Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christ the first-born of His ever-virgin Mother

My pastor preached a fine homily this morning on the Luke 2 pericope about the purification of the Virgin Mary.  There is an aspect of the text, however, which is worth exploring.  Namely, what does the Gospel here tell us, and not tell us, about Mary's virginity, and about her motherhood?  Does the fact that Mary and her Divine Son submitted themselves to the laws of purification imply that He did, in fact, open His mother's womb, thus making her ritually impure and in need of purification? 

To these questions there are two sets of answers, on the one hand they could be answered according to modern, post-Enlightenment assumptions.  On the other hand, there stands the traditional Lutheran point of view, a view held by serious biblical scholars of every epoch of the Church's rich history, from the first centuries to the present day.  It was the view of the Church Fathers, the Doctors of the Church (including the Blessed Reformer himself), and all Lutherans through the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy, and beyond.

As you might have already inferred, mine is the traditional view, and I am happy to give voice to it.  The present reflection will not give a full argument for that view, but it is worth, in the time & space afforded me in this instance, at least showing how the traditional Lutheran view is not incompatible with the Gospel.

The pure and holy Virgin (this is what we call Mary in the Smalcald Articles) submitted herself to the levitical laws of purification, or what in Jewish tradition are called the laws of Niddah, because, of course, Jesus was her first born son, but not because He opened her womb, for He did not.  That is, as the Fathers teach, as Luther preached, and as the Formula of Concord confesses, our Lord's birth did not open His mother's womb. In fact, her virginity was kept intact, and she remained a virgin. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ is Mary's first born.  This is absolutely true.  For it means that Mary had no child before Jesus, and it also means that Jesus was truly born.  He is not a phantom, nor did He exit Mary's belly some other way than through the normal way, ie., by passing through the birth canal.  The Creed is trustworthy and true when by it we confess that Christ was born, and that He was born of Mary.  (It says a bit more, in fact; namely, it says that He was born of the "Virgin" Mary, but more on that later.)  "First born," however, implies subsequent children no more than the "until" of Matthew 1 implies that Mary and her holy guardian Joseph had relations after the birth of the Christ Child.  I will be a Christian until the day I die, but that does not mean that after my death I will cease to be a Christian. 

Jesus truly and physically descended His mother's birth canal, ie., experienced a true birth, and yet He does so while preserving her womb from ever opening.  Not only does He not cause her the loss of her virginity, but in fact He preserves and strengthens her virginity.  Mary is the icon of purest virginity and most fruitful maternity, and thus shows herself reflective of something far greater than herself.  Namely, as St. Ambrose says, Mary is a type of the Church.  This perfect virgin-motherhood is a paradox, and one fully in keeping with other paradoxes, like the physical Christ's entrance into the closed room after His resurrection, and His whole communion (not partial) with each communicant until the end of the age.

I reiterate, this traditional way of viewing Mary is not to glorify Mary for her own sake, but serves, rather, to point us toward great spiritual truths, about her Son, about the Church, and therefore also about the Christian soul, which is, I would argue, a sort of microcosm of the Church.  In the case of Mary's purification, for example, I would suggest that because of her purity and holy virginity, Mary is the perfectly free lord (or lady) over the purification law, subject to it not at all, and yet out of love she is the perfectly dutiful servant of the law, and in complete subjection to it.  In this she is the icon of the Christian, as Christian, who is described similarly by Luther in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian

I would even suggest, in fact, that when St. Luke tells us earlier in the chapter that the shepherds joined company with the Holy Family, since the text would seem to place this before the purification, even before the circumcision, that we see in this social gathering a rather peculiar non-seclusion of this Jewish mother, who would normally be kept apart from all social intercourse during this time of impurity, thus perhaps sending us a message that she was not in fact, in need of purification, that she had, in fact, kept her virginity intact, and gave birth without the shedding of blood or the suffering of pain.  This, too, serves not to deify Mary, but to portray for us the purity of the Bride of Christ, and therefore also the purity of the members thereof.  Those who are baptized into the redemptive death of Christ are able to confess a holiness and purity which they may not necessarily recognize with their own eyes in this life, but which, nonetheless, enables them to stand in any company without fear.  In fact, in Christ they are a blessing to others.


Fr. Jay Watson said...

Probably the finest post ever in your singularly excellent blog! I would say more, but as this is a public blog (open to all eyes) and as I myself have recently chafed others and have had myself chafed over this topic, I will merely thank you for puting forth the genuine and full Lutheran position on Our Blessed Lady and the Semper Virgo reality. Your post is something I subscribe to with all my theological being. Thank you Deacon!

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Too kind of you, Father. And of course the particular interpretation of Luke 2:16 reflected toward the end of this post is not something that is confessionally binding, nor would I expect others to agree necessarily. I would stake my life on the rest of it, though.