James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.
"The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, and the virgin's name was Mary" (Luke 1: 26-27).
We have already said that nothing is recorded in the Bible as to the birth, or parentage, or early life of Mary. She is introduced to us at the time of the Annunciation as a Virgin espoused to St. Joseph. This mystery then of Her Espousals is the earliest fact of Her life of which we must speak. I call it a mystery, because every thoughtful Christian must feel that there is something in it which requires explanation. For if Mary really deserves that title which is given to Her in the very creeds themselves, and which has ever remained as a perpetual affix to Her name, and almost as a part and parcel of it, if She is really the Blessed Virgin Mary, a virgin before the incarnation and birth of Christ, and a virgin ever after it, the mind is naturally tempted to inquire, why then was She espoused and married?
Before answering this question, however, it will be necessary that we should say a few words by way of insisting upon the fact which constitutes the knot of the difficulty, viz., the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. This fact is seen by every Catholic to be clearly implied in the words with which Our Blessed Lady first answered the message of the Archangel. St. Gabriel had said to Her, "Behold, Thou shalt conceive in Thy womb and shalt bring forth a Son..." "And Mary said to the Angel, 'How shall this be done, because I know not man?' " Catholic theologians generally have based upon this answer the most confident assertions that Mary had bound Herself by a vow of perpetual virginity. I will not say anything about a vow, because this would involve a number of questions with which it would be very inconvenient that we should encumber ourselves at this moment; but that the Blessed Virgin’s answer expresses at least a settled purpose, a fixed resolution to the effect, can hardly be denied. Where else is its force? How else is it an answer to what the Angel had said? What sense has it at all, except it means at least as much as this, that for Her there was not, and would never be, the ordinary use of marriage—that She was a virgin and would forever remain such? For if not, what difficulty was there in the way of the natural accomplishment of the Angel's promise—and what room for Her inquiry, "How shall this be done?"
Moreover it is not to be overlooked that the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary commends itself instinctively to every Christian mind with such force as almost to preclude the necessity of any proof at all. For as the Protestant bishop Bull has said, "It cannot with decency be imagined, that the most holy vessel which was once consecrated to be a receptacle of the Deity, should be afterwards desecrated and profaned by human use." Few, therefore, bearing the name of Christian, have ever entertained so degrading an imagination; none at all, it would appear, before the middle or end of the third century; for St. Epiphanius, from whom we derive our earliest information on this subject, distinctly speaks of it as a monstrous novelty, worthy to take its place among so many others, the sight of which his forefathers had been spared, and which had been reserved for the age of unsettlement and innovation in which he lived. His life traversed pretty nearly the whole of the fourth century, for he was born A.D. 310, and he died A.D. 403. He enjoyed a high reputation both for learning and piety, and amongst his other works, he wrote a history of all the heresies by which it had been attempted to corrupt the true Faith from the beginning down to his own time. He enumerates no less than eighty various systems of error; but there are only two amongst them which especially concern Mary. True to the usual characteristics of heresy, these two erred in opposite extremes. The one dishonored Her by pretending to honor Her too much, the other by denying what was Her due; and it is remarkable that our knowledge of both are derived from the same source, that they have been refuted and held up to reprobation by the same historian and defender of the true Faith. It will be worthwhile to see how earnestly St. Epiphanius speaks against each.
