March 25th, Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be?”
When we examine honestly the text of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), it is clear that the Blessed Virgin Mary is not merely hesitant or cautious when receiving the Angelic Salutation, but indeed she is truly confused and even perplexed. Something of the words of St. Gabriel did not seem to make sense to our Lady. We ought not to be so impious as to claim that the Mother of God actually doubted the Angel’s words, but intellectual honesty requires us to admit that there was some degree of puzzlement and even bewilderment in the Immaculate Heart. This confusion witnesses to the purity of the Blessed Virgin.
What happened before the Angel visited our Lady – The vow of virginity
A careful and sincere reading of the biblical text will show that Mary had already made a vow of virginity (together with St. Joseph), even before the Annunciation. Consider the relevant passage (Luke 1:31,34): 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? The key phrase for our present discussion is Mary’s words: because I know not man. In the New American Bible, this is rendered, since I have no relations with a man. The Greek itself is most literally translated, because I know not man (as in the Douay-Rheims).
What can our Lady mean by this statement, because I know not man (i.e. I do not have relations with a man)? How is this a quasi-objection to the Angel’s message that Mary would conceive a son? Clearly, the Blessed Virgin is confused not merely because she has not yet had relations with (i.e. known) a man, but because she has no intention of ever having relations with (i.e. knowing) any man.
If Mary had planned on having relations with St. Joseph, she would have naturally presumed that the Child would be the son of Joseph. But, precisely because our Lady had no intentions of every having relations with St. Joseph or with any other man, she is quite perplexed by the message that she will conceive a son. From this, it is clear that Mary had made a vow of virginity (at least a private one). It was the fact of this previous vow of virginity that caused Mary to be puzzled by St. Gabriel’s message.
St. Joseph accepted the vow of the Virgin
However, we maintain that the Blessed Virgin Mary did not take the vow of virginity before she was betrothed to St. Joseph. It seems, however, that she desired to make this vow; but was reluctant to do so, as it was not yet clear to her what was the will of God in this matter. It is for this reason (namely, that she had not yet made a vow of virginity, but desired to make one), that Mary was able to be legitimately betrothed to St. Joseph – for it would seem impermissible for a vowed virgin to enter into marriage.
After Mary was betrothed to St. Joseph, but before the marriage ceremony (and before the Annunciation), she approached the Just Man and revealed to him the desire of her heart – to make a vow of virginity. The couple prayed together and asked the Lord what was his will; and it was revealed to them that they should together vow to live as brother and sister. At this point, neither St. Joseph nor Mary suspected that the Christ Child would be born to them.
When the Blessed Virgin Mary came to understand
After their betrothal, but before Mary came into the house of St. Joseph, the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin and delivered the joyful news of the Incarnation. St. Gabriel said, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of the shall be called the Son of God. Only then did our Lady realize that she was indeed the Virgin prophesied by Isaiah, the one who would conceive and bear the Messiah. Her heart was put at ease and she said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.
[this commentary is based on the teachings of the Church Fathers, as received by St. Thomas Aquinas – ST III, q.28, a.4; q.29]