The Virgin Birth

Published at The Orthosphere on the Solemnity of the Annunciation.

Nothing is impossible to God. Occam’s Razor cannot separate the works of God according to any principle of economy. What economy is evident in a cell, a tree, the biosphere, the galaxy, the farthest reaches of the universe? Irrespective of the models we construct to map and try to predict the behaviour of these things, all of them, in their concrete reality, are unfathomably complex, and each is a unique instance. What principle can place limits on the actions of the creator of all these wonders? 

With this in mind, consider the conception, gestation and birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Accepting as an irreducible given that Mary, his blessed mother, “knew not man,” there is a minimalist scenario – Occam’s scenario, so to speak. On this view, the action of the Holy Ghost consisted in fusing a DNA strand of his own making with the DNA in a mature ovum of the Blessed Virgin, which at the moment of the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat, was making its way down one of her fallopian tubes. And with, “I am the servant of the Lord,” that fusion took place, and the Son became flesh as a single fertilised ovum.

From that moment, under the minimalist scenario, Mary’s pregnancy proceeded as do other pregnancies, before and since. All of the unimaginably complex interactions between the body of Our Lady, and the rapidly developing body of Our Lord, occurred under the same guidance as that of the bodies of all mothers and their babies, each of them adapting to the changes taking place.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is unique in human cells in being inherited directly from the ovum. It is found in a single ring chromosome in the mitochondria, which are the primary energy source for cells with a nucleus. Its matrilinearity allows extensive tracing of maternal ancestry. Is there any reason to suspect that the mtDNA of Jesus was not that of Mary, which was that, in turn, of her line of matrilineal descent? With the current state of our knowledge (and this element is unlikely ever to be discarded) a necessary corollary of “being the mother of” is “being the source of the mtDNA of.” So that, no matter what the process, mtDNA from Mary is present in every cell of the body of Jesus, or she is not his mother. In the minimalist view, the explanation is simple, because the ovum which was transformed into that initial expression of the body of Jesus was the gift of the Blessed Virgin.

As against this there is a maximalist scenario, one which corresponds more closely to the ancient (mis)understanding of the nature of conception. In the view that prevailed from Biblical times until the 17th century, the womb passively nourished the male “seed.” It was not until the 19th century that this view was finally replaced by the current understanding of the complementarity of spermatozoon and ovum. The womb was seen as analogous to the farmer’s field, in which the seed is planted. Only in fertile ground can the seed flourish. Similarly, a woman was, and is, spoken of as “fertile,” or, less frequently now, as “barren.”

Just so the early Church, and the Church through most of her history, would have seen Mary’s pregnancy. Jesus was miraculously made flesh as such a seed within the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Mary was “acted upon.” In modern terms, we might think of Jesus, made flesh as a fertilised ovum, moving down Mary’s fallopian tube towards implantation in her womb.

The closest modern analogue is the surrogate womb. A woman agrees, sometimes because she is closely related to the genetic mother, sometimes for the monetary reward, to have the an embryo from the genetic parents implanted in her womb. Perhaps the genetic mother has suffered miscarriages, or cannot carry a baby to parturition for some physiological reason. Perhaps she is an actress or model who “wants a baby,’ but will not countenance the disruption to her career that pregnancy would occasion.

Surrogacy isn’t all beer and skittles. In an ideal scenario, a surrogate will have a 40-65% chance of successful implantation in one cycle; in general the rate is 20-35%. Oops, there goes another embryo or five. If at first you don’t succeed… The complex physiology of natural implantation is still poorly understood. “Ethical” considerations limit the experimentation that can be performed. It is known that there is a molecular interplay between the embryo and the endometrium in the approach to implantation, and that genetically faulty embryos are usually rejected. All of this causes a lot of angst in surrogacy, and in IVF generally. In Mary’s case, however, all of this was managed by the Holy Ghost, who knows no failures.

In the minimalist scenario, there is less work for the Holy Ghost to do. Spermatozoa, with their cargo of DNA, are essentially foreign bodies. In nature, the woman’s ovum absorbs the gift of DNA, and the woman’s embryo, derived from the woman’s ovum, is managed by the woman’s body to implantation. And so it was with Mary. Under both scenarios, once implantation was achieved, pregnancy proceeded to parturition.

