Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Patristic Understanding of the Virgin Birth of Christ


Where God Wills The Order Of Nature Is Overruled

"And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered" (Lk. 2:6).

Concerning the birth of Christ, the Prophet Isaiah spoke thus:

"Behold she that travailed brought forth, before the travail-pain came on, she escaped it and brought forth a male" (Is. 66:7).

Saint John of Damascus adds to this saying that:

"After the normal nine-month gestational period, Christ was born at the beginning of the tenth, in accordance with the law of gestation. It was the birth that surpassed the established order of birthgiving, as it was without pain; for, where pleasure had not preceded, pain did not follow. And just as at His conception He had kept her who conceived Him virgin, so also at His birth did He maintain her virginity intact, because He alone passed through her and kept her shut.

While the conception was by 'hearing', the birth was by the usual orifice through which children are born, even though there are some who concoct an idle tale of His being born from the side of the Mother of God. For it was not impossible for Him to pass through the gate without breaking its seals. Hence, the Ever-Virgin remained virgin even after giving birth and never had converse with a husband as long as she lived."
1

Saint Ambrose in his Synodal Letter 44 writes:

"Why is it hard to believe that Mary gave birth in a way contrary to the law of natural birth and remained a virgin, when contrary to the law of nature the sea looked at Him and fled, and the waters of the Jordan returned to their source (Ps. 113:3). Is it past belief that a virgin gave birth when we read that a rock issued water (Ex. 17:6), and the waves of the sea were made solid as a wall (Ex. 14:22)? Is it past belief that a Man came from a virgin when a rock bubbled forth a flowing stream (Ex. 20:11), iron floated on water (4 Kings 6:6), a Man walked upon the waters (Mt. 14:26)? If the waters bore a Man, could not a virgin give birth to a man? What Man? Him of Whom we read: '...the Lord shall be known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day; and they shall offer sacrifices, and shall vow vows to the Lord, and pay them' (Is. 19:20).

In the Old Testament a Hebrew virgin (Miriam) led an army through the sea (Ex. 15:21); in the New testament a king's daughter (the Virgin Mary) was chosen to be the heavenly entrance to salvation."


In the Resurrection Theotokion of Saturday Vespers (Plagal of the First Mode), we chant:

"Then, the deep was trodden dry-shod by Israel, now, Christ is born seedlessly of the Virgin. The sea, after the passage of Israel, remained untrodden: the blameless one, after the birth of Emmanuel, remained undefiled."

Saint Ambrose also writes in another letter that:

"A virgin carried Him Whom this world cannot contain or support. And when He was born of Mary's womb, He yet preserved the enclosure of her modesty, and the inviolate seal of her virginity."2

Where God so wills the order of nature is overcome. Is anything too hard for Him Who called heaven, earth and the sea into being by His word alone? Nature and the elements are creations of the Creator. Their laws and properties are immediately subject to their Lord Fashioner. Adam and Eve were given dominion over the fish of the sea, the flying creatures of heaven, and over the reptiles and cattle and all the earth (Gen. 1:26); all were subject to them before the fall. Saint Gregory Palamas comments that when the Logos of God took on human nature, He bestowed on it the fullness of grace and delivered it from the bonds of corruption and death. The consequence of hypostatic union in Christ of the two natures was the deification of the human nature He assumed.3 The regeneration of man in Christ was the restoration of Adam and Eve.

The saints, having put on Christ, have often resumed the authority and dominion that our first parents had. Thus, the Prophet Habakkum instantly traversed vast expanses of land, with no effort, and brought food to Daniel in the lion's den. The Holy Apostles, too, were transported on clouds to be at the Theotokos' repose in Jerusalem, and their bodily weight proved not to hamper their flight, in defiance to gravity. Our Savior and the saints performed those things outside the created laws of physics and medicine. By a word, straightway, long and terminal illnesses vanished, limbs that were palsied became sound, those without orbs received the power of vision, and many were raised from the dead. Some of the saints could go long periods without food, water or changes of clothing as St. Paisios the Great of Egypt or St. Mary Golinduc the Persian. Others, by their mere grace0filled presence, tamed wild and ferocious animals. Thus, why should it be difficult to imagine that the Christ infant could not pass through that virginal orifice through which children are delivered without incurring damage or the slightest discomfort to His Mother, despite His newborn height and weight? Later, in life, He would pass through the midst of the mob unscathed as though bodiless and, after His Resurrection, His body would pass through solid and shut doors to meet and greet His anxious disciples (Jn. 20:19).

Concerning the mystery of the incarnation, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote the following:

"When God became known to us in the flesh, He neither received the passions of human nature, nor did the Virgin Mary suffer pain, nor was the Holy Spirit diminished in any way, nor was the power of the Most High set aside in any manner, and all this was because all was accomplished by the Holy Spirit. thus the power of the Most High was not abased, and the child was born with no damage whatsoever to the mother's virginity."4

Saint Hesychios (c. 451), a learned priest-monk of Jerusalem, expressed the same truth, writing that:

"The Theotokos was a woman, yet she did not suffer the pangs of childbirth because the field of marriage had not experienced the plow; the virginal vineyard was not tilled."5

Notes:

1. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 4, Ch. 14.

2. Letter 59, To the Church at Vercelli.

3. Georgios L. Mantzarides, The Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition, p. 29.

4. "Against Eunomius, Hom. II", PG 45, 492.

5. "Sermon On the Presentation", PG 93, 1469.

Source: The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos by Holy Apostles Convent, pp. 176-179.
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