Though the Annunciation was celebrated yesterday, we offer our readers the following article on this great feast from our March, 2009 issue of The Angelus.
The feast is so named because on this day the coming of the Son of God was announced by an angel. It was fitting that the Annunciation should precede the Incarnation, and this for three reasons. The first is that the order of reparation should correspond to the order of transgression or deviation. Therefore since the devil tempted the woman to lead her to doubt, through doubt to consent, and through consent to sinning, so the angel brought the message to the Virgin by the announcement to prompt her to believing, through believing to consent, and through consent to the conceiving of the Son of God. The second reason has to do with the angel’s ministry. The angel is God’s minister and servant, and the Blessed Virgin was chosen to be God’s mother; and as it is right for the minister to be at the service of his mistress, so it was fitting that the Annunciation be made to the Blessed Virgin by an angel. The third reason is that reparation was to be made for the fall of the angels. The Incarnation made reparation not only for human sin but for the ruin of the fallen angels. Therefore the angels were not to be excluded; and as womankind was not excluded from knowledge of the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, neither was the angelic Messenger excluded. God made both of these mysteries known through angels, the Incarnation to the Virgin Mary and the Resurrection to Mary Magdalene.
The Virgin Mary lived in the Temple from her third to her fourteenth year and made a vow to live in chastity unless God otherwise disposed. Then she was espoused to Joseph, God revealing his will by the flowering of Joseph’s staff, as is more fully set forth in our account of the birth of Blessed Mary. Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of his origins, to make the necessary preparation for the nuptials, while Mary returned to her parents’ home in Nazareth. Nazareth means “flower”; hence Bernard says that the Flower willed to be born of a flower, in “Flower,” in the season of flowers.
At Nazareth, then, the angel appeared to Mary and greeted her, saying: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women. Bernard says: “We are invited to salute Mary by Gabriel’s example, by John’s joyous leaping in his mother’s womb, and by the reward of being greeted in return.”
Now we must first see why the Lord wanted his mother to be married. On this point Bernard gives three reasons, saying: “It was necessary that Mary be espoused to Joseph, because thereby the mystery was hidden from the demons; Mary’s virginity was confirmed by her spouse; and her modesty and good name were protected.” A fourth reason was that Mary’s espousal took away dishonor from every rank and condition of womankind, namely, the married, virgins, and widows, since she herself was married, virginal, and widowed. A fifth: she was served and cared for by her spouse; a sixth, the genealogical line was established through the husband.
The angel said: Hail, full of grace! Bernard: “In her womb was the grace of the presence of God, in her heart the grace of charity, on her lips the grace of benignity, in her hands the grace of mercy and generosity.” Bernard also says: “Truly full of grace, because from her fullness all captives receive redemption, the sick receive healing, the sorrowful consolation, sinners forgiveness, the righteous grace, the angels joy, and finally the whole Trinity receives glory and the Son of man the substance of human flesh.”
The Lord is with thee. Bernard: “With you are the Lord God the Father, of whom the One you are conceiving is begotten, the Lord the Holy Spirit, of whom you conceive, and the Lord the Son, whom you clothe with your flesh.” Blessed art thou among women. Bernard goes on: “You are blessed among women, blessed indeed above all women, because you will be a virgin mother and the mother of God.”
Women had come under a threefold curse, namely, the curse of reproach when they were unable to conceive, wherefore Rachel, when she conceived and bore a son, said: “God has taken away my reproach”;1 the curse of sin when they conceived, whence the Psalm says: “Behold I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me”;2 and the curse of pain when they gave birth; so Genesis: “In pain you shall bring forth children.”3 The Virgin Mary alone was blessed among women, because to her virginity was added fruitfulness, to her fruitfulness in conceiving, holiness, and to her holiness in giving birth, happiness.
Mary is called full of grace, as Bernard says, because four kinds of grace shone in her spirit: the devotion of her humility, the reverence of her modesty, the greatness of her faith, and the martyrdom of her heart. She is told, The Lord is with thee, because four things, as the same Bernard says, shone upon her from heaven, these being Mary’s sanctification, the angel’s salutation, the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, and the incarnation of the Son of God. Moreover she is told, Blessed art thou among women, because, according to the same author, four things also shone in her body: she was the Virgin of virgins, fruitful without corruption, pregnant without heaviness, and delivered without pain.
