fact uses it to describe Mary's relationship with Elizabeth. Yet in his account of Jesus' brothers trying to see Him while He preached, Luke still uses "brother". Consider this: the account is specifically paralleled in Matthew and Mark, and Luke very likely drew his account directly from theirs, or the possible original source. It may not have occurred to Luke to translate an Aramaic account of Jesus' "brothers" as "cousins" in relating this event in his Gospel.

So far, though, Jesus' brothers being cousins is an equally plausible theory to Jesus' brothers being brothers, but not necessarily more convincing. So we must ask, is there any reason to believe that it is more likely that Jesus' brothers were cousins? The answer to that question takes us to the other synoptic reference to Jesus' brothers. Incidentally, it should be noted that Luke does not relate this account, but only the first one, meaning that there is only the one occasion when he does use "brothers" in reference to Jesus' kinsmen. Moving on, though, in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3, when the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, His hometown, the townspeople specifically name Jesus' four brothers: James, Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Judas. James and Judas we know as the writers of the Catholic Epistles, James and Jude. But what else does the Bible tell us about these four men? Well, first of all, James and Joseph are specifically identified in Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40 as the sons of another Mary, likely the wife of Clopas in John 19:25, who is herself called the "sister" of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. This again highlights the fact that "sister" and "brother" stand in for "cousin"; or would objectors to Mary's perpetual virginity have us believe that Mary's parents were so unoriginal in their naming that they called two of their daughters "Mary"?

So if James and Joseph were sons of Mary, the wife of Clopas, what about Jude and Simon? Well, according to the introduction to Jude's own Epistle, he identifies himself as James' brother. So it seems that he also might be one of Mary, the wife of Clopas' children. Then again, we're exerting a good deal of effort defending the principle that "brother" doesn't necessarily mean "brother", in which case, Jude might be another cousin to James. It's interesting to note that while St. Paul refers to James as the Lord's brother in Galatians, James himself doesn't make that claim to fame (nor does Jude) in the introduction to his epistle, calling himself rather the Lord's slave, further evidencing that James was, at closest, our Lord's cousin. Jude, furthermore, is also identified as the "son of James" in Luke 6:16 and Acts 1:13. Whoever the James is that Jude is the son of, it certainly isn't Joseph, the most chaste spouse of Mary! Therefore, three of Jesus' "brothers" seem definitively to not be His brothers, but rather, His cousins. That leaves Simon, whom some scholars think is Simon the Cananean of Matthew 10:4. This is possible, but in no way conclusive. Nevertheless, three out of four of Jesus' "brothers" aren't His literal brothers. It is therefore not too much of a stretch to think that Simon isn't, either.

However, there is an alternative view, which has very historic roots in the Church, coming to us from an early Christian document known as the "Protoevangelium of James", which was written under the auspices of being by the very James that we were just discussing. Since it likely was not written by him, dating from somewhat too late for his lifespan, it was deemed "apocryphal"--that is, not worthy of canonicity in the New Testament. That doesn't mean it's utterly false, though. At any rate, its early date of composition (scholars estimate from between AD 70 to 150) shows the antiquity of the belief in Mary's perpetual virginity, since it was written for the express purpose, it seems, of defending that belief. According to this book, Mary was given to the Lord as a consecrated virgin from the time of her childhood, by way of thanksgiving for her miraculous conception to two elderly people, Sts. Joachim and Anne. If you're doubting whether something like that actually would occur, consider Hannah dedicating her son Samuel to life in the Temple, in 1 Samuel. When Mary came of age, in order to safeguard her vow of perpetual virginity, she was betrothed to an elderly man, Joseph, who was a widower and had already had a family. He was to act as her guardian and provider--in all ways her spouse except sexually. Of course, when he found her pregnant, it was a great scandal, for it appeared she had broken her vow of virginity in the most shameful way! Partly out of fear that the priests would accuse him of defiling Mary, and partly out of honourable motives since he still wanted to protect her, and knew she would be stoned if she were found out, he intended to divorce her secretly, as Scripture tells us. However, the Angel appeared in a dream and gave him the lowdown, and he obeyed God, taking her as wife as he had promised to do, and, despite the fact that they had a Son, Jesus, he still, as did she, honoured her vow of perpetual virginity. How does this explain who Jesus' brothers are? Well, as we said, Joseph was chosen because he was a widower who had already raised a family. Jesus' "brothers" then were step-brothers, and the children of Joseph's previous marriage.