The heresy of the Collyrdians seems to have arisen in Thrace or Scythia, and thence to have been imported and to have taken root among the ignorant population of Arabia. It consisted in the offering of sacrifice, by women, to the Blessed Virgin—an act of supreme worship which belongs only to the one true and living God, and can never without sin be directed to any creature whatsoever. St. Epiphanius therefore brands this error as both absurd, idolatrous and diabolical; yet at the same time he is careful to guard himself against all suspicion of coldness or want of devotion towards the Mother of Jesus. "The body of Mary was holy," he says; "it was the very temple and dwelling-place of holiness; this I know and acknowledge; nevertheless She is not God. However excellent and exalted She may be, and however great the honors which have consecrated Her both in body and soul, yet She is still a woman of the same nature with other women. And since this is so, how has the deceitful serpent contrived by crooked devices to renew the errors of idolatry? Let Mary be held in honor, most assuredly; but let none be adored save only the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Let no one adore Mary, for this is not appointed to any woman; no, nor to any man either; the very angels themselves are not sufficient for it. It is reserved to God. Let these evil thoughts, then, written on the hearts of misguided men, be altogether blotted out; let this fruit of the fatal tree vanish from before men’s eyes; let the creature turn back again to the Creator; let Adam and Eve turn again to honor God alone; let them not be led away by the voice of the serpent, but abide by the commandment of God, 'Eat not of that tree.' And yet that tree itself was not bad, but only by it the crime of revolt was occasioned. Let no man then taste of this new fruit of error, formed on occasion of Mary. For, however admirable and good the tree may have been, it was not made for people to eat thereof; and so in the same way, however excellent and holy and highly honored Mary may be, She was not given to be adored."
I have quoted this passage at length, that you might see at once its straightforward plainness and strength, yet at the same time the delicate caution with which the author guards himself against misrepresentation, and condemns neglect of the true honor due to Mary.
Next let us see how he characterizes the other class of heretics, whom he calls Antidico-Marianites, and whose special heresy it was that they denied the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. He speaks somewhat doubtfully of their origin, but he believes them to have derived this novelty, which he denounces as a "blasphemous opinion and most impious wickedness," from Apollinaris or one of his disciples. He considers them to have been actuated by some hatred against the Blessed Virgin, some envy or falsehood prompting them to obscure Her glory and to corrupt the understanding and faith of the Church about Her. "They dare to say that after having given birth to the Savior, She lived as the wife of Joseph, and had other children; and I am not surprised at their saying so," he observes, "since the ignorance of those who have no thorough knowledge of Holy Scripture, and have not studied history, turns and drags about from one error to another those who wish to follow after the truth merely according to their own private judgment. Whence this wickedness? Whence such daring? Does not Her very name bear testimony, and convince you, O contentious man? Whoever, or in what generation, did anyone ever dare to say the name of Holy Mary, and not straightway, if asked, add the title Virgin: for from the very names that are used as epithets, proofs of excellence and virtue are made to appear, the Saints having received the dignities of different names suitable to the several excellences of each. Thus, to Abraham has been attached the title of Friend of God, and it shall not be taken away from him; and Jacob was called Israel, neither shall this be altered; and two of the Apostles, Boanerges or Sons of Thunder, and the name shall not depart from them; and in like manner to Holy Mary has been added the name of Virgin, and it shall not be changed—for Holy Mary remained ever undefiled. Does not nature herself teach this? O new madness! O new revolution! But there are many other things too which in olden times, in the days of the Fathers, were never ventured upon, but now one man blasphemes" in one way, another in another way.
"But whence do men dare thus to attack the Virgin inviolate—Her who was deemed worthy to be the tabernacle of the Son, Her who out of the tens of thousands of Israel was chosen for this very purpose to be the vessel and home of God? By what impious boldness is it possible for a man to open his mouth, unchain his tongue, and give utterance to so new and sacrilegious an impiety; instead of hymns of praise and honor, to devise outrages like this, grossly to insult the Holy Virgin, and in a word to dishonor that vessel which has been so highly honored?"
I am not quoting the words of this good Bishop as having any authority in themselves as to the truth or falsehood of the opinion to which they refer. I only use him as a witness to the novelty of that opinion. A few obscure individuals, or very small sects of heretics, may have broached it in earlier times; but it is certain that St. Epiphanius never could have used such strong language about it as he does, if it had not been contrary to the more ancient and universally accepted belief of the Church. Nevertheless, it is worthy of observation that he himself goes on to explain certain passages of the Gospel, which seem, at first sight, to support the heresy, and which had doubtless been urged in this sense by those against whom he wrote; and he says distinctly, "Of course, if Holy Scripture had really said otherwise, we should have received and declared the truth without hesitation, since we know that marriage is not unholy or forbidden, though priests and prophets have abstained from it by reason of their devotion to a higher service." Since our present lectures, then, have special reference to all that the Gospel tells us of our Blessed Lady, it is necessary for us to examine the texts in question.
