Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What confused Mary about the Annunciation

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]


Anonymous said...

Is this in the bible, or where?
"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"...


gedda fan said...

Thank you for this meditation: the moe I understand the Blessed Mother, the more I realize, as a man and a farther how much Joseph must have TRULY loved her, from afar so to speak- in the purest of ways; What a great spouse he was and what a marvelous example to all us men. Furthermore, Mary accepted his proposal of marriage and she would recognize goodness manifested in a man.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

We can deduce that Mary and Joseph made the vow of virginity together:
1) Joseph certainly must have known that Mary wanted to remain a virgin (how could she marry him without telling him this?)
2) Yet, if his wife (the Virgin) had taken the vow, then Joseph too was consecrating himself to perpetual chaste continence in his union to the Mother of God.

I hope that helps! +

Tomas said...


I have heard that there is a tradition that Mary may have been a servant of the temple and consecrated a virgin from a young age. She was married to Joseph, by this tradition a much older man, because he had no plans to conceive (further) children, and thus could be expected to respect the virginity of this past servant of the temple.

It would still fit with most everything you've said.

Can you comment on this if you have heard of it? I believe the details are drawn from an apocryphal work.


Dismas said...

Just as Eve was confused by the serpent and consented, so Mary was confused by the angel and consented.

Eva; Ave

Pax Vobis said...

"but because she has no intention of ever having relations with (i.e. knowing) any man"

Whilst we can certainly see how Mary's response suggets that she has previously not known any man, on what basis can we conclude that her intention was to maintain her virginity?

Many thanks in advance for any help or clarification you can offer.

Pax Vobis said...

"but because she has no intention of ever having relations with (i.e. knowing) any man"

Whilst we can certainly see how Mary's response suggests that she has previously not known any man, on what basis can we conclude that her intention was to maintain her virginity?

Many thanks in advance for any help or clarification you can offer.

Chatto said...


here's the link to the section of St. Thomas' Summa which Fr. Reginaldus quotes at the bottom of the article as being his source:

Of course, St. Thomas' source was Sacred Tradition, transmitted through the writings of the Church Fathers, again as Fr. Reginaldus makes clear at the bottom of the article.

I would suggest this is a fine example of what my great hero, Bl. John Henry Newman, called a 'development of Christian doctrine'. The Bible gives us hints of it, but this teaching grows into its full stature over the course of time as the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit towards the Truth, meditates more deeply upon the mystery.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Pax Vobis,
As in the article: If Mary had not made a vow of virginity, but was instead planning on having relations with St. Joseph; then she would not have been confused by the Angel's message, but would have presumed that Christ would be the son of Joseph.

Hence, because Mary is confused, it is clear that she had vowed virginity.

Peace. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I do not know about whether Mary was a servant of the temple...there is a tradition that she was related on her mother's side to the Levites (priests).

Yes, there is also a tradition that Joseph was older. In the East, this has always been popular.
In the West, we have usually maintained that Joseph was a young man who also vowed virginity (having never married before) -- but there have been some western saints (St. Bridgit) who thought Joseph was older.
Certainly, there is room for speculation.

Thanks for the additional points of reflection! +

Marcelo C. said...

The tradition Tomas refers to is found in written form in the Gospel of James, an apocryphal work.

It tells us Mary was consecrated in the Temple at the age of three and lived there for many years. As there was no legal/religious provision at the time for perpetual virginity, when she came of age the Temple guardians had to find her a husband. But they all knew her sanctity and didn't want to give her over to the premier venu. So they organized a kind of contest between prospective grooms. Each of these had a dry stick in his hand. St. Joseph's stick let forth leaves and flowers, and that is why our sacred images often show him with a flowering branch in his hand. Joseph was an older man.

It is well to remark that, although this narrative is a part of an apocryphal work, it was also an oral tradition in the primitive Church and is taken for granted in the East, which still celebrates Mary's consecration as a servant of the Temple.

As for the rest of Reginaldus' post, it is quite logical that Our Lady and St. Joseph took a mutual vow of virginity when they were married. She was struck by the Angel's assertion that she would be a mother, just as he was struck when he found out she was pregnant.

Peace to all,

Marcelo - Brazil

Rich in Costa Mesa said...

A good translation would avoid some of this confusion as the "How can" should be "How shall". 'can' implies doubt, 'shall' implies a future event that will take place. For those who doubt a vow of chastity was in place by both , read Ez 44:1 & 2, and tell me how Joseph would have interpreted this passage? Rich in Costa Mesa

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I agree...once again the NAB is found to be quite lacking...
The Douay-Rheims (which I prefer, and which I always use in my articles [after first citing the NAB]) renders Mary's words with "shall".
The Greek is indicative future of "to be"...hence, "How shall this be?" is the proper translation (as you point out).


Nick said...

I looked this up on a Greek search tool and I think it confirms this (unless I'm misunderstanding the Greek):

"How shall this BE (future tense), since I KNOW (present tense) not a man?"

In other words, the Greek verb tense confirms Mary was well aware this was a FUTURE event, but she responds by saying She CURRENTLY does not know a man. The response is nonsense if She currently didn't know man but in the future intended to. Saying you are currently abstaining is non-sequitor to a question of future relations, thus only a perpetual vow of Virginity makes sense.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thanks for the additional information and the Greek references. +

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