Sometimes familiarity can be a catalyst for myopia, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the faith. Christmas is no exception in this regard and offers an excellent opportunity to expand our sights by fixing them on some of the not-so obvious mysteries hidden with of Our Lord’s nativity.
In his customary manner, St. Matthew ends his account of the birth of Our Lord with an Old Testament proof-text to show how the prophets spoke specifically about Jesus. Quoting Isiah 7:14, the Evangelist says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:24). It is common for us to use this as Scriptural proof of the virgin birth of the Messiah, but unfortunately very little attention is paid to what this actually means. More to the point, we often substitute our idea of the virginal birth with the idea of the virginal conception. Both of course are true, but how is it that a virgin could give birth?
If we come at it from the perspective of the one who gave birth, clarity emerges. For a belief in Our Lady’s perpetual virginity is really saying three things. First, that she became pregnant with Our Lord without “knowing a man” (Lk 1:34). Second, that Our Lady remained in this state after the birth of Our Lord. These two are obvious, but it is the third that helps bring illumination—Our Lady remained a virgin “even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man” (CCC 499). Or, as the Council of Ephesus puts it: “After giving birth, nature knows not a virgin: but grace enhances her fruitfulness, and effects her motherhood, while in no way does it injure her virginity.”
The Miracle of Christ’s Birth
In order to keep her virginity intact, Our Lord did not leave His Mother’s womb through the birth canal. He would have been delivered in a miraculous manner, passing directly from her womb into the outside world. Without getting overly bogged down in the biological details, we can still glean some particularly poignant aspects of the mystery.
As a first consequence of this, Tradition has always taught that Our Lady’s partus was completely devoid of pain. This is more than an interesting fact, but carries with it a very deep corollary that Our Lord wished to establish from the beginning of His mission. When Our Lord came into the world, He came to suffer so as to redeem us. But He was unwilling to be the cause of any other unnecessary suffering. As St. Thomas says, “But the mother’s pains in childbirth did not concern Christ, who came to atone for our sins. And therefore there was no need for His Mother to suffer in giving birth”(ST III, q. 35, a.6). Our Lady would suffer because of her role as the New Eve, but only in the amount that was absolutely necessary. Likewise, all those associated with Him (us) are guaranteed only to suffer when it is necessarily tied to His redemptive mission. He did, and still does, refuse to “break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick” (Is 42:3).
Remaining on the more practical level, we can also see why this miraculous intervention might be necessary. If Our Lady’s virginity remained physically intact, there can be no doubt as to the truth of the virginal conception. This is also why it is reasonable to believe that Our Lady remained a virgin throughout her entire life. While we do not get overly fixated on the biological details, the virginal birth is still a biological fact.
Virginity, properly understood though, is not just a biological fact. It is a condition of the entire person and does not simply mean someone who has never had sex. Our Lady is ever-virgin because she is all-pure, both body and soul. Her body is as a sacrament revealing the state of her soul. In order to affirm this Our Lord does not destroy the physical sign of her personal virginity.
As a point of clarification, we call it a miracle because it defies the laws of nature for a human body to pass under its own power from its mother’s womb. This should be seen as distinct from Christ, while operating under the power of His resurrected body, had the power of subtlety, that is, the power to pass through physical objects.
The Miracle as a Sign
But we also refer to it as a miracle because, like all Christ’s miracles, it has great value as a sign. The same infant that was wrapped in swaddling clothes, that is burial cloths, had just passed from the closed womb pointing to the time when He would pass from the tomb.
His birth also was to serve as a sign revealing the fullness of Our Lord’s person as true God and true man. As St. Thomas says, “He mingled wondrous with lowly things. Wherefore, to show that His body was real, He was born of a woman. But in order to manifest His Godhead, He was born of a virgin, for ‘such a Birth befits a God,’ as Ambrose says in the Christmas hymn” (ST III, q28, art. 2, ad. 2).
The miracle also serves as a sign of our ultimate redemption. Living in this post-lapsarian world, it is difficult to view creation as anything other than a closed system of corruption. By passing through Our Lady’s womb, without leaving behind the natural traces of corruption, Our Lord was pointing ahead to the redemption of creation in the New Heavens and the New Earth where corruption is no longer possible.
Finally, Our Lord wanted to point each of us to the true joy of Christmas. By taking something that is naturally painful and filling it with gladness, He was forever instituting Christmas as a day of great joy. Merry Christmas everyone!