When Mary heard the angel’s words, she was troubled and thought to herself what this greeting might mean. Here we see that the Virgin was worthy of praise in her hearing the words and her reception of them, and in her pausing to think about them. She was praiseworthy for her modesty when she heard the words and remained silent, for her hesitancy at receiving the words, and for her prudence in her thoughtfulness, because she thought about the sense of the greeting. Note that she was troubled by the angel’s words, not at the sight of him: she had often seen angels but had never heard one speak as this one did. Peter of Ravenna says: “The angel had come kindly in manner but fearsome in his words,” so that while the sight of him gave her joy, hearing what he said distressed her. Hence Bernard comments: “She was troubled, as befitted her virginal modesty, but not overly distressed, due to her fortitude; she was silent and thoughtful, evidence of her prudence and discretion.”
To reassure her, the angel said: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God;4 and Bernard exclaims: “What grace indeed! Peace between God and men, death destroyed, life made whole!” Behold, thou shalt conceive and bear a son and shalt call his name Jesus, which means savior, because he will save his people from their sins. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. Bernard: “This means that he, who is great God, will be great–a great man, a great teacher, a great prophet.”
Mary asked the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?–i.e., I have no intention of knowing man. So she was virginal in her mind, in her body, and in her intentions. Here we see Mary questioning, and whoever questions, doubts. Why then was Zachary alone punished by being struck dumb? To this point Peter of Ravenna assigns four reasons, saying: “The One who knows sinners attended not to their words but to their hearts, and judged not what they said but what they meant. Their reasons for questioning were not the same, their hopes were different. She believed, contrary to nature; he doubted, in defense of nature. She simply asked how such a thing could happen; he decided that what God wanted could not be done. He, though pressed by examples, failed to rise to faith; she, with no example to go by, hurried to faith. She wondered how a virgin could give birth; he was dubious about a conjugal conception. It was not the fact that she questioned, but how it could come about, the process of it, because there are three ways of conceiving–the natural, the spiritual, and the miraculous–and she was asking which of these would be the mode of her conception.”
The angel answered: The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and it is he who will cause thee to conceive. Hence the child to be born of her is said to be conceived of the Holy Spirit, and this for four reasons. The first is the manifestation of boundless love, in other words, to show that the Word of God took flesh out of God’s ineffable love; John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” That reason is given by the Master of the Sentences. The second was to make it clear that the conception proceeded from grace alone, not from merit: the angel’s words showed that since the conception was of the Holy Spirit, it came about by grace alone, being preceded by no merit of any man. This reason is Augustine’s. The third is the operative power of the Holy Spirit: the conception came about by the power and working of the Spirit: this from Ambrose. Hugh of Saint Victor adds a fourth reason, namely, the motive involved. He says that the motive leading to natural conception is the love of a man for a woman and the woman’s love for the man. So, he says, because in the Virgin’s heart there burned so great a love of the Holy Spirit, in her body the same love worked miracles.
And the power of the Most High will overshadow thee. This, according to the Gloss, is explained as follows: “A shadow ordinarily is formed by light falling on a solid body, and neither the Virgin nor any pure human being could contain the fullness of the deity: but ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow thee,’ and in her the incorporeal light of the godhead took on the body of mankind, in order that she might bear God.” Bernard seems to come close to this explanation when he says: “Because God is a spirit and we are the shadow of his body, he lowered himself to us so that through the solidity of his life-giving flesh we might see the Word in the flesh, the sun in the cloud, the light in the lamp, the candle in the lantern.” Bernard also says that the angel’s words can be read as if he said: “Christ, the power of God, will conceal in the shadow of his most secret counsel the mode by which you will conceive of the Holy Spirit, so that it will be known only to him and to you. And if the angel says, ‘Why do you ask me? when you will soon experience what I am telling you!’ You will know in yourself, you will know, you will happily know, but the One who works in you will be your teacher. I have been sent to announce the virginal conception, not to create it.” Or, “will overshadow thee” means that she would be kept cool and shaded from all heat of vice.
And behold, thy kinswoman Elizabeth hath also conceived a son. According to Bernard, Elizabeth’s conceiving was announced to Mary for four reasons: that she might be filled with joy, perfected in knowledge, perfected also in doctrine, and moved to a work of mercy. Jerome, indeed, says: “That her kinswoman, who was barren, had conceived was announced to Mary in order that as miracle was added to miracle, so more joy might be heaped upon her joy. Or the Virgin received the word immediately through an angel so that she might know it before it became common knowledge and not just hear it from someone else, and this lest it appear that the mother of God was kept apart from the counsels of her Son and unaware of what was happening close by on earth; or rather, so that by being fully informed of the coming, now of the forerunner and afterward of the Savior, and thus knowing the time and sequence of these events, she might later make the truth known to writers and preachers. Moreover, hearing of the older woman’s pregnancy, the younger woman would think of going to her side, and thus the unborn prophet would be given the opportunity to do homage to his Lord, and the one miracle might furnish occasion for a more wondrous one.”
