10

Where does the Catholic tradition that Mary's birth of Jesus 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.

  • 8
    Never heard such statement either. – Phonics The Hedgehog May 2 '12 at 4:23
  • 2
    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
  • Most Protestants think that Marianism and Mary veneration are anathema, so I'm completely not surprised that the other people had never heard of it. – RonJohn Apr 15 '18 at 20:26
9

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: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/mary-the-ark-of-the-new-covenant

  • 1
    The Catholic Church teaches that Mary never sinned? – Narnian May 2 '12 at 11:54
  • 2
    @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
  • 3
    @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
  • 2
    @Narnian Death is the separation of body and soul. But Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven. Therefore, she did not die. Pope Pius XII mentions her dormition/death in his apostolic constitution defining the dogma of the Assumption, Munificentissimus Deus (1950). – Geremia Sep 27 '16 at 6:14
6

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, Part I: The Creed, Article III

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
  • I knew the formulations used by the Council of Trent, but never interpreted them in context of pain during birth. I see only a statement on perpetual virginity. – K-HB Mar 15 at 8:15
  • @K-HB: You think when authors wrote "without breaking or injuring in the least" and "without injury" that they were imagining a painful childbirth while preserving Mary's body? (in other words, Concern 1 but not 2 & 3, above) – sondra.kinsey Mar 19 at 21:11
  • @sondra.kinsey Yes, I mean that. The most pain in birth has nothing to do with the hymen or virginity. – K-HB Mar 19 at 21:21
  • 1
    @K-HB: Interesting. I hadn't considered that reading. Perhaps this shows how easy it is to retroject later theology onto source texts. Thanks for your input. – sondra.kinsey Mar 20 at 2:44
5

Her painless childbirth follows from these truths of divine revelation:

  1. Painful childbirth is one of the punishments of Original Sin (Gen. 3:16: "in travail shalt thou bring forth children").
  2. Mary did not have Original Sin (dogma of the Immaculate Conception).

Therefore,

  1. Mary did not have a painful childbirth (at least not as a result of Original Sin).

St. Thomas Aquinas, answering the question "Whether Christ was born without His Mother suffering?" (Summa Theologica q. 35 a. 6), writes:

The pains of childbirth are caused by the infant opening the passage from the womb. Now it has been said above (q. 12 a. 2, Replies to objections), that Christ came forth from the closed womb of His Mother, and, consequently, without opening the passage. Consequently there was no pain in that birth, as neither was there any corruption; on the contrary, there was much joy therein for that God-Man "was born into the world," according to Is. 35:1,2: "Like the lily, it shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise."

2

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)

  • 1
    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. – 3961 Dec 22 '14 at 13:44
  • 1
    The Catholic Rheims/Vulgate translations say: "Before she was in labour [ parturiret], she brought forth; before her time came to be delivered [antequam veniret partus ejus], she brought forth a man child." – Geremia Jul 27 '17 at 17:11
  • @fredsbend Parturiret (parturio, "to desire to bring forth") doesn't necessarily imply pain, and partus means "a bearing, bringing forth, birth, delivery," not "pain". – Geremia Jul 27 '17 at 17:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.