I watched the soprano in her choir robes reach with the long brass candle lighter to light the taper in the Advent wreath. A golden chain suspended the greenery-covered wheel in the air at the front of the church, its four candles surrounding a larger white one in the middle.
I was in high school, and the lighting of the Advent wreath was for me a highlight of church services during the Christmas season, along with the Christmas carols in the United Methodist Hymnal. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the first candle was lit, and on each subsequent Sunday an additional candle was lit until all four of them glowed. On Christmas Eve the central white candle added its flame to the others.
I spent my preteen and teenage years attending—and heavily involved in—First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, which is housed in a Tudor Gothic cathedral. Because it was my home church, I assumed that pointed arches, soaring marble columns, stained glass, and a massive pipe organ were just a regular part of church architecture.
Such a setting didn’t require a lot of decoration during festal seasons beyond changing the colors of the altar cloths and the ministers’ sashes. But when December rolled around, extra greenery was lashed to all available surfaces, and the lighting of the Advent wreath began each Sunday service.
The sermons and music of the Christmas season centered our thoughts on the Incarnation, but they did not spend too much time on the Virgin Mary. Certainly she was a major part of the Nativity story and part of the hymnology, and we did pause every now and then to honor her obedience. But as good Protestants, we kept her mostly on the margins.
Around the world and across all branches of Christendom, the practice of celebrating Advent is a special part of the worship in December, even in nondenominational churches. And in conservative churches that still hold on to fundamental Christian doctrines, certain teachings were and continue to be upheld:
- The Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to announce that she would give birth to the Son of God;
- The Incarnation, when God became man; and
- Jesus as the Son of God, fully God and fully man, born of a virgin.
Of course, some denominations dispute each of these doctrines, but we won’t waste time here on the low-hanging fruit of “liberal” churches that believe anything and nothing. The churches that consider themselves to be biblically faithful all affirm the historic teachings about the Nativity, including that Christ was born of a virgin.
But one teaching related to the Nativity has fallen out of favor very recently, only within the past few hundred years, and I don’t remember any mention of it, in sermons or songs: the ever-virginity of Mary. By using the term Aiparthenos, or “ever-virgin,” the Orthodox Church proclaims that the Theotokos remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church affirms this doctrine too, using the term “perpetual virginity.”
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this ancient teaching of Mary’s ever-virginity is one of a number of beliefs that were upheld by the Protestant Reformers and then marginalized and finally jettisoned over time.
I honestly don’t know if the churches I attended officially believed in or rejected Mary’s ever-virginity, so as I inquired into Orthodoxy, I didn’t need to unlearn or relearn any ideas. I was perplexed by the idea, but not scandalized. I simply needed to acquaint myself with the ancient Church’s teaching.
Why was this belief in Mary’s ever-virginity rejected in the Protestant world, even though it had remained unchallenged for over a thousand years? I had to work through this question along with many others that I explored in “Reconsidering the Virgin Mary, Parts 1 & 2.” I can’t speak for other European languages, but in English the arguments against this doctrine are language-based, relying on modern word usage, even though the answers are easy to find within the Bible itself.
The Church’s explanations made sense to me as I learned them, and I was stunned to find that an Old Testament prophecy referring to Mary’s ever-virginity had been completely erased from my religious training.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we look for her ever-virginity in the Old Testament—yes, it’s really there—let’s start with the three common objections to the idea that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life.
1. That Pesky Preposition
Matthew 1:25 states that St. Joseph “did not know [Mary] till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.” Those who marshal arguments against Mary’s ever-virginity based on the preposition “till/until” use a modern English understanding of the word, not the ancient biblical languages.
English speakers read this and assume the usual sense of until (sometimes translated “till” or “to”): that something happened up to a certain point, then ceased. In this instance, according to our modern understanding, this means that Mary was a virgin, but after Jesus was born, she did not continue to live in a virginal state.
The Orthodox Study Bible’s footnote on this verse explains,
The use of the word till does not imply that Joseph had marital relations with Mary after the Savior’s birth. In the Bible, this word (sometimes translated “to”) is often used to express a situation that actually continues after the event mentioned (see 28:20; Gn 8:7; Dt 34:6; 2Kg 6:23). The witness of the entire Church throughout history is that Mary remained a virgin for life.
