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MARY'S VIRGINITY

The belief that the Mother of Jesus was always a virgin. Three stages of virginity are professed in this belief: "mary's conception of her Son without the co-operation of man, giving birth to Christ without violating her integrity, and remaining a virgin after Jesus was born.

The Church's faith in Mary's virginal conception of Jesus found its way into all the ancient professions of belief. In a text dating from the early second century, the Apostles' creed speaks of "Jesus Christ . . . who was born by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary." The biblical basis was traceable to the prophecy or Isaiah (7:14), which the first Evangelist applies to Mary: "Therefore the Lord Himself shall give a sign. Behold a virgin [halmah] shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel [God with us]." From the beginning, Christians understood the passage to refer to the Messiah, since the sign had been fulfilled. Matthew thus interpreted the term in recalling the Isaian prophecy (Matthew 1:23).

All the Fathers affirm Christ's virginal conception by Mary. At the turn of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch spoke of Jesus as "truly born of a virgin." Starting with Just the Martyr (c. 100-65), ecclesiastical writers uniformly defended the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah, as given by Matthew and confirmed in the Gospel by St. Luke.

Christian tradition went a step further. Not only did Mary conceive without carnal intercourse, but her physical virginity was also no violated in giving birth to Christ. When the monk Jovinian (d. 405) began to teach that "A virgin conceived, but a virgin did not bring forth," he was promptly condemned by a synod at Milan (390), presided over by St. Ambrose. Her integrity during the birth of Jesus is included in the title "perpetual virgin," given to Mary by the fifth general council held at Constantinople (553). Without going into physiological details, ancient writers such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome employ various analogies--the emergence of Christ from the sealed tomb, his going through closed doors, penetration of light through glass, the going out of human thought from the mind.

Mary remained a virgin after Christ was born, Denied in the early Church by Tertullian and Jovinian, the doctrine of virginity post partum (after birth) was strenuously defended by the orthodox Fathers and crystallized in the term aeiparthenos (ever virgin) coined by the fifth ecumenical council (second of Constantinople). From the fourth century on, such formulas as that of St. Augustine became common: "A Virgin conceived, a virgin gave birth, a virgin remained."

All items in this dictionary are from Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, © Eternal Life. Used with permission.

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