In support of this, biblically speaking, let us turn to the instances in John where Jesus' "brothers" are mentioned. Specifically, John 7 (since they are given only a passing reference in John 2, and the meaning could go either way). In John 7, we find Jesus' brothers scolding Him very forcefully about His goings on, teaching the people. Now, Jesus was Mary's firstborn Son, and if these "brothers" were actually her children, they all would have been younger than Him. However, the manner in which they treat Him in John 7 is very contrary to how younger brothers should and could treat their eldest sibling in that culture! The behaviour they exhibit would be more appropriate for older siblings--which, if they were Joseph's sons, and Jesus' step-brothers, would make perfect sense. Of course, they also could have been older cousins, as we discussed earlier. Or, alternatively, a mix between the two scenarios is equally plausible, with James, Joses, and Judas being cousins, and Simon, possibly, being Joseph's son. As I said, we don't know for sure, so any of these theories is acceptable until God reveals the truth to us (probably on the other side of heaven...). The fact is, that these theories make much better sense of the Scriptural data than that they are literally Jesus' blood brothers.

Objection 2: Matthew 1:25 and "Until"
Now that we've exceedingly thoroughly covered the first biblical objection, let us turn our attention to the second: that when Matthew writes that Joseph and Mary did not enter into marital relations until Jesus was born, that this implies that they did, in fact, assume normal marital relations afterward.

Interestingly, although the Perpetual Virginity of Mary was largely uncontested in the Church until the time of the Reformation, there was one man in the early Church, a Helvidius, who used this very passage to try to refute it. St. Jerome, the eminent biblical scholar, responded thunderously, as was his way, and very plainly showed that Matthew's "until" doesn't mean what Helvidius assumed it did. St. Jerome's tract can be read here, but I'll relate the gist of it for you, faithful reader.

The Church's Response:
The fact is that Matthew 1:25 does not say anything whatsoever about the state of Mary and Joseph's life after she gave birth to Jesus. While perhaps in our language, "until" implies a change of state after the time that "until" refers to, this is not necessarily the case with the Greek term (heos). This is seen throughout the New Testament, and, for that matter, all of Scripture, but I will cite two examples:

In Matthew 28:20, at the end of the Great Commission, Jesus promises to be with the Church until the end of the age. If we take the understanding of "until" to imply a change after the time "until" specifies, will Jesus then abandon us at the end of time?

In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul tells Timothy to pay attention to reading, exhortation, and doctrine until Paul comes to him. I suppose when Paul visits, Timothy is free to become an illiterate heretic?

I won't detail other examples, but check out, for the record, Deuteronomy 34:6, 2 Samuel 6:23, and Psalm 110:1, for Old Testament examples, and Matthew 11:12, Matthew 28:15, Romans 8:22, and 1 Corinthians 15:25, for New Testament examples.

So, while there are times when until definitely means a change afterwards, there are times in which it definitely does not. It simply is emphasising a particular point in time--namely, in Matthew 1:25, the virgin birth of Jesus.

Objection 3: Luke 2:7 and "Firstborn"
The third objection is that Luke 2:7 and other passages refer to Jesus as the "firstborn" of Mary. But this objection hardly amounts to anything.

The Church's Response:
If one is an only child, he is just as much the firstborn of a couple as he is the last born. Moreover, in Jewish Law, the term "firstborn" was a legal term referring to the child who "opened the womb", which, a) necessitated the ritual purification after 40 days (described by St. Luke in Luke 2:22-38), and which entitled the firstborn to the father's blessing and inheritance, whether or not he ever had younger siblings.

Objection 4: Marital Relations are Divinely Approved
The final biblical objection is that throughout Scripture, sexual intercourse between married couples is divinely approved. It was therefore not "sinful" for Mary and Joseph to engage in sexual activity.

