Today’s Gospel reading is a short one. In fact, I can copy it in its entirety right here:
The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him but were unable to join him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it” (Luke 8:19-21)
When discussions or debates are held about Mary’s perpetual virginity – the teaching that she remained chaste even after giving birth to Jesus – inevitably two scripture references are brought up. The first one is the one I quoted above which refers to the Jesus’ “brothers.” The second is from the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus (Mt 1:24-25, my emphasis added)
The implication when these two verses are combined is Joseph didn’t have sexual relations with Mary while she was pregnant with Jesus, but afterwards they adopted a “normal” marital relationship which produced additional offspring (i.e. Jesus’ brothers).
That line of argumentation is one of those “zingers” Protestant fundamentalists like to throw at Catholics. For Catholics who are not grounded in the bible, which sadly is many of them, and who do not know the development of the doctrine on Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, this argument comes across as rather convincing. I remember a well-intentioned Baptist deacon rattling off these two quotes in quick succession at me when I was 19 years old and I had no idea how to respond (until I got this book, published two years earlier).
The debate on this topic is not a new one. A man named Helvidius published a tract in Rome (c. 383), arguing against Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. The great linguistics expert and biblical scholar, St. Jerome, who was also in Rome when Helvidius put forth his ideas, wrote a rebuttal, defending the Church’s teaching.
There is one part of Jerome’s response to Helvidius every Catholic should be able to grasp with the use of reason alone. It doesn’t require an in-depth knowledge of scripture nor does it require one to know the 2000 history which comprises the Church’s teaching on Mary’s virginity. No, all a person needs to ponder for a moment is the idea that nothing about Mary and Joseph’s life was going to be “normal” after their respective angelic visitations (cf. Lk 1:26-38 and Mt 1:18-25).
Think about it. How was anything in the lives of these two people going to be “normal” after angels come to inform them of the miraculous conception of Jesus and tell them they will be the earthly parents of the Son of God? I’m sure their lives were many, many things, but normal probably wasn’t one of them.
I feel comfortable making that kind of assumption (<– Marian pun) because it puts me in company with St. Jerome (not bad company to be in). He wrote in his treatise, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary:
In short, what I want to know is why Joseph refrained until the day of her delivery? Helvidius will of course reply, because he heard the angel say, “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (Mt 1:20) And in turn we rejoin that he had certainly heard him say, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife” (ibid) The reason why he was forbidden to forsake his wife was that he might not think her an adulteress. Is it true then, that he was ordered not to have intercourse with his wife? Is it not plain that the warning was given him that he might not be separated from her? And could the just man dare, he says, to think of approaching her, when he heard that the Son of God was in her womb? Excellent!
We are to believe then that the same man who gave so much credit to a dream that he did not dare to touch his wife, yet afterwards, when he had learnt from the shepherds that the angel of the Lord had come from heaven and said to them, “Be not afraid: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord;” (Lk 2:10)and when the heavenly host had joined with him in the chorus, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will;” (Lk 2:14) and when he had seen just Simeon embrace the infant and exclaim, “Now lettest thou thy servant depart, O Lord, according to thy word in peace: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation;” (Lk 2:25-34) and when he had seen Anna the prophetess (Lk 2:36-38), the Magi, the Star, Herod, the angels; Helvidius, I say, would have us believe that Joseph, though well acquainted with such surprising wonders, dared to touch the temple of God, the abode of the Holy Ghost, the mother of his Lord?
Jerome uses a lot of words (an admirable trait) to basically say, “Whatta stupid?”
I think there are two things that we, as modern 21st century people, struggle to get our heads around. First is the radicalness of Mary and Joseph’s experience. Ideas such as angelic visitations, voices from the heavens, pregnancy without intercourse, parenting the “Son of God,” etc. lay just out of our reach to comprehend. We struggle with them (understandable) because we likely have nothing comparable in our own lives. Our children didn’t come to us through divine intervention and they seem a little less than divine when they are throwing a fit about not getting their way.
The second concept is the idea of forsaking sexual intercourse for life. That certainly doesn’t seem “normal” by today’s standards, perhaps not even by 1st century Palestinian standards either. It would seem much more likely that Helvidius’ position, the one maintained by most Evangelicals, is right: Joseph and Mary refrained from intercourse “until [Mary] had borne a son” but afterwards they adopted a “normal” sexual relationship. But what we must seriously consider is that Joseph’s and Mary’s standard for “normal” had been radically changed because of God’s intervention in their lives.
Just reflect on the magnitude of the responsibility this couple was being given. Think about the mind-blowing, life-altering experiences they had before Jesus’ birth and after. What would you be willing to give up to be part of the plan to being salvation to the entire world?
You are part of that plan to bring salvation to the world you know, or at least to your corner of it. God has intervened in your life in many different ways (e.g. sacraments, prayer life, through family/friends), your definition of “normal” is now different from the world’s definition (cf. 1 Pt 2:11, Rm 12:2 and Jn 17:16) . Because your version of normal is different than the world’s, ask yourself: “What sacrifice am I willing to make in order to bring Christ to others?”