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Where does the Catholic tradition that Mary's birth was painless come from?

My wife just got home from a non-denominational study about Mary and she said she thought everybody knew this, but apparently no one knew about it - especially the Protestants!

In any event, what I'm looking for is the origin of the quote that Jesus' birth was "like light passing through glass" and whether that quote is wholly indicative of a painless birth or if it could have been painless in another way?

I understand that it's a little t tradition in the Church, not a dogma or anything. But it's definitely a strong tradition; although it's one that could use a little preaching on from what I can tell.

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Never heard such statement either. – Phonics The Hedgehog May 2 '12 at 4:23
It is traditional that Mary did not experience the pain of childbirth. This is theologically significant since it represents the reversal of the curse in Genesis. But we Orthodox hold that it is more a grace granted her by God than some kind of mechanistic result of her not doing bad things. – user304 May 2 '12 at 18:44
up vote 8 down vote accepted

The Catholic "tradition" is just that. It is not an official teaching or doctrine, but rather something one is free to believe. The Church does not take a physiological stance on whether or not Mary experienced pain during child birth. But to understand where this tradition came from, we have to go back to the Garden of Eden.

When Adam and Eve sinned, God said to Eve that because of her sin, women would now experience pain during child birth. The teaching of "Original Sin" is that we have all inherited the sin of Adam and Eve. 

The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was "the arc of the new covenant" and that God prepared her to be the perfect vessel which carried God (Jesus) into the world. That meant that she needed to be free from Original Sin and that she did not commit a sin.

So since she was free from sin, including the sin from Eve, the tradition is that she did not need to experience pain during child birth.

You can read more about the teaching on "the arc of the new covenant" here:

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The Catholic Church teaches that Mary never sinned? – Narnian May 2 '12 at 11:54
@Narnian yeah, that's the effect of the Immaculate Conception. – Peter Turner May 2 '12 at 12:59
@PeterTurner Wow... I never knew that was taught. Since death results from sin, how then could Mary have died if she were sinless? – Narnian May 2 '12 at 13:04
@Narnian That could be another question I suppose but Catholics believe she was assumed into heaven. – TKTS May 2 '12 at 14:14
@Narnian yeah it is a good question. The Eastern Church just calls her death "The Dormition" meaning she merely fell asleep and Catholics believe she was assumed into heaven as a TKTS says - but only after she died, although her death was undertaken as a choice to follow Jesus. I mean, He died too and was sinless that's a point of faith that I think we all share. – Peter Turner May 2 '12 at 15:03

It is in prophecy of Isiah regarding the birth of the Messiah.

"Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child” (Isa 66:7)

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This is a good find. But is this the Catholic interpretation of this verse? If you can edit in a source that concurs with this that would be great. +1 in advance. I hope to see you post again soon. – fredsbend Dec 22 '14 at 13:44

Extensive biblical and traditional material advocating for Mary's painless childbirth can be found from "The Virginity of Our Lady in Partu". Many Protestants reject this teaching, but most are unaware of it entirely. I don't know the status of this teaching among Protestant theologians.

The image of light passing through glass seems to originate in the 12th century, and becomes very widespread by the 14th century. See this scholarly overview of the sources:
Breeze, Andrew. "The blessed virgin and the sunbeam through glass." Bells: Barcelona English language and literature studies 2 (1990): 53-64.

The teaching continued to be promulgated through the Catechism of the Council of Trent:

"He is born of His Mother without any diminution of her maternal virginity, just as He afterwards went forth from the sepulchre while it was closed and sealed, and entered the room in which His disciples were assembled, the doors being shut; or, not to depart from every-day examples, just as the rays of the sun penetrate without breaking or injuring in the least the solid substance of glass, so after a like but more exalted manner did Jesus Christ come forth from His mother's womb without injury to her maternal virginity."

"Catechism of the Council of Trent" 1566, Article III "The Creed"

You also wanted to know about interpretations of this tradition. Some of the traditional sources use the image to refer to Christ's conception, not birth (Breeze). The primary concerns of traditional authors are

  1. Mary's perpetual virginity
  2. Reversal of the curse of Adam and Eve.
  3. That Christ's birth should not cause distress
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FYI, your links are broken! – Ken Graham Mar 26 at 17:16

I have read that the fact that Mary herself wrapped baby Jesus in clothes gives some support to the tradition. See for example this link, where the question of Mary's virginity during birth, which is related to the subject at hand, is considered.

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Interesting. I know it's just a tradition so it's hard to give references, but do you have any support for this? – Thomas Shields May 2 '12 at 14:16
I'd also look forward to seeing some reference to this. – wax eagle May 2 '12 at 14:43
Is that just an assumption based on the fact that she'd be too tired? Makes sense at least, but more data is needed. – Peter Turner May 2 '12 at 15:31
This, while uncommon, is not by itself remarkable. Many mothers have been very able shortly after the birth. That doesn't imply it was pain-free. – Marc Gravell May 2 '12 at 15:38
Luke 2:7 does say "she wrapped him in cloths", but it doesn't say how quickly after the birth, so IMO, it's hard to draw any meaningful conclusion from this. Interesting idea just the same, though. – Flimzy May 2 '12 at 19:40

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