They are such as these: 1. St. Matthew (1: 25), when speaking of the virginity of Mary at the time of the conception and birth of Christ, has used language which, at first sight, might not unreasonably be supposed to deny its continuance afterward. 2. Both St. Matthew and St. Luke (2: 7) speak of Jesus as Her First-born Son, which (so it is said by heretics) they would not have done, were it not as certain that She had other children after Him, as that She had none before Him. 3. Lastly, mention occurs in several places in the Gospel (Matt. 12: 46, 13: 55-56; Mark 3: 31, 6: 3; Luke 8: 19; John 2: 12, 7: 3, 5, 10; Acts 1: 14), of the "brethren" of Our Lord, and once or twice of His "sisters" also; and it is not easy to see (so Protestants argue) what kind of relationship is implied by these words except the natural one according to the ordinary sense of the term. I will say a few words upon each of these objections in order, borrowing my answers to them, as far as possible, from Protestant rather than Catholic sources, lest some of those whom I address should mistrust them as far-fetched and invented.
And first, as to the words of St. Matthew, that "Joseph took unto him his wife, and knew her not till she brought forth her first-born Son," Hooker (one of the more distinguished Anglican scholars) complains of the early heretics as "abusing greatly these words, gathering against the honor of the Blessed Virgin, that a thing denied with special circumstance doth import an opposite affirmation when once that circumstance is expired," that is, to express his meaning in more plain and modern English, concluding that the word "till" (or "until") must needs indicate some subsequent change; implying affirmation, after a certain time, of that which is denied concerning the time preceding, or vice versa. Thus, according to the law of interpretation which these heretics insisted upon applying to the words of St. Matthew—when we read in the Book of Genesis (8: 8) that the raven which Noe sent forth from the ark "did not return till the waters were dried up upon the earth," we would be required to understand that the raven did return afterwards. Who does not see the falsehood of this conclusion, and agree with Hooker in calling such a mode of argument a "great abuse"?
It would be easy to bring together, from various parts of the Bible, a considerable number of other passages, where in like manner a similar mode of argument is manifestly false. Thus, "Samuel saw Saul no more till the day of his death" (1 Kings 15: 35). Did he then see him afterwards? When God desires to express His determination of punishing the sins of His people, He says by the mouth of His prophet Isaias, "Surely this iniquity shall not be forgiven you till you die" (Is. 22: 14). Was it to be forgiven after death? Again, He says of Himself, speaking to the same children of Israel by the same prophet, "Even to (until) your old age I am the same" (Is. 46: 4). Did He therefore mean that after that time He would cease to be the same? And yet once more, David sings, concerning the human nature of Christ, "The Lord said to my Lord, sit Thou at My right hand until I make Thy enemies Thy footstool" (Ps. 109: 1). Is it therefore to be inferred that after that time Christ will be deposed from that seat?
It should not be necessary to quote other instances of a form of speech so common, and elsewhere so readily understood to mean no more than it actually says. It is true that in the examples given there is something either in the context or in the nature of the case which would make it clear to the reader that no change was intended to be expressed, perhaps even that none was possible. But this is precisely what Catholics contend with reference to this passage in St. Matthew's Gospel. At the time when it was written, the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary had not been questioned in the Church, and he had no occasion for special caution in choosing his forms of speech in its regard. He said what he had to say freely and in a natural way, without any thought of a heresy which as yet had no existence, and all Christians who heard his Gospel would interpret his meaning aright. They would understand him as desiring to call special attention to what happened before the birth of Christ, but as being wholly silent with regard to anything that may have happened afterwards. It did not enter into his purpose to speak or think of this; it was no part of the Gospel he had to deliver. The miracle was, that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary without having any man for His father. This was the foundation of all Christian doctrine, and this, and nothing more, St. Matthew records.