The unveiling of the respective roles of sperm and ovum cast a dramatic new light on the gestation of Jesus, but it does not seem as though the Church has given the issue the consideration it deserves. The Church’s theological struggle over the early centuries to declare and defend the doctrine that Jesus is true God and true man must inform consideration of this unique pregnancy, just as consideration will inform the doctrine.

In the former mistaken view of conception, the Blessed Virgin could be a perfect Ark of the Covenant, a vessel made holy by the holiness of its contents, and in the holy intent of its construction. In the maximalist view – the embryonic Jesus created completely by the Holy Ghost and placed by him in the Ark – the ancient conception of conception is realised in modern physiological terms. Ponder for a moment, though, the minimalist scenario. In this view, the Blessed Virgin Mary is co-creator, with her spouse the Holy Ghost, of the man Jesus.

The phrase “become one flesh,” richly evocative as it always was, held hidden within it for millennia another reality. In their children, a couple literally become one flesh. The child is truly “flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone” for both parents, co-creators of this new being. In the minimalist view, and in precisely this sense, Mary and the Holy Ghost did truly “become one flesh.”

If this is true of Mary, the elevation of her status in the economy of salvation is breathtaking.

As a child of this age, I strongly favour the view of minimal intervention, and of Mary’s gift of an ovum in the making flesh of her divine, yet human, son. Such a matter of conditioning and expectation will probably always be the strongest individual influence, for or against, its adoption. Nonetheless, there are arguments in its favour.

When the Council of Ephesus asserted, to great public acclaim, that the Blessed Virgin was indeed Theotokos – the Mother of God, as we say – it was a confirmation that Jesus was truly God, and simultaneously, by virtue of Mary’s motherhood, that Jesus was truly man. The corollary is that Mary is truly mother to him, the true man. The implications of that implication demand our better-informed attention. True motherhood implies, in the light of our new knowledge, co-creation.

The discussion so far has stopped short of the Nativity itself. It seems to me that coming to the appreciation I am suggesting of the vastly enhanced role of Mary in the creation of Jesus will involve the rejection of a long-held teaching of the Church, East and West.

Catholic and Orthodox know that the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary are Sts Joachim and Anna. Where does this information come from? The earliest source that mentions them is The Protoevangelium of James: The Birth of Mary the Holy Mother of God, and Very Glorious Mother of Jesus Christ. It is thought to date from the middle of the second century. Other references occur in the third century work, The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary.  The Protoevangelium details Mary’s childhood, her betrothal to Joseph, the Annunciation and the Nativity, which is described like so.

And I saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither are you going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. … And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. … It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph said to her: Come and see. … And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. … And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. … And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth— a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.

Salome proceeds with her investigation, and comes to grief.

Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.  And she bent her knees before the Lord… And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord has heard you. Put your hand to the infant, and carry it, and you will have safety and joy.

This, I believe, is the first graphically illustrated insistence that Mary remained virgo intacta throughout and following the birth of Jesus. This incident is referred to at appropriate times in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, which is the primary liturgy of Orthodox Churches to this day.

When such Apocrypha are read today, the contrast with the canonical Gospels is stark. Some of the effect may be put down to familiarity, but such a facile dismissal cannot bridge the chasm. There is a dynamism and contemporaneity about them for the reader of English, irrespective of their being read from the Authorised Version or from the latest, most deliberately bland translation. They speak across the millennia, bearing witness not only to the Lord and his Apostles, but to the wisdom of the Fathers in winnowing them  from all the others. Such is the contrast with the Protoevangelium. It plainly contradicts Luke and Matthew on many points, yet elements of its story remain embedded in popular piety and in the calendar. The insistence that the Blessed Virgin remained virgo intacta was re-affirmed by the Council of Trent. Yet for this to be true, some such sequence of events as described in the Protoevangelium, for all of its remoteness from normal human parturition, must have occurred. In its strangeness, though, it calls to mind other doctrines that have circulated from time to time.

