By Fr Serafino M. Lanzetta, FI
St. Paul proclaims that Jesus Christ is the “first-born of many brethren,” sons of Mary not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. Mary, in fact, was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ. The false notion that Mary might have had other biological children after Jesus not only flies in the face of Sacred Scripture, it also misses the key point that the mystery of Mary’s perpetual virginity is intimately connected with that of our spiritual regeneration in Christ.
In the Church Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, faith in Mary’s virginity is beyond question: Christ was born virginally of Mary, the Ever-Virgin. After the precious witness of St. Ignatius of Antioch († ca. 110), St. Justin († ca. 165), and St. Irenaeus († ca. 200), we come to an important text by the Bishop of Salamis, St. Epiphanius († 403), with which the adjective “Ever-Virgin” enters the Symbol of the Faith as a technical formula to express a datum of faith: Christ was born of the Ever-Virgin Mary (Second Council of Constantinople, in 553. The article of faith reads, “was made flesh from Mary, the holy and glorious Mother of God ever Virgin”). St. Epiphanius writes, “Was there ever anyone of any breeding who dared to speak the name of Holy Mary, and being questioned, did not immediately add, ‘the Virgin’?” (Panacea, heresy 78, 6). For the Fathers, this is an unquestionable fact. Mary is “the Virgin” (St. Justin, who times): Her virginity extends to the full measure of Her life. This nominal attribute, “the Virgin,” which echoes the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14), does not admit a separation in Mary’s existence between a before and an after the birth of the Messiah, Her Son, but only historical continuity. From the very beginning it began to appear as the epithet of Our Lady. Virgin is Mary’s name and Mary is the Virgin. St. Augustine, echoing his faithful master St. Ambrose, calls the Mother of God “a virgin perpetual” (Sermon 186, 1, 1), summing up in these words the mystery of Mary in relation to the Incarnate Word.
Although we do not have explicit texts of Scripture regarding the mystery of the uninterrupted virginity of the Mother of God, the fact of Mary, the Virgin—“the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk 1:27)—imposed itself so forcefully on the faith of the Church that ecclesial Tradition unanimously believed and strenuously defended the truth of Mary’s perpetual virginity. “Perpetual” is used here in the sense of a semper virginitas (virginity always), embracing the beginning, the whole course, and the end of Mary’s life. Christ, and He alone, Who fills all things (cf. Eph 4:10), had filled Mary’s womb with grace and love. He had consecrated it, sealed it to His being alone, becoming in Mary “Son of Man.” Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev 21:6), and Mary is the sacred vessel of this fullness. There is no place for anything else in Her. He is all that is in Her. He fills Mary with Himself and Mary’s self is fully conformed to Christ. This puts Her, having kept all the things of Her Son in Her heart (cf. Lk 2:19), in a new light. Mary continually lived by the memory of Her Son: Her Son was engraved in Her memory and She lived by Him, meditated Him, adored Him, and loved Him. Christ was all that was in Mary’s womb; Christ was all that was in Mary’s mind.
The Son that Mary conceived in Her womb, and to Whom She miraculously but really gave birth, was the Son of God and at the same time “her first-born son” (Lk 2:7). This text does not, of course, compromise the teaching that Mary had no further children, because in the Hebrew understanding of the word, the first-born was not simply the first child, but primarily the one who personally enjoyed certain rights, such as the right to paternal inheritance. Furthermore, as the Word, the Son is the first-born of the Father, brought by Him into the world (cf. Heb 1:6). Thanks to Her virginal flesh, Jesus, even though He has no brothers according to the flesh, will be the “first-born among many brethren” (Rom 8:29). From the Father in the Holy Spirit through Mary and only through Mary, Jesus will be the protótokon (first begotten) of the new creation. Having more natural children is not only unworthy of the Virgin and of God in the final analysis, a fantasy of incompetent and prejudiced persons, but is moreover completely at odds with Scripture: it would have compromised Christ’s position as first-born in relation to His members. Mary’s first-born is “the first-born from the dead” (Col 1:18), “the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev 1:5).
His primogeniture from Mary, a reflection in time of His eternal primogeniture from the Father, is the sign of God’s covenant of salvation with His people, definitively ratified in Christ. Christ, the Father’s first-born and Mary’s first-born, in His being generated according to the flesh, brings about the definitive universalization of the Kingdom of God, which no longer knows limits of language, people, or nation (cf. Rev 5:9-10). Rather, all are called to form the one People of God in pilgrimage toward their heavenly homeland. In Christ, the first-born, every man is called to salvation, every man can see God by looking at the face of the Son (cf. Jn 12:45; 14:9). Mary’s perpetual virginity—especially after the birth—becomes the definitive seal of God on the new sonship of every man in Christ: from the fullness of Christ in Mary to the fullness of Christ in us, through the Mother’s everlasting virginity. Mary’s virginity is the perpetuity of Christ in us; it is the guarantee of the presence of Christ in us, of the possibility of God in us and with us. In the Incarnate Word we truly have “grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16), because Mary was completely filled with His grace, including the grace of Her perpetual virginity.
What makes it possible to receive every man into the Church as a son in the Son, born not according to the flesh but in the Spirit (cf. Jn 3:6), is Mary’s virginity. Mary, Virgo perpetua, is the definitive and spousal “yes” of God to man, to every man, until the end of time, so as to bring us into the timeless dimension of God’s eternity. Mary’s perpetual virginity becomes the perpetuity of our being with God. Being with God for ever will echo in the limitless heavens of the Eternal God this sweet melody: Mary Ever-Virgin.
St. Irenaeus writes, “the Son of God