Monday, December 24, 2007
Did the Virgin Mary Experience the Pains of Childbirth?
Taylor Marshall has an interesting post and discussion over at his blog, Canterbury Tales (http://cantuar.blogspot.com/), on whether the blessed Mother experienced the pains of childbirth. Rather than posting a long comment over there, I thought I'd make my contribution here as a final Advent post, drawing on two key points. This is a particularly pertinent topic since last years' Christmas movie, The Nativity--which was widely touted by many Catholics--graphically depicted Mary undergoing the birth-pangs of Jesus' birth.
Now, you won't find clarification of this matter in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, apart from the clear teaching in Mary's perpetual virginity, which states that that "Christ's birth 'did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it'" (CCC 499; citing Lumen Gentium 57). Nevertheless, I thought I'd add a couple of points in favor of the classical Catholic position that Mary did not experience the pangs of childbirth.
As Taylor points out, it is fitting that the Virgin Mary would not experience pain in childbirth, since she was conceived apart from the stain of original sin (see CCC 490-93) , and pain in childbirth is clearly taught in Scripture as one of the results of the Fall (Gen 3:16). (It is interesting to note here that--at least to my knowledge--other mammals do not experience birth-pangs as do human mothers.) I find this argument correct, but not necessarily conclusive, and thought I would support it with a couple of points from Scripture and ancient Jewish tradition.
First and foremost, it is worth noting that the notion of giving birth to children without the pains of birth is not an idea that is foreign to Scripture. In fact, it is part of the eschatological vision of the prophet Isaiah, in at least two places. In his prophecy of the new Creation--the "new heavens and the new earth"--Isaiah envisages a future times when the results of the Fall will be undone:
"They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity...
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox..." (Isaiah 65:23-25)
Here we see the curse of Adam (fruitless toil) and Eve (pain in childbirth) being undone in the eschatological age.
Even more striking is Isaiah's vision of the new Jerusalem:
"Before she was in labor, she gave bith;
before her pain came upon her
she was delivered of a son.
Who has heard such a thing?
Who has seen such things?" (Isa 66:7-8)
Now, it is quite clear in the context that Isaiah is speaking of the city of Zion, of the new Jerusalem, and not directly of Mary. However, the allegorical application of the image of a holy city to an individual woman in salvation history is not unbiblical--think for example of Paul's identification of Hagar with the earthly Jerusalem and Sarah with "the Jerusalem above, who is our mother" (Galatians 4). This is perhaps why the early Church Fathers did not hesitate to see the Old Testament prophecies of the new Jerusalem as being fulfilled in Mary, the "daughter of Zion" (see Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church [Ignatius Press, 1999]), and John Damascus could say of Jesus' birth:
"It was a birth that surpassed the established order of birthgiving, as it was without pain; for, where pleasure had not preceded, pain did not follow" (De Fid. 4:14; cited in Dale Allison, The New Moses, p. 62).
(It is worth noting that this belief can be found as far back as the second century in the Protevangelium of James). Following the Fathers' lead, Isaiah presents interesting food for reflection: if Mary experiences the first-fruits of Christ's redemption in her own immaculate conception as the New Eve, it is easy to see why they would believe that she would similarly be able to taste the fruits of the eschatological age described by Isaiah, when women would be delivered from the curse of Eve.
An interesting addition to the discussion can be thrown into the mix from ancient Jewish tradition. I've recently been reading Dale C. Allison's absolutely brilliant book, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Fortress, 1993). In it, he points out that there was an ancient Jewish tradition, going back at least to the first century, that Moses' mother did not experience birth pangs when he was born:
[The faith of Moses' parents] "in the promises of God was confirmed by the manner of the woman's delivery, since she escaped the vigilance of the watch, thanks to the gentleness of her travail, which spared her any violent throes" (Ant. 2:218).
As Allison notes, according to Josephus, "Moses mother was not subject to the curse of Eve, as recorded in Gen 3:16: 'I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children'." (The New Moses, p. 147). He also notes that the same tradition about Moses' mother reappears in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sota 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (Exod. Rab. 1:20).
To my mind, this is an absolutely fascinating ancient Jewish tradition, given the fact that Jesus is very clearly depicted as a new Moses in the New Testament. Although we can only speculate, it is worth asking the question: if Matthew (and the other Jewish authors of the New Testament) believed that Moses' mother had been spared the pangs of childbirth, isn't it likely that they would have believed that Jesus' Mother--the virgin mother of the new Moses--would likewise be spared?
Just some thoughts . May the love of Christ and his blessed Mother be in all our hearts this holy Season, and may we all one day come to the glory of the new Jerusalem!
Enough theologizing. I've got to go now and help my wife and kids make Christmas cookies!