Docetism takes its name from a Greek term for “illusion.” It was a hydra-headed heresy, always found in proximity to Gnosticism or, later, to Manichaeism. It always denied some aspects of Christ’s human reality, or even denied it completely, explaining the the denied aspects as illusory, or as only seeming to be. Some Docetics were always trimming their sails to allow the heresy to approach as closely as possible to the barque of Peter, that passengers might be able to jump ship.

Two events that Docetics were always at pains to present as illusory were Christ’s birth of the Virgin Mary, and his Passion and death. As an example of their manoeuvring. Valentius the Egyptian admitted the reality of Jesus’ body, and even a seeming birth, contending that his body, coming from above, passed through Mary as through a channel, though taking nothing from her. Obviously, such a heresy is of interest in the context of this discussion.

Consider the description of the Nativity in the Protoevangelium. It bears not the slightest resemblance to actual human birth. There is no labour; Mary does not actually deliver her baby, Jesus; rather, he manifests himself in a cloud of glory. The midwife is understandably unconcerned about the afterbirth, and Jesus makes his own way to the breast of Mary, which, in this maximally maximal scenario, the Holy Ghost has had the foresight to prepare as though Mary’s body had gone through all of the changes brought about by late pregnancy and parturition. And the infant Jesus cannot be said to have opened the womb of the Virgin Mary, for it has never opened.

To turn away now from the the Church’s virgo intacta teaching since the early centuries seems to be impossible. But the teaching presents its own difficulties, apart from those already alluded to. Mary’s fiat was shame an humiliation in mens’ eyes, in order bring this divine child to birth. The non-canonical explanation of Mary’s status in the Protoevangelium is that she was a virgin dedicated to temple service, who, when she came of age, required a protector. This is the source of Mary’s puzzlement when Gabriel announces to her, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus…” “How?” she asks. Yet nothing could be more natural for a woman about to be married. But if the planned marriage was not to be of that kind, she was of course puzzled.

Mary’s true spouse, as we know, was the Holy Ghost, and she was to conceive in her womb a son of her spouse and to bear that son. And yet the external sign of that bearing is to be denied her; indeed the bearing itself is to be denied her.

In a society not committed to its own destruction, the greatest honour bestowed upon women is the conceiving and bearing of children. The continuance of the tribe, the clan, the city-state, the nation, depend upon them. Child-bearing is the passion common to child-bearing women. It is the field on which they risk their lives in order to bring a new life fully into the world. It is the field on which many women and babies have died. Yet the difficulties vary enormously from woman to woman, and from pregnancy to pregnancy for the same woman. Childbirth may be quick and easy; it may be fatal to either or both.

To Eve, the Lord God said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing” [ESV]. In the Authorised Version, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Or in the NIV, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children,” or the NAB, “I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Without access to ongoing scholarly debate, and merely relying on that which took place amongst the translators, we would conclude that the penalty on the woman was a multiplication or increase in the pain of childbearing, implying that some pain and toil were always to be present, and that complete freedom from this aspect was not available to Eve even before the Fall, or to Mary subsequently.

In both Exodus and Luke, the idiom “opens the womb,” or “first opens the womb” is used.  It is an idiom, yes, but it is also a description of the essence of giving birth. And it was because Jesus “opened the womb” that he was presented at the temple, and event Catholics remember with every recitation of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.

There is a breach, a discontinuity here, that alienates Christians, Mary’s children in Faith, from the fullest acknowledgement of the honour due to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It alienates mothers-to-be from a fuller identification with the Virgin, who has been removed by this teaching to a place remote from the experience of all other child-bearing women. If it seems to be reasonable that Mary gave birth to Jesus, if it seems to be reasonable that Jesus opened the womb of Mary, if it seems to be reasonable that Mary is the co-creator of Our Lord Jesus Christ, then these questions must be very openly and extensively canvassed, so that a fuller understanding of the Blessed Virgin’s role in our salvation may be achieved.

Nothing is impossible to God.There can be no objection in principle to maintaining the ancient teaching. The Apostles’ and Fathers’ understanding of physiology may have been false, but the Lord God Almighty may have chosen to give effect to their flawed understanding. The mysteries and conundrums for modern comprehensions, to which that has given rise, could just as well have been the Divine intention. God, though, is not capricious; the Faith is neither irrational nor unreasonable. Seek, and ye shall find.

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