The Church's Response:
In response to this, three things must be said: The first is this, that while it is approved, it is not therefore mandated that a husband and wife must have sex. The second thing is simply that if the Protoevangelium of James is true in its relation of Mary consecrating herself to perpetual virginity (and in the next part of this article, we'll look at biblical evidence for that assumption), then Mary, having made such a vow, would indeed be sinning by breaking it--that their marriage was not a normal marriage at all. The final thing is that Mary, who bore the Christ, God Himself in the flesh, became herself sacred, her womb a sacred space, home to the pre-natal God-man. While sex is not wrong in the confines of marriage, but is, rather, a great gift of God, nevertheless, there are times when a common good is inappropriate when something sacred is involved. Eating and drinking are good things, but one would not use the Eucharistic Chalice for family dinner! (In fact, King Belshazzar met with God's great wrath when he used the sacred temple vessels when throwing a great debauching feast--Daniel 5.) Mary's womb, made forever sacred by bearing, nurturing, and forming the God-man, could not rightly be used for even the best of common goods without leading to great profanation. It is not that sex is bad, or that Joseph's seed would "sully" her womb per se, but such an act would be gravely inappropriate.

Now, this article has become exceedingly long, and I have only said half of what I intended to say--half of what is needed to be said--in defense of Mary's Perpetual Virginity. I hope the response to common objections serves as food for thought to those who would reject this most ancient teaching of the Church. While I have here endeavoured to defend Mary's Perpetual Virginity in a negative fashion, in my next article, I will argue for the truth of the doctrine in a positive way, showing from Scripture that it is the only logical conclusion, and demonstrating from the historical witness that it has been the universally held teaching of the Church. Finally, I will conclude by reflecting on its relevance and importance to our lives as Christians.

God bless.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mary, Mother of God

As we begin the first part of this series on Marian dogmas, it is well that we consider again their importance. Many people, thinking that honouring Mary detracts from the worship of Jesus, will go to an opposite extreme, and affirm that Mary was no one special--that God could have chosen anyone; that Mary was just an instrument, a vessel, for Jesus to be born. But this is not borne out by the Scriptures themselves, which tell us, first, that Mary was uniquely addressed by the Angel at the Annunciation. To no other person did an angel ever give such an exalted greeting. Of no other person did God ask permission to enact His plan. Mary herself, a few verses later, would prophesy that all generations would call her blessed, not treat her as a nearly anonymous "instrument", one among any other that God could have chosen. Neither did Mary's role end with Jesus' birth, but, more than simply a "vessel", she was a mother, raising her Son with tender care. She was there to prompt His first miracle, and there to suffer with Him at the foot of the Cross. She was there praying with the Apostles for the sending of the Holy Spirit, and finally, she is portrayed as our Heavenly Mother in the book of Revelation. Surely this brief survey suffices to show that Mary is more than just a mere vessel whose importance was over once God was "done" with her.

The Importance of Marian Dogmas
Dr. Scott Hahn, in his book, Hail, Holy Queen, says this about the necessity of the Church in preserving, protecting, and defending its teachings on Mary:

Without the dogmas, Mary becomes unreal: a random female body from Nazareth, insignificant in her individuality, incidental to the gospel's narrative. And when Mary becomes unreal, so does the incarnation of God, which depended upon Mary's consent; so does the suffering flesh of Christ, which He took from His mother; so does the Christian's status as a child of God, which depends upon our sharing in the household and family of Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of Mary. (p. 93)
Mary was unique, specially created and chosen by God to bear Jesus Christ our Redeemer into the world. It does Him no favours to minimise and undermine His Mother, but just the opposite. And so the Church continues to hold her up as the epitome of God's creation--as His masterpiece. And it protects this view especially in its Dogmas concerning her.

The Mother of God
The first of the four Marian Dogmas in the Church is one which, to my mind, should seem to be the least controversial. However, I'm consistently surprised at how often it gets controverted, even among those who are orthodox Christians. The problem, of course, is not so much with the teaching itself, but with a misunderstanding of that teaching--which is so often the case when it comes to the Catholic Church. To quote the late Archbishop Sheen again, "There are not 100 people in America who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church."

Responding to Common Objections
So what does it mean when a Catholic refers to Mary as "The Mother of God"? Does it imply, as is often alleged, that we believe that Mary is superior to God, or that she somehow originated Him, or even that she herself is considered to be some sort of a goddess? Certainly not! Yet these are the common objections to the title that I most often hear from various people. But the title refers to none of those things. It really is, on the other hand, a matter of simple common sense.

Simply, that common sense runs as such: We believe that Jesus Christ is God, the Son, the second person of the Trinity. He was born and became a man by the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who bore Him in her womb, gave birth to Him, and raised Him as His Mother, and He her Son. Thus, if Jesus is God, and Mary is Jesus' Mother, then Mary is the Mother of God.

