Does ‘The Chosen’ Get It Right About Our Lady?
Catholics believe, and the Church has long taught, that Mary remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus.
I had not seen The Chosen, the wildly popular series on the life of Christ, until some friends told me about the recent Christmas episode. They correctly assumed that, having spent four years writing a doctoral dissertation on the birth of Jesus, I had an interest in how the episode portrays that moment.
In the course of re-enacting the events of the Nativity, the episode shows Mary in labor pains as she gives birth to Jesus. The Chosen here follows the pattern of other popular adaptations, including Franco Zeffirelli’s celebrated 1977 series Jesus of Nazareth and the lesser-known 2006 film The Nativity Story. The scene of Mary’s labor pains in each of these is brief and tasteful, and also entirely wrong. To understand why, we need some background on what it means to affirm Mary’s virginity.
The perpetual virginity of Mary is one of the least known and most misunderstood Catholic doctrines. We frequently refer to the “ever-Virgin Mary,” but what exactly does that title mean? To the extent that Catholics reflect upon it all, they largely assume it means that Mary never had sexual relations. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Mary and Joseph remained continent throughout their married life. All of that is true, but it’s not the whole truth. Mary’s abstinence from sexual activity is but a consequence of the more important aspect of the doctrine, one that we can only appreciate when we look at the full scope of Mary’s virginal status.
Catholics believe, and the Church has long taught, that Mary remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus. We’ve already looked at the before and after, the meaning of which is fairly straightforward. It’s that middle word, during, that might seem odd. If virginity means a lack of sexual activity, how can we speak of someone remaining a virgin in the very act of giving birth? It is not enough to claim merely that Mary, who was a virgin, gave birth. There would be no need for that middle word during; the before would suffice.
The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity does not primarily concern the absence of any sexual relations throughout her life. Rather, it is first and foremost a doctrine about her body, specifically her physical integrity. That is, the physical seal of her virginity remained intact, unbroken by sexual intercourse or consequent childbirth. The doctrine is obviously a delicate one, and prurient speculation on the mechanics of Jesus’s birth has no place in this discussion. Similar to the Resurrection, we don’t know exactly how it happened, only that it did. Various Fathers of the Church used poetic metaphors to describe the event, such as light passing through glass. What we hold to be divinely revealed is that, however the birth of Jesus actually took place, Mary’s body remained intact.
With that understanding, we can return to the films mentioned above. While physical intactness forms the essence of Mary’s virginity in birth, the painless nature of the birth is inextricably linked to the doctrine. Part of this connection is deductive: The absence of the physical effects of childbirth would preclude their accompanying pains. The connection is theological, as well. As part of the punishment for original sin, God said to Eve, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). Here, the doctrines of the virgin birth and of the Immaculate Conception inform one another. Mary, preserved from all stain of original sin, would not have suffered the consequences that all women experience in giving birth.
The doctrine is unfamiliar to many Catholics, and can be met with an initial surprise or even skepticism. It sounds a bit fantastical, something of a pious legend. A miraculous birth, though, is no more impossible than a miraculous conception. Like the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, sacred Scripture does not explicitly affirm the doctrine, meaning that it would have been passed down from the apostles in sacred Tradition. The Fathers of the Church unanimously affirm the doctrine, and numerous ecumenical councils upheld their teaching. The doctrine faced serious challenges in the mid-20th century, as some prominent theologians collapsed it into Mary’s virginity before birth (arguing that there was nothing miraculous about the birth itself, only about the conception). In the face of such confusion, the Second Vatican Council explicitly endorsed the traditional understanding of the virgin birth. The Council quotes the prayer from the Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, stating that the birth of Jesus “did not diminish but consecrated her integrity” (Lumen Gentium 57). To reinforce the point, the text footnotes various Fathers and councils who affirm the doctrine. Among these is the most vocal champion of the virgin birth, St. Ambrose, who directly affirms Mary’s “genital intactness.”
The question then becomes not what we believe about the virgin birth, but why? Why did God preserve Mary’s body intact in this miraculous, painless birth? Every truth about Mary is ultimately a truth about Christ, that is, about God himself. In the first place then, the supernatural, virginal birth forms a logical complement to and extension of the supernatural, virginal conception. The birth is the outward sign that this child was not conceived in the flesh, underscoring Jesus’s unique and divine sonship. Mary always stands as an icon of the Church, both of whom we call our Mother. Her physical intactness in bringing forth the Word stands as an image of the Church, who receives and hands on the apostolic faith whole and intact, without loss or corruption. In that light, Mary’s virginity is not a negative reality, concerning the lack of sexual relations. Instead, it has a positive value: Her virginal body complements her virginal soul, together signifying her total union with and consecration to God.
The virgin birth also draws our attention to the importance of the body itself. To be human is to be both soul and body, and Mary’s virginity reminds us of the role that the material world plays in the drama of redemption. God uses his own creatures to accomplish his saving work — bread and wine and oil and water — and our bodies are part of that plan. This reminder allows us to look ahead to our final, heavenly goal. The doctrine of the virgin birth has always enjoyed a special connection to the Assumption.
As God preserved Mary’s body intact in childbirth, so too did he preserve her from any corruption of the tomb. Death and decay were not part of God’s original plan for the human race, and every one of us is called to share in the bodily glorification that Mary already enjoys.
What might seem like a trivial detail in the film depictions mentioned above thus carry significant consequences for a correct understanding of what God has revealed to us. If we get Mary wrong, there’s a good chance we’re going to get Jesus wrong. His painless birth is no isolated curiosity. Rather, it forms an essential part of God’s saving work: how and why he came and dwelt among us, and, as Mary exemplifies, how he plans to restore us, make us whole, and lead us home.