Here are two examples of Scripture passages where the understanding of “till” as meaning “up to this point and never after” makes no sense. In Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples in Matthew 28:20, He encourages them with some of His most beloved words: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And earlier, while sparring with the Pharisees about the identity of the Messiah (Matt. 22:42-46), Jesus quotes Psalm 110:
The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”
In his article “The Ever-Virginity of the Mother of God,” Fr. John Hainsworth comments on these and other verses:
In none of these passages does the word “until” indicate a necessary change. If it did, then apparently among other things we would be meant to understand that Jesus will at some point stop sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that on some unhappy date in the future He intends to abandon the Church!
An Old Testament example in Hebrew comes from 2 Samuel 6:23: “Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” No one in their right mind would assume that Michal had more children after she died.
2. Jesus as Mary’s “Firstborn”
Back to Mary and Joseph in Matthew 1:25. Another part of the verse can mislead readers: the use of the term “firstborn”: the verse states that Joseph “did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son.” The Greek word used here for “firstborn” is prototokos. Father Hainsworth writes,
The English “firstborn” usually (though, it must be said, not always) implies the existence of subsequent children, but with prototokos there is no such implication. In Hebrews 1:6, for example, the use of prototokos in reference to the Incarnation of the Word of God cannot mean that there is a “second-born” Word of God!
The OSB note on Luke 2:7 explains that this simply means that Mary had no children before Jesus and adds,
The firstborn son is traditionally the primary heir and recipient of blessings. Christ is the firstborn over all creation, and thus the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:15, 18).
3. Jesus’ “Brothers”
Probably the most popular argument against Mary’s ever-virginity is the scriptural references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, who, significantly, are never called sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. In Matthew 13, after Jesus taught in the synagogue, the people asked one another, “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?” (vv. 55–56).
But the term brother was used loosely in the Bible. Lot was the son of Abraham’s brother (Gen. 12:5; 14:2), which would make Lot a nephew of Abraham. But in Genesis 14, Abraham (still named Abram in this passage) hears that “his brother [Lot] was taken captive” and he rescued and “brought back his brother Lot and his goods” (vv. 14, 16).
This casual, imprecise use of family terms reminds me of a story I heard years ago about a young Native American man in a college class—I think he was Lakota. The professor was asking him about relationships in his tribe, trying to figure out who was an uncle, second cousin, great aunt, etc. Finally the student blurted out in frustration, “They’re just family!” Not every culture is equally concerned about the specifics of blood ties.
Saint Ambrose, from the fifth century, thought that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were the children of Joseph, who was a widower, and his previous wife. This is the view favored in the Orthodox Church; other early fathers thought that the brothers and sisters mentioned were cousins.
I find these translation issues maddening, because biblical lexicons and dictionaries are readily available. They contain comprehensive references for word usage in the Scriptures, and any armchair student of the Bible can use them. Yet the arguments continue to circulate, despite their lack of academic rigor and intellectual honesty.
I have a dear friend who doesn’t believe in Mary’s ever-virginity for empathetic and emotional reasons that many people share: she thinks it would be cruel for Joseph and Mary to live together as man and wife yet not have normal marital relations. But in the Orthodox Church, Joseph is referred to as the “Betrothed of Mary,” not Mary’s husband. Although some Orthodox writers use the “husband” terminology since Americans have no cultural concept of betrothal, there is no mention in the Scriptures that Joseph and Mary actually married or that their relationship was a typical marriage in any way.
It’s easy to see this distinction in iconography of the Nativity: Joseph is depicted as a much older man with white hair, separate from the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, alone in contemplation.
This understanding of their relationship also explains why the Orthodox do not use the Catholic term “Holy Family” to refer to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
In his booklet Facing Up to Mary, Fr. Peter Gilquist of blessed memory remarks,
I must say in all candor that had my betrothed been the woman chosen by the Father to bear His eternal Son in the flesh, my view of her would have been utterly transformed and my honor for her infinitely heightened. Imagine being betrothed to the Mother of God. It was so with Joseph. His betrothed was ever-virgin. (p. 11)
Father Hainsworth concurs:
Within Mary’s very body had dwelt the second Person of the Trinity. If touching the ark of the covenant had cost Uzzah his life, and if even the scrolls containing the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets were venerated, certainly Joseph, man of God that he was, would neither have dared nor desired to approach Mary, the chosen of Israel, the throne of God, to request his “conjugal rights”!
