4th Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:26-38
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
The Gospel text recounting the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary contains the biblical evidence and proof that she had made a vow of virginity prior to her conception of the Christ Child. Further, as we consider the historical circumstances of her betrothal to Joseph, it will become quite clear that he also had vowed perpetual continence as the spouse of our Lady.
Rather than discussing the universal and emphatic teachings of the Fathers of the Church – all of whom assert that Mary had made a vow of virginity – because such texts will often be ignored by Protestants (to their eternal ruin), we will look simply at the Gospel text itself and shall assert only those things which are affirmed also by the Evangelist.
The account of the Annunciation, the words of Mary
After the archangel Gabriel tells our Lady that she is to be the Mother of the Messiah, she responds with a simple question: How can this be? We must not think that Mary doubted the words of the angel or the plan of God – far be it from us to impute sin to our Mother! Rather, it is clear (also from the context, since the angel does not rebuke Mary as he had rebuked Zechariah for his doubt) that the Virgin believes that God’s word will be fulfilled, but simply does not understand how this will take place – hence, she asks How can this be?
And what is it that confuses Mary? She says How can this be? Since I have no relations with a man. Mary does not doubt that she will indeed conceive and bear a son, but what she does not understand is the mode of conception. We will consider why she was confused in a moment – first, let us look at the words of the Gospel.
The New American Bible offers a loose translation of this verse (Luke 1:34) – Since I have no relations with a man. The more literal translation is: Since I do not know man. The original Greek: ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω;
Of course, the phrase “do not know man” refers to sexual relations, as is common throughout the Bible. What I want to point out is that Mary does not say, “Since I have not yet known a man” or “Since I have never known man” – i.e. she does not speak in the past tense. Rather, our Lady uses the present indicative: Since I do not know man. She does not merely affirm that she has been a virgin, but implies that in the moment she intends to remain a virgin.
This is what confused our Lady: That she was a virgin, and yet the angel said she would conceive and give birth to a son.
Proof of the vow of virginity
Now, our Lady was already betrothed to St. Joseph (cf. Luke 1:27) – she had not yet come into his home, but she was soon to do so (cf. Matthew 1:18,24). If the Blessed Virgin Mary had intended to have sexual relations with Joseph – according to the ordinary mode of married life – how can we think that she would have been confused by the words of the angel?
Mary did not say simply: “How can I bear a son? Since I have not yet known a man but intend to soon enter into relations with Joseph.” This would not even make any sense! For she would have presumed then that the child would be the son of Joseph.
The only way we can account for Mary’s confusion, and also for her use of the present (rather than past) tense verb I do not know man, is if we admit that she had no intention of entering into sexual relations with Joseph or with any other man.
Mary could only ask this question of the angel, if she had some good reason for thinking that the child would not be the son of Joseph. And the only good reason she could have to think that Jesus would not be the biological son of Joseph is if she had no intention of ever giving up her virginity to Joseph. Hence, it is clear, that Mary must have made a vow of virginity to God.
Joseph’s betrothal to our Lady
Now, given that we must conclude that our Lady had no intention of entering into sexual relations with Joseph to whom she was betrothed and whom she would soon marry, how can we fail to believe that Joseph must have made the vow of continence together with Mary?
Could we possibly presume that our Lady would enter into a marriage with St. Joseph without telling him that she intended to remain a virgin?! Why, even on a natural level, we know that this would never happen! Of all the things which would have to be discussed before marriage, certainly a vow of perpetual virginity would have to be at the top of the list!
But, if Mary had told Joseph of her vow of virginity (as surely she must have), then we are led to conclude that, since Joseph agreed to marry her, he too must have made a vow of perpetual continence (i.e. to refrain from all sexual relations even within marriage).
We do not say necessarily that Joseph was a virgin – for it is possible that he had been married before and had been widowed – but we are sure of this much at least: After his betrothal to the Virgin Mary, he had forsook all sexual relations. Joseph had no intention of engaging in relations with the Mother of God. Further, we know that this vow must have taken place even before the Annunciation, since our Lady would have had to discuss the matter with Joseph BEFORE the betrothal – it would be quite a surprise to spring it on him only after they were committed to marriage!
Thus, from the text of Scripture itself, it is clear that both Mary and Joseph had made a perpetual vow to abstain from all sexual relations – there can be no doubt that the Mother of God remained a virgin throughout her entire life.
Replies to objections
Here we will briefly consider only the most popular objections to Mary’s perpetual vow of virginity. The objections will be written in italics, followed by the answers in normal font.
But Jesus had “brothers and sisters”. This objection is very easy to answer, since it was common to call cousins “brothers and sisters” – indeed, there was no word specific to “cousin” in ancient Aramaic, hence the New Testament writers felt no need to differentiate between cousins and closer relatives. This same use of the term “brothers and sisters” referring rather to “cousins” is found in Genesis 13:8, 14:14-16; Leviticus 10:4; 1 Chronicles 15:5-10, 23:21-22. If Jesus really had brothers and sisters who were sons and daughters of Mary, why did he entrust his Mother to John the Beloved at his death? Would she not have been cared for by the other children? [further, it is possible that these “brothers and sisters” where children of Joseph by a previous marriage of which he was widowed]
But Matthew 1:18 says, “BEFORE Joseph and Mary came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.” And it would not say BEFORE, if they did not have relations after. The response is simple: We often say things like, “I left the city BEFORE I was able to visit my friend” and we by no means imply that we visited our friend AFTER we left.
But Jesus is called the “first-born son”, which implies that there were others. Rather, the words “first-born” are a title which is applied even if there are no other children. It was of great significance in Jewish culture to be the first-born son, and this title was given even before any other children were born and was retained even if no other children were born.But Matthew 1:24-25 says, “And [Joseph] took unto him his wife [Mary]; and he knew her not TILL she brought forth her first-born Son.” And Matthew would not have said TILL or UNTIL, if Joseph had not had relations with Mary after the birth of the Christ. This is certainly the most complicated objection and it requires wisdom to see the truth. St. Jerome explains that, in the Scriptures, the word “until” is sometimes used to designate a fixed time, but also can designate and indefinite time. Hence, Psalm 122:2 states, “Our eyes are unto the Lord our God, UNTIL he have mercy on us” – but from this we are not to suppose that we turn our eyes away from the Lord after he is merciful! Rather, our eyes are fixed on the Lord until he shows us his mercy and, after he is merciful to us, our eyes remain fixed upon him all the more! And St. Jerome concluded, “Thus the evangelist says that the Mother of God was not known by her husband until she gave birth, that we may be given to understand that still less did he know her afterwards.” (Adversus Helvid. v) And this interpretation is required by the other texts of Scripture (namely, her reply at the Annunciation) which indicate that Mary was indeed always a virgin.