The History of the Teaching
Something so straightforward hardly merits the controversy that often surrounds it now, nor does it seem to merit the controversy that surrounded it in the time that it was first officially promulgated. In the early Church, though, understanding Christ's identity wasn't always so cut and dried. In fact, pretty much all of the early heresies that the Church had to battle had to deal in some way, shape or form with who Jesus Christ is. Opinions varied between "Just a Man" to "A Man who was 'adopted' by God and made divine" to "God who pretended to be a Man while on earth" to the truth, "Fully God and Fully Man." Questions got even more complicated than that, wondering whether Jesus had two natures in one person, or just the one nature. Did He have both a divine will and a human will, or just the divine will? In fact, any obscure and seemingly irrelevant question sorting out how God could become a Man so as to save us from sin was thought of, hashed out, viewed from every possible angle to determine the rational truth of it, and finally promulgated as doctrine. And while many of these questions appear at first glance to be simply strange and esoteric question with no practical relevance, the Fathers of the Church realised that an erroneous view of who Jesus Christ is, even in some small matter as many of these seemed to be, if carried to its logical extension, could lead to grave error.

So it is, that in the earliest centuries, pious Catholic believers began referring to Jesus Mother, Mary, in their devotion to her, as the Mother of God, or, in the Greek language which many spoke at the time, Theotokos, which literally means, "God-bearer." The earliest prayer to Mary, which comes to us from the third century, but probably originates even earlier, says,
We fly to thy patronage,
O holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but from all dangers
deliver us always,
O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.
However, a group of believers, known as the Nestorians, named after a fellow named Nestorius (though whether he himself originated the idea is uncertain), objected to the title of Theotokos, worrying, as I mentioned above that many still do, that it meant that Mary somehow originated God, and further asserting that Mary did not, in fact, bear and give birth to Christ's divine nature, but only to His human nature. Thus, one should correctly refer to Mary as Christotokos, or Christ-bearer. This caused much concern and distress in the Early Church, affecting not only people's devotion to the Blessed Mother, but also greatly concerned another aspect of her Son. Was He true God and True Man in Mary's womb? Or did His divinity come later, at His baptism, perhaps? Are the two natures of Christ, bound up in one Person, so distinct and separate that Mary could give birth to one, but not the other?

So it was that Pope Celestine I convoked the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 to discuss the issue. The Pope was a firm defender of the title Theotokos, and was strongly supported by St. Cyril of Alexandria, who was a prominent theologian in that time. He argued that a mother does not give birth to a "nature", but to a whole person. Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, and since He is a Divine Person, it follows that while Mary did not "originate" Him, she certainly did bear Him and mothered Him.

Hahn again writes,
History tells us that when Pope Celestine convoked the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) in order to settle the "Mother of God" controversy, Christians thronged the city, awaiting word of the bishops' decision. When the bishops read the council's proclamation that Mary was indeed the Mother of God, the people gave way to their joy and celebrated by carrying the bishops (all two hundred of them!) aloft through the streets in a torchlit procession.
Think, for a moment, about the intensity of the affection that those believers felt for the Blessed Virgin Mary--to sojourn to the city of the council, to wait outdoors for the bishops' decree, then to spend the night in celebration, all because this woman had received her due honor. They would not act this way out of love for an academic argument. Nor would they celebrate the triumph of a metaphor. I daresay they would not make the perilous journey to Ephesus for the sake of any other mother: only for their own. For their own mother was also the Mother of God. (ibid. p. 101)
Mother of All Christians
This points us to the second marvellous truth contained in the Dogma of Mary, the Mother of God--that just as she is His Mother, so is she our Mother as well. For we have been adopted, through Christ, to be sons and daughters of God, younger siblings of Christ Himself! St. Paul wrote to that very Church in Ephesus,
Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Thus He chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before Him in love, marking us out for Himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was His purpose and good pleasure, to the praise and glory of His grace, His free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through His Blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins (Eph 1:3-7).
One of those spiritual blessings of heaven with which Christ has blessed us, was the gift of His own Mother, given to us as He shed that very Blood for the forgiveness of our sins, when He said to her, "Woman, behold your son," and to the Beloved Disciple, who stands for each one of us, "Son, behold your Mother" (cf. John 19:25-27). Let us do as John did, and take Our Mother, the Mother of God, into our own home.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)