Monday, April 8, 2013

What troubled the Virgin at the Annunciation, and what we learn

April 8th, Feast of the Annunciation
On account of March 25th falling during Holy Week this year, the Church celebrates the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Monday after Easter Week, which is today. The Solemnity of the Annunciation commemorates the moment in which our Savior became man – and in this sense it is the feast of the Incarnation.
It was a the Annunciation that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It was in this moment that God became man so that men might share in the life of God.
And yet, though this occasion is most joyous, that Blessed Virgin was at first troubled by the Angelic Salutation. Why was she troubled? What did she fear?
Further, we ask, What are we to learn from her fear?

Mary’s question
We most often recall how our Lady said to the Angel, after he had announced to her that she would conceive and bear a son, How can this be? This is not the question which I wish to consider in this post.
I will briefly state what I have already discussed at length in previous years, that this question proves that our Lady (and good St. Joseph) had made a vow of virginity. Indeed, she is a bride-to-be and very shortly to be received into the home of Joseph.
If anyone (even an angel) were to tell an ordinary woman engaged to a man and soon to be wed that she will conceive and bear a son, the woman might well respond, “I am not at all surprised to hear that I will be with child, that is obvious enough as I am soon to move in with my future husband. But, pray-tell, how do you know that the child will be a boy?!”
In other words, if the marriage between Joseph and Mary had been an ordinary and natural bond, then our Lady would not have questioned the angel regarding her upcoming pregnancy. Rather, she would have naturally assumed that the child would be conceived by St. Joseph.
But Mary was confused, because it was not a natural marriage. She was confused, because she was not planning on having any children by Joseph. She was confused, because she and Joseph had already made a vow of virginity. Thus, she was rightly confused, because she was a virgin, and virgins do not ordinarily conceive and bear sons.
Thus are confuted the protestants.
For more on this, see our earlier article [here].
The Angelic Salutation
But I do not intend to elaborate further upon this point here. Rather, I wish to consider that which concerned and troubled Mary even before the Annunciation of the conception of Jesus. For, even before our Lady was confused (so as to ask How can this be?), she was deeply troubled.
Mary was troubled when the angel appeared and said to her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women (Luke 1:28). Having heard these words and seeing the angel, Mary was troubled. St. Luke tells us that she thought within herself what manner of salutation this should be (Luke 1:29).
The angel appeared as a man
It is clear that the angel appeared to our Lady in bodily vision. For Scripture states that The angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth […] And the angel being come in, said unto her … (Luke 1:26-27).
Now it is clear that the angel Gabriel took bodily form in this visit, since it is said that he “came in” to the room where the Virgin was. He did not appear merely in mental or intellectual vision, being seen in the “mind’s eye” of Mary, but came into her presence in bodily form – just as the angels were wont to do many times throughout salvation history.
Further, it is to be supposed that the Archangel took the bodily form of a man. Firstly, because “Gabriel” is a masculine name. Second, because he is a warrior angel and leader of the heavenly hosts (as we read in Daniel’s book), and a warrior is better signified by masculine form. Thirdly, because angels (and especially archangels) are generally presented in the Scriptures under masculine form.
All this being considered, we may picture the Annunciation in our imagination. The Blessed Virgin, an espoused maiden, was in a room alone at prayer. Suddenly, the angel Gabriel came to her under the bodily form of a man (and certainly most glorious in his appearance, but still looking like a man).
The modesty of the Virgin
The Fathers of the Church and a number of the Church Doctors (as well as other saints) – we mention here only Sts. Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard, and Francis de Sales – state that our Lady was concerned because she had suddenly found herself alone in a closed room with a man to whom she was not married. What a predicament!
As we would expect of any modest woman, the Virgin Mary was astonished, shocked and even alarmed to be alone with a man (not her husband) in a closed room. Though she was indeed most pure, there could have been great potential for scandal.
The angel relieved the fears of the Blessed Virgin when he said:
Fear not, Mary, for thou has found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. (Luke 1:30-31)
Gabriel took away the fears of our Lady by indicating the end to which he had come unto her. Certainly, the Virgin was consoled as she heard the grace and the plan of God.
Of this meeting, St. Bernard states:
“She was troubled, but not alarmed; her being troubled was a mark of modesty; her not being alarmed of courage; while her keeping silence and meditating was a mark of prudence.”
What we learn
Consider the words of St. Francis de Sales:
“Our Lady was troubled when the Angel appeared to her in human form, because she was alone, and he spoke to her with flattering although heavenly words. O Savior of the world, if purity itself fears an Angel in human shape, how much more need that our impurity should fear men, although they take the likeness of an Angel, if they speak words of earthliness and sensuality!” (Introduction to the Devout Life, III.20)
Further, St. Ambrose to virgins:
“Know the Virgin by her modesty: or she was afraid; as it follows, and when she heard she was troubled. It is the habit of virgins to tremble and to be afraid at the approach of a man, and to be bashful when he addresses her. Learn, o virgin, to avoid lightness in talking. Mary feared even the salutation of an angel.”
Finally, St. Jerome:
“Let a woman imitate Mary, whom Gabriel found alone in her chamber, and therefore, perhaps, she was alarmed at beholding a man whom she was not accustomed to see.”
From the modesty of the Virgin, we learn how important it is to avoid all occasions of sin. We also learn to be courageous in accepting the plan of God for our lives, even when these graces come in unexpected forms.


