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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.

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    Never heard such statement either. May 2, 2012 at 4:23
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    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, 2012 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, 2018 at 20:26
  • @RonJohn I think the basic issue for Protestants regarding many aspects of Mariology is the dearth of biblical basis as opposed to tradition. We've nothing against Mary, per se. Apr 13, 2021 at 11:48
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    I think the Catholic attitude is to assume the tradition comes from Mary herself. If it weren't true, don't you think she would have squashed it early on?
    – workerjoe
    Apr 14, 2021 at 18:42

6 Answers 6

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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 ark 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 ark of the new covenant" here: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/mary-the-ark-of-the-new-covenant

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  • This is not simply tradition. Mary never had original sin and thus exempt from pain in childbirth.
    – Ken Graham
    Nov 3, 2019 at 21:58
  • @KenGraham If it's not biblically based isn't tradition the only other option? Apr 13, 2021 at 11:50
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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
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  • 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, 2019 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) Mar 19, 2019 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, 2019 at 21:21
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    @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. Mar 20, 2019 at 2:44
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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."

Also, Song 4:12 is cited as evidence her parturition must have been miraculous:

My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.

and Ezechiel 42:2:

This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 20, 2021 at 5:47
  • Genesis 3:16 says Eve's (therefore all women thereafter) sorrow and conception will be greatly multiplied, not instituted, therefore original sin does not cause pain in childbirth but greatly increases it. Where Scripture is concerned, IF Mary was sinless she could still have some discomfort in childbirth. Apr 20, 2021 at 11:41
  • @MikeBorden She didn't have a painful childbirth for another reason, too: her incorruptibility.
    – Geremia
    Apr 20, 2021 at 15:07
  • @MikeBorden God created human nature good (Gen 1:31 "And God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good."); childbirth is part of human nature, so it, too, is "very good". Pain and discomfort are evils. Evil (a lack of good) is due to sin.
    – Geremia
    Apr 20, 2021 at 16:21
  • @MikeBorden "Genesis 3:16 says Eve's…sorrow and conception will be greatly multiplied, not instituted". It uses future tense: "in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children".
    – Geremia
    Apr 20, 2021 at 16:29
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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.
    – fгedsbend
    Dec 22, 2014 at 13:44
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    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, 2017 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, 2017 at 17:16
  • This passage in Isaiah is referring to Jerusalem (Zion) bringing forth. Is there tradition that typically relates Mary to Zion? Apr 13, 2021 at 12:00
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The idea of "no pain in birth" sources generally to the Infancy Gospel of James. And to those like Marcion, Valentinus, Apelles, and others who taught various ideas about Jesus' flesh. These were the docetists.

Here's the Infancy Gospel of James.

[19]Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. 20. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. Infancy Gospel of James

Prior to this, a bright light had appeared in the cave. It receded and the infant appears at Mary's side. This "virginal birth" gave rise to the subsequent belief that Jesus was born from the east gate, not the south gate (Eze 44:1-2).

The idea relating this birth to light passing through glass or water through a tube sources to Valentinus, et al.

Some, however, make the assertion, that this dispensational Jesus did become incarnate, and suffered, whom they represent as having passed through Mary just as water through a tube; enter link description here

So, the idea of a painless birth arose apart from scripture in denying the natural flesh of Christ. Centuries later the idea of a miraculous painless birth became "orthodox".

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Where does the Catholic tradition that Mary did not have pain giving birth to Jesus come from?

The belief that Mary did not have pain giving birth to the Redeemer stems from the fact Doctrine that Mary was free from Original Sin or as Catholicism would put it her Immaculate Conception. Mary was accorded the unique privilege of being immaculately conceived and thus did not inherit the curse of pain that was imposed on women when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden.

In the wake of the first (human) sin of Adam and Eve, God spoke directly to our original parents and indirectly to all mankind concerning some of the far-reaching consequences of that sin: physical death and disorder would be the lot of all mankind until the end of time. Indeed, in some sense, all of creation was changed for the worse as a result of this cataclysmic sin. But for our purpose, we want to focus on Genesis 3:16 and one particular effect of original sin:

To the woman [the Lord God] said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.”

Scripture teaches that as a result of original sin, God would “greatly multiply” the pains of labor not only for Eve, but for all women. Many Fathers of the Church and theologians down through the centuries deemed it fitting that Mary alone would be exempt from such pains as a sign of her unique holiness. Thus, Mary’s freedom from the pains of labor is one of many reasons for belief in her immaculate conception.

The Church has taught this as well on the level of the ordinary Magisterium, though not with the same degree of authority with which it has taught that Mary remained an “intact” virgin in giving birth to Jesus. However, we should note the fact that it has been taught on the level of the ordinary Magisterium and that it was taught by many Fathers of the Church. This is significant.

Although there is certainly no argument from necessity here, and this teaching is a matter of legitimate debate in the Church today, I argue it to be most fitting as a sign of hope for the entire body of Christ. All can see in this unique gift to Mary a sign of the ultimate deliverance from all bodily pain and suffering that awaits the Church through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Mary we see the fullness of the grace of Easter incarnated in a human person. Analogous to God preserving Mary in virginal integrity in giving birth to our Lord, his preserving her from the pains of delivery demonstrates in a more profound way the truth of the Immaculate Conception and the saving power of Christ in preserving her from this effect of original sin.