Now Bernard: “Quick, Virgin, give your answer! O Lady, say the word and accept the Word, offer yours and accept God’s, pronounce the transitory and embrace the everlasting, rise up, run, open yourself! Arise by faith, run by devotion, open by giving your consent!” Then Mary, raising her hands and her eyes to heaven, said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.Bernard: “It is said that some have received the word of God in the mouth, others in the ear, still others in the hand. Mary received that word in her ear by the angel’s greeting, in her heart by faith, in her mouth by her confessing it, in her hand when she touched it, in her womb when it took flesh in her, in her bosom when she nursed it, in her arms when she offered it.”
Be it done unto me according to thy word. Bernard interprets this: “I will not have it done unto me as preached by some demagogue, or signified in a figure of speech, or imagined in a dream, but as silently breathed into me, in person incarnate, bodily living in my body.” And in an instant the Son of God was conceived in her womb, perfect God and perfect man, and from the very first day of his conception he had as much wisdom and as much power as he had in his thirtieth year.
Then Mary arose and went into the hill country to Elizabeth, and John leapt in his mother’s womb as a way of greeting the Virgin. The Gloss notes: “Because he could not give greeting with his tongue, he leapt for joy of spirit and so began to fulfill his office as Christ’s forerunner.” Mary attended Elizabeth for three months until John was born, and lifted him from the earth with her own hands, as we read in the Book of the Just. It is said that God wrought many works on this day as it came round in the course of the years, and a poet tells them in memorable verses:
Salve justa dies quae vulnera nostra coerces!
Angelus est missus, est passus in cruce Christus,
Est Adam factus et eodem tempore lapsus,
Ob meritum decimae cadit Abel fratris ab ense,
Offert Melchisedech, Ysaac supponitur aris,
Est decollatus Christi baptista beatus,
Est Petrus ereptus, Jacobus sub Herode peremptus.
Corpora sanctorum cum Christo multa resurgunt,
Latro dulce tamen per Christum suscipit Amen.5
A rich and noble knight renounced the world and entered the Cistercian order. He was unlettered, and the monks, not wishing to number so noble a person among the lay brothers, gave him a teacher to see if he might acquire enough learning to be received as a choir monk. He spent a long time with his teacher but could learn no more than the two words Ave Maria, which he cherished and repeated incessantly wherever he went and whatever he was doing. At length he died and was buried among the brothers, and behold! a beautiful lily grew up above his grave, and one leaf had the words Ave Maria inscribed on it in letters of gold. Running to see this great spectacle, the monks dug down into the grave and discovered that the root of the lily sprang from the dead man’s mouth. They then understood the depth of devotion with which he, whom God glorified with so prodigious an honor, had recited these two words.
A knight had a stronghold beside the road, and pitilessly robbed every passing traveler. Every day, however, he greeted the Virgin mother of God with the Ave Maria, never letting anything prevent him from so doing. It happened that a holy monk was making his way along the road and the aforesaid knight gave orders to waylay him, but the holy man begged the robbers to take him to their chief because he had a secret message to deliver to him. When he came before the knight, he asked him to summon his household and all the people in the castle, because he wished to preach the word of God to them. When they had come together, he said: “You are not all here! Someone is missing!” They told him that all were present, but he said: “Look around carefully and you will find that someone is absent!” Then one of them exclaimed that indeed the chamberlain had not come. “That’s the one who’s missing,” said the monk. Quickly they went after him and brought him out in front of everybody; but when he saw the man of God, he rolled his eyes in fright, shook his head like a madman, and dared come no closer. The holy man said to him: “I adjure you in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord to tell us who you are and to say openly why you are here!” The answer was: “Woe is me, the adjuration forces me against my will to admit that I am not a man but a demon who took human form and have stayed with the knight these fourteen years. Our prince sent me here to watch diligently for the day this knight would fail to recite his Ave Maria, thus falling into my power. I was to throttle him at once, and he, ending his life while engaged in wrongdoing, would be ours. Any day he recited his prayer I had no power over him; but, watch as I might, he never let a single day pass without praying to the Virgin.”
When the knight heard this, his astonishment knew no bounds. He prostrated himself at the feet of the man of God, begged forgiveness for his sins, and thereafter mended his ways. The holy man then said to the evil spirit: “I command you, demon, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to leave here and infest some place where you may not presume to harm anyone who invokes the glorious mother of God!” The demon vanished, and the knight reverently and gratefully allowed the holy man to resume his journey.
The text itself is taken from the Golden Legend, available from Angelus Press.
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