Friday, September 21, 2012

Rev 12 and the "Birth Pangs" of Mary

As I understand it, Catholics believe that Mary gave birth to Jesus without pain, but in the Book of Revelation it says that she was in pain. Is there a contradiction here?

The passage you are referring to is Rev 12:1-2. It reads as follows:
1 And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2 she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.
Now, we have to remember that the Book of Revelation is full of symbols that have many layers of meaning. The woman from Rev 12 is representative of Mary, Israel, and the Church. Sometimes only one of the three is evoked, other times all three are present. The meaning of symbols in apocalyptic literature is often very fluid in this way.

So, we have a woman experiencing the pangs of child birth. In one sense, this woman is Mary. After all, she gives birth to a son who will rule all the nations (vs. 5) and is the mother of all Christians (vs. 17). But, since Mary did not receive the stain of original sin, she could not have experienced pain when Jesus was born. Therefore, this pain must refer to something else.

I think the pain and anguish we read about here is spiritual, not physical. After all, when Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to Simeon, he prophesied that a sword would pierce her heart because of her son (cf. Lk 2:34-35). Jesus’ Passion and Death are the source of this pain. She suffered bitterly at the foot of the Cross as her Son hung there alone and dying.

Of course, like I said, this woman can also represent Israel. In this case, the pangs of childbirth symbolize the great suffering and longing that the Israelites experienced in their exile. Isaiah said Israel was “like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs, when she is near her time” (Isa 26:16-18). The prophet Micah uses this same analogy: “Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail; for now you shall go forth from the city and dwell in the open country; you shall go to Babylon” (Micah 4:10).

As the Church, we experience this same suffering and longing as we await the Second Coming. Paul told the Galatians that he was “in travail” until Christ be formed in them (4:19). According to him, “the whole of creation has been groaning in travail” and “we ourselves … as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23).

Pax Christi,
phatcatholic

8 comments:

properlyscared said...

Ah...very insightful reply.

Our age demands "proof" for all claims-- which makes the rich depth of symbolism a foreign language.

Anonymous said...

"But, since Mary did not receive the stain of original sin, she could not have experienced pain when Jesus was born. Therefore, this pain must refer to something else. I think the pain and anguish we read about here is spiritual, not physical."

I'm sorry, my friend, but you are very wrong. The fact that Mary "did not receive the stain of original sin" did not render her incapable of physical pain in childbirth. Her Son experienced the most exquisite pain in the history of mankind even though He "did not receive the stain of original sin" and even though He was divine.

I believe that Mary could and did experience physical pain in giving birth to Jesus. Such pain is not necessarily a punishment for one's own sins. If it were, one would have to say that Jesus was a sinner.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention one thing. Some people have claimed that all pain in childbirth is the result of original sin. This is incorrect, and it arises from a misreading of Genesis 3:16. Note what that verse states (RSV): "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing." Aha! Even before the original sin was committed, there was to be pain in childbearing. The sin caused that pain to be "greatly multipl[ied]." Had Eve given birth in the Garden of Eden, she would have felt pain -- just as our Blessed Mother did (even though she did not lose her virginity).

Nicholas Hardesty said...

I think there can be a legitimate diversity of opinion regarding the pain that Mary experienced in giving birth to Jesus. As I understand it, Catholics are not bound to believe anything in particular about it. Although, it appears that the early Church Fathers (as well as many medieval theologians and doctors of the Church) are unanimous in their belief that Mary did not experience the pain of childbirth. That is a very strong witness.

Anonymous said...

"Although, it appears that the early Church Fathers (as well as many medieval theologians and doctors of the Church) are unanimous in their belief that Mary did not experience the pain of childbirth. That is a very strong witness."

My friend, you just used the word, "witness." What those Fathers/Doctors stated was not a "witness," but a theological opinion, based on faulty reasoning. They did not OBSERVE (witness) Our Lady having no pains, and it seems awfully unlikely that she volunteered to the first Christians that she gave birth with zero pain. There is no record of such a thing in the scriptures nor in the earliest Church Fathers.

Instead, the Fathers/Doctors whom you mention apparently didn't WANT Our Lady to have suffered in giving birth, so they (mis-)reasoned that she could not have had pain. It is as though they approached the whole matter too "romantically" and not with reason. I previously explained why a sinless Mary COULD have had pain, just as a sinless Jesus could have had, and did have, pain.

As a mother who suffered both at her Son's birth and death, Mary is an excellent role model for mothers of today. She would not be as good a model if she did not suffer in giving birth.

Nicholas Hardesty said...