Moreover, when we consider Mary in one of her many titles demonstrating her sinlessness—“the beginning of the new creation”—how fitting indeed it is that the “new creation” would be inaugurated without the pains of childbirth, one of the principal effects of sin in the first creation.

More to the point, what evidence do we have for this belief? We can examine it from two sources: Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church as it is communicated to the faithful through both magisterial teaching and in the liturgy.

Let’s look at Sacred Scripture first. In a chapter laden with references to the coming of the New Covenant, or “the new heavens and the new earth,” as we see in Isaiah 66:22—a text referenced in Revelation 21:1—we find this startling prophecy:

Listen, an uproar from the city! A voice from the temple! The voice of the Lord, rendering recompense to his enemies! Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things?

Not only do we find many of the Fathers of the Church referencing this text as referring to the miraculous birthing of Christ, but we find it difficult to apply it in its fullest sense to anything else.

Then there’s Luke 2:7: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Some critics will say the fact that Mary “brought forth” Jesus would mean she experienced labor pains. Not necessarily. The teaching that claims that Mary was freed from labor pains would agree Mary brought forth Jesus, but miraculously aided by God. There would be no reason not to use the language of Mary having brought forth Jesus.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas (who references St. Jerome), Mary being depicted as “wrapping” and then “laying” Christ in a manger is an indicator that she did not endure the normal pains of labor. Even in our day, doctors or nurses would do this kind of work. In the first century, it would be a midwife. Yet the Bible seems to indicate that Mary did this by herself.

Now let’s examine the Church’s magisterial teaching. Though this teaching has never been the object of a formal definition of the Church and therefore is not infallible, the Catechism of the Council of Trent gives perhaps the clearest example of the general understanding of the Church through centuries past:

But as the conception itself transcends the order of nature, so also the birth of our Lord . . . 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.

From Eve we are born children of wrath; from Mary we have received Jesus Christ. . . . To Eve it was said: In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. Mary was exempt from this law, for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate she brought forth Jesus . . . without experiencing, as we have already said, any sense of pain.

It seems fitting: Eve’s sin is causally linked to labor pain. The New Eve was uniquely free from the sin of Eve and did not experience that pain. Indeed, I argue that it would seem contrary to our sense of Jesus and Mary as the “New Adam” and the “New Eve.” And, as I said above, it would not seem right to inaugurate this great and glorious New Covenant by experiencing pains that were the result of failure in the Old.

Pope Alexander III (1169) wrote:

[Mary,] indeed conceived without shame, gave birth without pain, and went hence without corruption, according to the word of the angel, or rather [the word] of God through the angel, so that she should be proved to be full, not merely half filled, with grace and [so that] God her son should faithfully fulfill the ancient commandment that he had formerly given, namely, to treat one’s father and mother with honor.

The Church at prayer, both East and West, reveals a common understanding of Mary having been freed from labor pains. In the Mass of “Mary at the Foot of the Cross II,” celebrated in the pre-1969 Latin Rite, the Church prays:

In your divine wisdom, you planned the redemption of the human race, and decreed that the new Eve should stand by the cross of the new Adam: as she became his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, so, by a new gift of your love, she was to be a partner in his passion, and she who had given him birth without the pains of childbirth was to endure the greatest of pains in bringing forth to new life the family of your Church.

In the Byzantine liturgy, from the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ and from the Synaxis of the Theotokos, Tone 2:

Behold! The image of the Father and his unchangeable eternity has taken the form of a servant. Without suffering he has come forth to us from an all-pure virgin, and yet he has remained unchanged. He is true God as he was before, and he has taken on himself what he had not been, becoming man out of his love for all. Therefore, let us raise our voices in hymns, singing: O God, born of the virgin, have mercy on us.

The liturgy of the Church has always been an exemplary tool of catechetics and moral certitude theologically as well as the primary instrument of our spiritual nourishment in Christ. Thus, the fact that the Church asks its children to affirm Mary’s freedom from the pains of labor in liturgical prayer at Mass is a testimony as to the authority of this teaching of the Church.

Was Mary Free from Labor Pain?

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  • Are you suggesting that Mary's conception and Jesus' conception were the same, i.e. not the product of sexual union between a man and a woman? Jesus' conception was not a singular event? Jan 10 at 21:30
  • @MikeBorden Jesus’ Conception was unique and produced by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s Conception was as ordinary in all regards to the rest of humanity, except that God granted her an Immaculate Conception in view of being the Mother of Our Redeemer. Her Immaculate Conception was due to a divine prerogative given to at the moment of conception.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 10 at 22:55
  • So Catholics believe that Jesus avoided the sin nature by lack of human paternity and Mary avoided it by a special Divine action in spite of human paternity? If that is the case, why bother with a virgin birth? Jan 11 at 1:10
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    @MikeBorden If you wish to debate such things, please go to chat or pose a question. The Church only speaks of the Immaculate Conception as something that was "fitting," something that made Mary a "fit habitation" (i.e., suitable dwelling) for the Son of God, not something that was necessary.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 11 at 1:13

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