There are important issues I want to address in this reflection and I believe God will help us understand the scriptures as it relates to them:
- Did the angel Gabriel treat Zechariah unfairly, with regard to how he treated Mary, since they both sought clarification on the message he brought to them from God?
- Did Mary bear other children after Jesus Christ?
The answers are ingrained in these words which are part of Mary’s own question: “since I am a virgin”. The analysis of this expression, using the scriptures, will unearth volumes of answers for the various misconceptions and uninformed challenges against various catholic beliefs and teachings related to these two index questions.
(1) The story behind the first question is found in the Gospel of St Luke (Luke 1:5-37).
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years. The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time (Luke 1:18-19. NIV).
Zechariah was a High Priest in Israel and is supposed to have a high and privileged knowledge of God – history and contemporary experience. His knowledge of God’s capabilities should be highest since he had the sole privilege of communing with God all alone in the Holy of Holies, which he was actually doing at the time the angel came. This is the same man who questioned God’s ability to give him a child in his old age, something every ordinary Jew should not have any problems with. If you are a Gabriel what would you do to such a Zechariah? Angel Gabriel’s reason was, “because you did not believe my words” (cf. Luke 1:20)
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:34-35. NIV)
Did Mary not believe the angel? If you think she did not believe the angel then it means she did not believe a married woman, whom she was, could get pregnant and bear a child through a very natural process, with all the requirements being correctly in place. It is obvious she would not have had such a doubt being a young legally married woman. The angel understood where the question was coming from and gave her an appropriate answer.
His answer assured her it was not going to be a human process, as she had feared when the message was given, but a Divine event. She had no problem with that. Why would she have any issues about having a baby through the human, natural, process since she was married? The answer is in “since I am a virgin”, which makes no sense if there was any intention that marriage would be consummated at any time. The same question would be asked in our time if Angel Gabriel goes to a devoted nun to tell her God would want her to get pregnant and have a baby. She would wonder if God wanted her to set aside her vow, the state of life she had chosen in a covenant with God.
It is very clear that Mary had chosen to be a virgin as her permanent state of life and believed her vow was accepted by God. She knew the consequences of a Jew breaking a vow (Deut. 23:21-23, num. 30: 1-2), and would have wondered if the angel was asking her to do that; in which case she expected the angel to go further and say that God would not hold it against her. In any case, why would God want to set aside this vow at this time? Is it not acceptable to God? The angel assured her with that answer that her vow was not being set aside. Was it possible that she vowed to be a virgin as a permanent state and married at the same time? This is a recognized practice among the Jews (cf. Num. 30:3-16). Joseph accepted her vow – in accordance with Jewish law (Num. 30:6-8). This is why, just like we understand what it means to be a Reverend Sister and we give her that permanent state of life as a title, we give Mary the title of Virgin (Virgin Mary) because those words “I am a Virgin” are similarly, appropriately understood by us. Other translations translate to the same meaning when properly analyzed in context.
(2) The reasons behind the second question are found in the following bible passages: Matt. 1:18, 25; 13:55-56, Mark 6:3.
This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18. NIV).
But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matt. 1:25 NIV)
Some Christians who doubt that Mary the mother of Christ was “ever virgin”, as held by the Catholic Church, use these verses as part of their anchor. They argue that “before they came together” in the first verse and “until she gave birth to a son” in the second verse mean that they eventually came together in a sexual relationship and had other children. This may seem a usable argument but it is clear from the whole of the two verses that the thrust of the message is showing that the conception was “through the Holy Spirit” and that Mary was still a virgin at that conception (before they came together), and that Jesus was given birth to, by a virgin (until she gave birth to a son). It does not go further than that. It does not say or suggest what happened later. It does not suggest whether or not there was a consummation of marriage.
Perpetual virginity of Mary is really not in doubt. She was there in history and people were there with her and heard and saw everything – that she, at least, did not have any other children after Jesus. The church is the pillar and bulwark of truth (1Tim. 3:15); through the church, the manifold wisdom of God is made manifest (cf. Eph. 3:10). This church calls Mary “ever virgin” and this must, therefore, be true.
The scriptures point to this in some statements: Ezekiel Okafor has a masterly presentation of the matter: “Ezekiel 44:1-3 describes Mary as the centre gate of the sanctuary that faces the East. In this passage God says, ‘No human being is allowed to enter that gate because He (God) has passed through it and it will remain closed’. He also said that ‘only the ruling prince is allowed to go into the gate to eat the meal in His presence. He is to enter and leave the gateway through the entrance room at the inner end’. No one is in doubt that the Prince in question is Jesus Christ. He is the Ruling Prince while the entrance room at the inner end is the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which would remain closed after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ….Read the Gospel of Saint Luke chapter 2:1-7. From this passage you now understand what Prophet Ezekiel prophesied when he said ‘the same way He entered is the same way He will come out.’ She was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and was born of Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit so our Blessed Mother is forever virgin.”1
What stands out is what the Church says about it from historical knowledge passed down and from the fact that she has Divine authority, as revealed by the scriptures.
This is the carpenter’s son, surely? Is not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Jude? His sisters, too, are they not all here with us? So where did the man get it all (Matt. 13:55-56; cf. Mk 6:3. NJB)
This statement is the premise on which some people base their claim that Mary the mother of Jesus had other children. They believe this because these people were called Jesus’ brothers and sisters; they would, perhaps, have believed that Jesus was “the carpenter’s son” in blood relationship if not that it is clear from other passages that Joseph was not Jesus’ real father. They fail to see how several passages also show that these mentioned people were not Jesus’ siblings and so not the children of Mary the mother of Jesus:
- And many women were there, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and looked after him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Matt. 27:55-56. NJB)
This means that another Mary was the mother of James and Joseph
- There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joset, and Salome. These used to follow him and look after him when he was in Galilee. (Mk 15:40. NJB)
This means that Salome was “the mother of Zebedee’s sons” just mentioned above.
- Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.(John 19:25. NJB)
This means that his mother’s sister was Salome the wife of Zebedee and the mother of the apostles James and John, that the other Mary was the wife of Clopas, and that the mother of Christ is a different Mary since she is also mentioned here along with those others mentioned previously, in the other Gospels.
- From Jude, servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James; to those who are called, to those who are dear to God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ, (Jude 1:1. NJB)
Jude confirms he was the brother of James and this is corroborated by the index passage above (Matt. 13:55-56; cf. Mk 6:3), and this means he was also the brother of Simon and the four of them were children of Mary the wife of Clopas and the sister of The Blessed Virgin Mary. This makes them the cousins of Jesus. No wonder the Jews called them the brothers of Jesus, a term loosely applied as is usual of Jews.
- Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27/ NJB)
Mother, behold your son. Son, behold you mother (“Son” is “the disciple whom he loved” : are you that? Is she your mother therefore?)
If Mary the mother of Christ had these many sons and some daughters why would Jesus have to give her over to John, the disciple whom he loved, to be cared for by him in his own house? In fact, this action would not have been called for. Or, were Jesus’ siblings all so irresponsible as not to be able to take care of their own mother?
Okafor Ezekiel M. Images in the Church. Bossa Prints Ltd. 53, Old Ojo Road, Amuwo-Kuje, Lagos Nigeria. 2005. firstname.lastname@example.org.
NIV – New International Version
NJB – New Jerusalem Bible