Anonymous said...

Can we not sometimes disagree with the opinion of Saints? I don't think Mary mistook an angel for a man. While angels can appear to be men, convincingly, as when 3 appeared to Abraham and Sarah, Gabriel had no reason to seem to be a man, and he positively wished her not to be afraid. Gabriel had the Beatific Vision, so he would not have erred by appearing to be a man.

As for Mary, like Eve before the Fall (per St. Thomas ST I 94 4), she could not be mistaken about anything. So she could not have mistakenly thought the angel was a man.

Jon Snow

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

We impute no positive error to Mary, but only say that she was cautious ... of course she didn't make a rash judgment against the angel!!!

As to whether we can disagree with the saints ... of course we can ... but when your only argument is "I don't think..." ... well, I'll stick with the saints than with your personal fancies.

Anonymous said...

Again, I learn. Thank you, Father, and God Bless!

Tom said...

What is the Church's teaching regarding the knowledge of Mary in general?
Also, what kind of knowledge did Mary have about the messiah/incarnation before the Annunciation?
Finally, did she know Jesus was God immediately or did she only have a vague idea or believe Him to be merely God's Son?


Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to accept the reflections of Doctors and Saints but to add something to it. I would opine that it was the greeting which troubled her or rather the form which the greeting took. Mary, a devout Jew, and consonant with her immaculate state - free from all darkness of the intellect caused by sin, would have heard the echoes of the greeting as found in the scriptures with regard to Jael and Judith. This would immediately have put her in mind of Genesis 3:15, i.e. the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. Her facility with the Sacred Scriptures and her untrammeled insight must have given her some pause at least.

Keith Kenney

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Father. This is simply a beautiful post. God Bless you.

Wild Herb Ways said...

Dear Fr Erlenbush,
Thank you for this lesson on the Annunciation. In the future could you do another event on Facebook involving the Total Consecration to Jesus thru Mary? With the prayers posted each day and so on? I am the 33 day Consecration for May 13th Our Lady of Fatima.

Anonymous said...

Impressive collocation of opinions of saints, all coinciding upon the same opinion in regard to the modesty of Mary in response to the Annunciation. I myself have never taken away from Mary's response primarily her concern with modesty in this instance, even though I have always assumed in view of her immaculate nature that her modesty would be perfectly proportioned according to her finite understanding of the proper response due in any situation.

Without the saintly opinions we would have to continue to seek for a reasonable explanation of why the words 'Hail thou highly favored, etc.' should have caused her to be troubled. I would merely speculate that the trouble could be caused also by the fact that such a greeting had possibly never been uttered previously by any rational being. This lack of precedent might cause one to be troubled by such a greeting.

In addition, we might permit the context of the utterance to contribute to her experience of being troubled, if we consider that the glory of the angel was not altogether hidden from her. The presence of angelic beings often causes fear in mortals in Scripture, as one would expect.

If we go with the opinion of the saints, then we must minimize her experience of the angelic presence, and maximize her surprise at the presence of a man. But while her response is consistent with a chaste virgin being disturbed by the presence of a man, one might imagine that if she had felt that her modesty were threatened, that her response would not merely be one of being troubled by the words of his greeting.

Moreover, I find it difficult to imagine, assuming she experienced to some extent the presence of the glory of the holy angel which stands in the presence of God, that Mary would have felt as a matter of primary experience in that situation, that her modesty was threatened.

It is certainly possible she could have felt that though. In regard to the holy interpretations adduced, it might be that the saints as teachers in this instance were primarily interested in the moral lessons that could be conveyed from Mary's example, and sought for evidence from the passage that would support such a lesson when they decided upon their interpretation of the passage.


Marko Ivančičević said...

Since Our Lady didn't suffer the stain of original sin, which clouds our reason and our understanding of divine truths, did She understand that God is Triune even before Archangel for the first time mentioned Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

I would merely speculate that the trouble could be caused also by the fact that such a greeting had possibly never been uttered previously by any rational being. This lack of precedent might cause one to be troubled by such a greeting.

You have no way of knowing that, Napoleon.

Anonymous said...

"You have no way of knowing that, Napoleon."


True! I have no way of knowing that. That's why I said it was speculation. But the speculation is plausible. In reason, I think it is as plausible as the interpretations, herein adduced, to Mary's reaction, by saints.

But I do not claim I am right. Especially I do not make that claim, since the saints explain her reaction otherwise.

Happy Fr.'s day.


Post a Comment

When commenting, please leave a name or pseudonym at the end of your comment so as to facilitate communication and responses.

Comments must be approved by the moderator before being published.