It’s forty weeks to Christmas!
This is the feast of the Annunciation when the Archangel Gabriel came to the virgin Mary and told her that she would have the Son of God. He called her “full of Grace,” and she gave her “Fiat”, that is, her consent to whatever God wanted of her.
The first question that often gets asked at this point is ‘how come she gets away with asking how this will be, when poor old Zachariah is struck dumb for 40 weeks (or 41 if you add the 8 days after John’s birth). God isn’t fair is he?’
The answer is that Zachariah, standing in the Holy of Holies before an angel of the Lord says he doesn’t believe it can happen. His wife is beyond child-bearing age. His lack of faith is punished with dumbness and he therefore cannot give the blessing to the people that the High Priest was supposed to give. That must have caused some consternation at the time.
Mary however is asking how she is going to get pregnant. Now this looks like a really silly question when you consider she is betrothed (more than engaged but less than married) to Joseph. The general tradition is that she had made an oath to God to remain His handmaid and therefore a virgin all her life. She wondered if she was somehow to be released from the vow, or if there was some other way she could become pregnant with the Messiah.
Gabriel then explains what will happen- which of course keeps her vow in tact. It is this that helps St. Augustine and other father’s to see that she had made such a vow. It was very fitting that this should be so. She is now called to be the Mother of God Incarnate and she accepts the call.
OK, you might say, but what about the “brethren of the Lord”?
Of course there is nothing at all in either Scripture or tradition that suggests that Mary had other children than Jesus. There is a tradition based from the Evangelium of James that St. Joseph had children from a first marriage, but even that has not taken off a tradition throughout the Church.
The brothers of the Lord we see are the sons of Mary and Cleopas and of Mary Salome and Zebedee. There is a traditional family tree that shows how Mary Salome and Mary of Cleopas were related to Mary the Blessed Mother and therefore all their children were “brethren”. As Fr. Mitch Pacwa SJ and others who know both Aramaic and Hebrew point out, there is not set of words for extended family and so even today people will speak of uncles and cousins as brothers and sisters. (I actually think this is a rather lovely aspect of these languages).
It hasn’t been easy to extrapolate who the father’s of all the James mentioned in Scripture might be. the biggest question has been over whether Mary of Cleopas was married to Alpheus before Cleopas or where Alpheus is simply another name Cleopas held (Much as St. Matthew was also called Levi). There has never been a tradition that Mary had other children. But could she have?
Mary has a special role in Scripture. She is called to be the Christ bearer, the Theotokos in Greek. As Christ is the second Adam so she is the second Eve, born without the loss of Grace – original sin – incured by the sin of Adam and Eve. Mary does have free will, just as all have from the time of Adam. She remains true to God though, freely choosing not to sin as she freely chose to give her Fiat to the angel.
In carrying the Christ child she is the second Ark of the Covenant. Only she is more holy than the first Ark. She carries the God Incarnate inside her whereas the Ark of the old Covenant carried manna, the tablets of the Law and Aaron’s staff (symbol of his priesthood). All these are precursors, types and symbols of what Mary and Jesus really are.
The Ark of the Covenant is the holiest object known in Israel. It was so holy that no one but the High Priest could touch it, and we all remember the story of two men who touched the Ark and immediately dropped dead. No one could touch what was consecrated so completely to God.
So Mary could not have had other children as there is no way Joseph would have dared have children with the woman who was the Mother of God, Ark of the Covemant. She had received her child from God, by being covered with the Holy Spirit. She belonged completely to God then. Her womb had been the place for the Incarnation and was therefore sacred so it would not be fitting for another child to dwell there.
The question over Our Lady’s perpetual virginity began around the 4th century and was answered by St. Jerome.
I think the root of the constant questioning of her perpetual virginity these days is based not only in a profound lack of Scriptural knowledge but in a loss of the understanding of the sacred – what is holy and set aside. Worse still I think the constant harping about her virginity is based in a bizarre view that sex is the be all and end all of life. And a subtle, but nevertheless very present, undermining of the belief in the Incarnation itself.