Jesus’ Concern for His Mother from the Cross
Probably the strongest proof that Jesus was an only child is seen in His loving concern for His mother as he hung on the Cross. He entrusted her into the care of his disciple John:
When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26–27)
As Metropolitan Isaiah of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver notes in his booklet, “Behold Your Mother”:
If the Theotokos had other children, then the law would have required her other children to care for her after the death of Jesus on the Cross. However, it was to John the Beloved to whom Jesus directed His holy mother to go when He was on the Cross; and it was John who took her to his home. (p. 24)
The Virgin Mary in Prophecy
Of course, the most famous prophecy of the Virgin Mary is one you probably already know, Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”
Many of us think that any prophecy about the Theotokos ends with this one verse. Although the Church has always embraced Old Testament images as types that were fulfilled in the Virgin Mary—the burning bush, the rod of Aaron that budded, the dewy fleece—in my many decades as a committed Christian, I was not aware of any other verses pointing to her except the one from Isaiah. Typology was rarely used, and only when the types pointed to Jesus.
But Mary’s ever-virginity is not just an opinion adopted by the Church after a few hundred years. If you’re from a Protestant background, you probably haven’t heard any commentary on Ezekiel 44 as prophecy. In fact, if I were a gambling gal, I would bet stacks of money that you never once heard of the Virgin Mary in relation to the Book of Ezekiel. Verses 1–3 read,
Then He brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary that faces toward the east, but it was shut. So the Lord said to me, “This gate shall be shut. It shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, because the Lord God of Israel will enter by it; therefore, it shall be shut. As for the prince, he will sit in it to eat bread before the Lord. He will go in by way of the gate chamber and go out the same way.” (OSB)
Open up any Protestant study Bible, and this passage will have no comment or will contain only historical background. For example, the Ryrie Study Bible note says,
The outer, east gate was shut so that no one could use it. Even the prince did not use this gate, though he could eat the sacrificial meal there. . . .
The Reformation Study Bible, which offers Reformed Christian commentary on the Scriptures, states,
The prophet had been in the inner court (43:5), but is now taken to the eastern gate. That gate will remain closed because the glory of the Lord had entered the temple through it. . . . That the gate is closed may also imply that the Lord will never leave the temple again. . . .
The footnote then discusses the history of the gate in the city wall of Jerusalem in different eras.
And that’s it. Just a bit of architectural trivia that’s not particularly interesting.
But the Orthodox Church views this verse as prophecy: this gate that remains shut is a picture of the ever-virginity of the Theotokos. The Orthodox Study Bible footnote reads,
The eastern outer gate is seen by the Fathers as the womb of the Virgin, which was shut because the Lord God had entered by it. The Church sees this passage as describing the ever-virginity of Mary. . . . St. Jerome writes that the east gate images the Virgin Mary whose womb is “always shut and always shining, and either concealing or revealing the Holy of Holies; and through her ‘the Sun or Righteousness,’ our ‘high priest after the order of Melchizedek,’ goes in and out.”
And St. Jerome was not some theological outlier with a novel interpretation of a mundane passage of Scripture. Around AD 390 St. Ambrose of Milan wrote,
Who is this gate (Ezekiel 44:1-4) if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity.
Saint Augustine—a favorite of Reformed Christians—also had something to say regarding Ezekiel 44. About sixty years before St. Ambrose wrote those words, Augustine wrote:
It is written (Ezekiel 44, 2): ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it. Because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it. . . .’ What means this closed gate in the house of the Lord, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate? What does it mean that “no man will ever pass through it,” save that Joseph shall not know her? And what is this—”The Lord enters in and goeth out by it,” except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate her, and that the Lord of Angels shall be born of her? And what means this—”It shall be shut for evermore,” but that Mary is a virgin before His birth, a Virgin in His birth, and a Virgin after His birth.
Why has this information been discarded in Protestant commentary? I’ll leave that to you to answer. I have to admit there were a few times as I was journeying into the Orthodox Church when I actually felt a little angry, and even a lot angry, because I realized that parts of the Christian Faith had been withheld from me. Honestly, I felt gypped and betrayed. I wanted to know what was behind the ellipses, the bits of writing that had been omitted when I read theology and history from a Protestant perspective.