2. But he also calls Jesus Mary's "first-born Son," and so does St. Luke; and it is objected that a first implies a second. This, however, is by no means true, according to the ordinary use of language, either sacred or profane; and with reference to this particular subject, all must acknowledge that the title of "first-born" is often given in Holy Scripture to an only child. Indeed, it could not possibly be otherwise among the children of Israel, whose law required that the "first-born" should be consecrated to God or redeemed; so that this title was sure to be given to the first son of every Jewish woman, whether any other children followed or not. (See Exod. 13: 2; also 4: 22; and Josue 17: 1, where Machir, the only son of Manasses, is called his first-born.) Moreover, no student of Holy Scripture can fail to remember that Jesus Himself is called "the first-born among many brethren" (Rom. 8: 29), and in whatever sense this is spoken, may it not also be said in the same sense that Mary has many sons? I do not mean that this thought was present to the writer's mind; on the contrary, I believe that he wrote according to the ordinary idiom in use among his countrymen, which I have just explained. Nevertheless, we may piously and gratefully recognize this further meaning underlying his words—that as Jesus is called the first-born of the Father, because, though He was the only-begotten Son by nature, He had many brethren who had been made sons of God by adoption and grace, so He was also the first-born of Mary, because, though She never bore any other son in the flesh, yet by His appointment She has received a multitude of other children by adoption and grace, to wit, all His faithful disciples to the end of the world, to whom, in the person of the beloved disciple St. John, He gave His Mother to be their Mother, as He hung upon the Cross.
3. There remains yet the third objection drawn by Protestants from the letter of Holy Scripture against the Perpetual Virginity of Mary—that the Gospels speak of the "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus.
It is hard to believe in the good faith of those who urge this objection, not only because of the well-known Jewish practice of extending the name of brothers beyond the strict relationship which we understand by that name to the far more extensive relationship or consanguinity or kindred, but also because the combination of some of the passages of the Gospel, in which these brethren of Jesus are mentioned, makes it quite certain that they were the sons, not of Mary the Blessed Virgin, but of another Mary, Her kinswoman, called Mary of Cleophas (John 19: 25).
It does not affect the question in hand to inquire what is the precise meaning of this phrase, Mary of Cleophas—whether she was his wife, or his daughter—all that is necessary for our present purpose is that we should be able to identify her as the mother of the "brethren of Jesus," and at the same time to distinguish her from Mary, the "Mother of Jesus;" and this is not difficult. For St. Matthew (13: 55) mentions by name among the brethren of Jesus, James and Joseph, and both St. Matthew and St. Mark enumerate amongst the women who were looking on at the crucifixion, "Mary Magdalen and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph" (Matt. 27: 56; Mark 15: 40). But St. John (19: 25), who as an eye-witness describes the scene on Mount Calvary with greater precision than the other Evangelists, tells us that "there stood by the cross of Jesus, His Mother, and His Mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen." Who has ever doubted that this Mary of Cleophas is the same as Mary, the mother of James and Joseph? And she is called the sister (that is, probably, the cousin) of the Blessed Virgin; so that we see at once both how James and Joseph came to be called brothers of Jesus, and that they were not really brothers, but only cousins. Surely then, nothing but the most perverse determination to contradict the teaching of the Church would seem capable of accounting for the obstinacy which would fain insist on the literal interpretation of the words, "brethren of Jesus," with reference to some persons of whose parentage we are left in ignorance, whilst it is constrained to confess, concerning others who are mentioned at the same time and by the same title, that they were not His brothers, but only more distantly related, as members of the same family, descended from some common ancestor.