You misunderstood my use of the word "witness." I didn't mean that they were all crowding around Mary when she gave birth, or that they received some special revelation from Mary about it. What I meant was that, with their writings, they are witnessing to a particular belief and tradition regarding Mary.

You also said, "There is no record of such a thing in the scriptures nor in the earliest Church Fathers." Don't speak so soon. There is in fact a substantial record on this point.

From the early Church fathers:

"[T]he report concerning the child was noised abroad in Bethlehem. Some said, ‘The Virgin Mary has given birth before she was married two months.’ And many said, ‘She has not given birth; the midwife has not gone up to her, and we heard no cries of pain’" (Ascension of Isaiah 11 [A.D. 70]).

"So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies. And she labored and bore the Son, but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose. And she did not seek a midwife, because he caused her to give life. She bore as a strong man, with will . . . " (Odes of Solomon 19 [A.D. 80]).

"Mary's virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her childbearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All these three trumpet-tongued secrets were brought to pass in the deep silence of God." (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 19; c. 107 AD)

"Of Him then His mother's burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy." (St Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Nativity 388 AD)

"How can death claim as its prey this truly blessed one, who listened to God's word in humility, and was filled with the Spirit, conceiving the Father's gift through the archangel, bearing without concupiscence or the co-operation of man the Person of the Divine Word, who fills all things, bringing Him forth without the pains of childbirth, being wholly united to God? ... It was fitting that she who saw her Son die on the cross, and received in her heart the sword of pain which she had not felt in childbirth, should gaze upon Him seated next to the Father." (St. John Damascene, Second Homily on the Dormition of the Mother of God)

"So far as He was born of woman, His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while so far as He had no father, His birth was above the nature of generation: and in that it was at the usual time (for He was born on the completion of the ninth month when the tenth was just beginning), His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while in that it was painless it was above the laws of generation. For, as pleasure did not precede it, pain did not follow it, according to the prophet who says, Before she travailed, she brought forth, and again, before her pain came she was delivered of a man-child (Isaiah 66:7)." (St. John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith, IV, 14)

For more from Scripture, the scholastics, popes, councils, and catechisms of the Church, go here:
http://home.earthlink.net/~mysticalrose/virginityinpartu.htm

Nicholas Hardesty said...

You said, "It is as though they approached the whole matter too 'romantically' and not with reason."

On the contrary, they have very good reasons for their belief in the painless birth of Jesus. For one, they see it as following from her preservation from original sin, since one of the results of the original sin is pain in childbirth.

I realize you think Gen 3:16 means that God simply multiplied a pain that would have already existed, but I think YOUR interpretation is the result of a loose translation, not mine. According to Brant Pitre, a prominent Catholic scholar:

"While the English translation of Gen 3:16 make make it sound as if Eve experienced pain in childbirth before the Fall ('I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing' RSV), this is the result of a loose translation; the Hebrew original has no such implication. Literally, it reads 'Great, great, will I make your pain and your travail' (Hb Harebah arbeh itzboneka weheroneka) (Gen 3:16). The Hebrew is simply a superlative meaning 'exceedingly great.' There is no implication that pain in childbirth was pre-Fall; nor does the text of Genesis in any way suggest that Eve had children before the Fall. Indeed, when the literary unity of Genesis is taken into account, Gen 4:1 ('And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain...') implies the opposite, with Cain as the first of a series of problematic first-born sons (Ishmael, Esau, Reuben, etc.)."

Secondly, a painless birth follows from the theological notion of Mary as eschatological icon. If Mary experienced the first-fruits of Christ's redemption in her own Immaculate Conception as the New Eve, it is easy to see why they would believe that she would similarly be able to taste the fruits of the eschatological age described by Isaiah (66:7-8), when women would be delivered from the curse of Eve.

The fathers provide other reasons too, which you can read in the quotes I have provided.

Nicholas Hardesty said...

You said, "I previously explained why a sinless Mary COULD have had pain, just as a sinless Jesus could have had, and did have, pain."

I never said that Mary was incapable of pain. I just said she didn't experience the pain OF CHILDBIRTH.

Finally, you said, "She would not be as good a model if she did not suffer in giving birth."

That doesn't follow any more than it would follow from her other unique prerogatives that she failed then to be a role model. Is she no longer a role model for us b/c she committed no sin? No. What about because she conceived by the Holy Spirit, or b/c she was a perpetual virgin, or b/c only she can say that her son was divine? All of these things make her unlike any other human being or woman, yet she doesn't fail for all these reasons to be and exemplar and role model for us. Well then, her painless childbirth should not disqualify her either.

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