The thing is, I wasn’t mad at individuals I knew. The pastors in my life, in Oklahoma, Texas, California, and Colorado, had been faithful and conscientious men who were deeply committed to Christ. They weren’t trying to withhold truth from my Christian education. But they were all part of a system that over the centuries has argued away and edited out anything that looks, sounds, or smells Catholic.
I know that’s an oversimplification, but I’m not trying to summarize Church history here. My main point is that over the years, as the Church has splintered in the West, so much depth, richness, and beauty have been lost that I have occasionally been driven to tears of frustration and grief.
Speaking of the past 500 years—during which much has changed, and the changes keep accelerating—what did the Protestant Reformers think about the idea of ever-virginity? Martin Luther referred to Mary’s ever-virginity in his Smalcald Articles, a Lutheran confession of faith written in 1537, and Ulrich Zwingli also believed it. The OSB note on Ezekiel 44:1–4 points out, “Though many modern denominations reject this doctrine, it was held to be true by Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley.”
Wait . . . what? Remember, I grew up United Methodist, and Methodism was founded by John Wesley in the eighteenth century. I don’t remember if I was ever taught that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, but this teaching definitely wasn’t emphasized. And in the Southern Baptist and nondenominational churches our family attended over the years, which included a lot of Calvinist teachings, her ever-virginity was either dismissed or not mentioned. At the end of the day, it wasn’t important because she wasn’t important.
Because I’m a nerd, my feelings about the missing teachings in my Protestant experience often remind me of the words of the elven queen Galadriel at the beginning of the movie The Fellowship of the Ring: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.” Or, in this case, after 500 years, many of the Church’s teachings, especially our understanding of the role of the Mother of God in salvation history, have “passed out of all knowledge” for those of us who grew up in newer Christian traditions.
I’ve offered just a brief response to the question of the Virgin Mary remaining a virgin. This question has been answered thoroughly and eloquently over the centuries by both Orthodox and Roman Catholic thinkers, as well as early Protestant leaders. We can continue debating, explaining our Scripture interpretations and marshaling talking points, but Orthodoxy is not merely a religious system based on rational propositions. It is a Faith that is lived and is comfortable with mystery. What does it mean that the Theotokos remained a virgin during childbirth? I have no clue. The answer to that is definitely beyond my understanding. And yet her eternal purity makes spiritual sense. As Fr. Thomas Hopko writes in The Winter Pascha,
It is simply inconceivable to the saints that the woman who gave birth by the Holy Spirit to God’s divine Son His Word and Wisdom, His Express Image and the Radiance of His Glory, should then proceed normally to mother more children in the usual manner. There is no depreciation of childbirth here, and certainly no disgust for the sexual union. There is rather the clear understanding of the uniqueness of Mary, the one “blessed among women,” whom “all generations will call . . . blessed.” . . . The place of Mary in God’s plan of salvation affirms her ever-virginity more than any particular biblical text or any specific scriptural reference for those who have come to know her in the mystical life of the Church. (p. 125)
As I meditate on the life of the Virgin Mary, once again I am grateful for the Church’s unchanging theology. Her ever-virginity is proclaimed in words and hymnography and also visually each time we gaze upon an icon of her: the three stars adorning her clothing, one on her veil and one at each shoulder, represent her eternal virginity before, during, and after childbirth.
This is an awe-inspiring doctrine to contemplate during the Nativity fast; the crass consumerism of our secularized Christmas season seems pale and tarnished when compared to the light of the Virgin Mary’s humility, obedience, selflessness, and purity.
I will close with a stanza from the Matins service of the Feast of the Nativity, which I hope you will be able to attend on Christmas Day:
Behold, the Virgin, as was said of old,
Has conceived in her womb
And has brought forth God as a man,
Yet she remains still a virgin.
Being reconciled to God through her,
Let us sinners sing her praises,
For truly she is Theotokos.
Next time, in the new year, we will return to the Liturgy Quick-Start Guide with Episode #5, “Ascent to the Eucharist.”
Until then, I wish you a blessed and very merry Christmas, my fellow pilgrims. Christ is born!