We need say no more for the solution of those objections which are drawn from incidental words or phrases to be found in the Gospel. They are so weak in themselves, and the belief against which they are directed is so universally prevalent, and so firmly rooted throughout the whole Church, that I do not think they would ever have been persevered in, but for the apparent support which they receive from the fact of Mary's marriage to St. Joseph. The Gospels themselves tell us that after the conception of Christ, and before His nativity, St. Joseph was admonished by God to complete the espousals in the usual manner, "Fear not to take unto thee Mary, thy wife" (Matt. 1: 20); and it is argued that to suppose that they would be commanded to complete their public union, and yet not be intended to live in the relation of husband and wife, would be to suppose an effect without a cause, a special interposition of Providence, without a special reason to produce it.
The Fathers of the Church have assigned several reasons for the mystery of the Espousals, abundantly sufficient to explain and justify this interposition of Providence. For first, the marriage of Mary was necessary for the preservation of Her good fame, and that of Her Divine Son. God has commanded us to "provide things that are good and honorable, not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of all men" (Rom. 12: 17); and He would not have His pure and spotless Mother to be a signal exception to this rule. It was not in the Will of God, that the mystery of the Incarnation should be made manifest to the world at the first moment it was accomplished. It was necessary, therefore, that Mary should be publicly recognized as a wife before She became a mother; otherwise the reputation of the Virgin of Virgins, the Saint of Saints, would have been a subject of scandal to the weak, and of mockery and derision to the wicked. The most august of all Christian mysteries, and that which is most especially the mystery of purity itself, would have been obscured by a cloud of evil suspicions.
Moreover, as it was the will of God that His Son made Man should be brought up and cared for as other children of men, beginning with helpless infancy, and going on through the various stages of growth until He arrived at maturity, it was necessary that He should be the special charge of one who should fulfill all those duties in His behalf, which belonged to the relation of a father.
Mary too would need a protector in the flight into Egypt, and during Her long exile from Her native land; and how could this be done more simply and more effectually than by Her marriage with St. Joseph?
Finally, to these reasons St. Ignatius the Martyr added yet another, which has been adopted also by St. Jerome, St. Basil, St. Ambrose, and others—that God designed hereby more effectually to conceal from the great enemy of mankind the knowledge that the mystery of the Incarnation was at length accomplished.
It was the will of God then that the mystery of the Incarnation should be clothed with such outward circumstances as for a while to conceal it from all human observation; and the Espousals to St. Joseph was one principal means whereby this end was effected. As the spouse of Mary, and the putative father of Jesus, he hindered men from suspecting that Jesus was anything more than one of the ordinary sons of men. "Is not this Man," they said, "the Son of Joseph? How then saith He, I came down from Heaven?" (John 6: 47) Other Saints, Martyrs, and Confessors, Apostles and Evangelists, Priests and Bishops, have been called to give testimony to Jesus by their lives or by their deaths, to spread abroad the knowledge of His Name; the mission of St. Joseph was exactly the reverse. He was chosen not as a light to reveal Jesus, but as a veil to conceal Him; not to preach, but to be silent; and most effectually did he fulfill his mission. His silence was unbroken; not a single word of his has Holy Scripture recorded. "God hath made darkness His covert, His pavilion round about Him" (Ps. 17: 2), says the Royal Psalmist; and St. Joseph was, as it were, such a cloud wherein God chose for a while to hide Himself. But as clouds which obscure the light of the sun from this lower earth, may yet be most brilliant on the other side—dark on the side of the earth, light on the side of Heaven, receiving all the glorious rays of the sun which yet they refuse to transmit—so it was with St. Joseph: in proportion to his obscurity among men was his glory before God. He was chosen to be the spouse of Mary, and so was thought to be the father of Jesus. The profoundest historical research can elicit no new facts about him; the most sublime meditation can never exhaust the mysteries that are contained in these. Surely the Church may sing with confidence of him, more than any of the children of Adam, "there hath not been found one like unto him" (Ecclus. 44: 20); and our own Christian instincts prompt us to say of him what Samuel said of David when chosen to be king over Israel, "the Lord hath sought Him a man according to His own heart" (1 Kings 13: 14).
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