The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Chapter 7: The World Was Made Flesh"
"God who in many and varied ways spoke to us through the prophets, at the last, in these days, spoke to us through His Son, whom He made the heir of all things, through whom He made the ages." When the fulness of time came, according to His eternal plans and temporal prophecies, He sent a great prince of the heavenly court, Gabriel the Archangel, to the young virgin who was to bear a Son and call His name Jesus.
The angel's greeting was something never before heard: "Hail, completely graced." St. Jerome rightly translated it as "full of grace." Vatican II did not hesitate to adopt St. Jerome's translation.1 We agree that that is the true sense of the word. But without the providentially guided teaching office of the Church, we might not have arrived at that complete sense. The Greek word in Luke 1:28 is kecharitomene. It is a rare form of an infrequent word. The word charitoo in general means to cause one to be in the state indicated by the root, favor or grace. It is a perfect participle, which expresses completion. The angel not only uses this perfect participle of charitoo, but uses it instead of a personal name. This use might be compared to our colloquial expression in which we say, for example, someone is "Mr. Tennis," which means he is the most outstanding of all for it. So instead of calling her by her name, Mary, the angel calls her "completely graced." (Therefore a translation that adds a noun, such as daughter is, strictly speaking, incorrect, and hides much of the force of the expression.)
Pope Pius IX, in the solemn document defining the Immaculate Conception, wrote:
This sweeping statement definitely assures us that she was indeed "full of grace." Vatican II concurs: "Endowed with absolutely singular splendors of sanctity from the first instant of her conception, the Virgin of Nazareth is greeted by the messenger angel, by God's command, as full of grace."2
Did she, at that time, understand what she was being asked to do? Some have thouught she merely consented to be, if we may put it crudely, a body to produce a baby. But that is far from the truth. What the writers of the Targums saw in a limited way, she, full of grace, enriched "with an abundance of all heavenly gifts,"3 would surely see clearly and fully.4 Vatican II speaks strongly: "The Father of Mercies willed that the acceptance of the predestined Mother should precede the incarnation."5 So what she accepted and consented to was not just to have a child, but to the incarnation. The Council continued: "so that thus, just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman might contribute to life." The Council is alluding to the New Eve theme, found in virtually all the Fathers of the Church, especially in their comments on this scene, the annunciation. Vatican II explains further:
Clearly, she could not make the kind of acceptance of which Vatican II speaks if she did not know what she was doing.
Briefly, the fathers, with practically one voice-not often are they so unanimous-teach that just as Christ was the New Adam, who undid the damage wrought by the first Adam, so Mary was the New Eve. Just as the old Eve by her lack of faith in God's word contributed to bringing the disaster of original sin upon our race, so did Mary, the New Eve, by faith and obedience, contribute to reversing that harm: "She became a cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race," as St. Irenaeus said.6
To return to the fact that she knew, more than one Pope has taught she did indeed know that to which she was asked to consent. Pope St. Leo the Great, in his Homily on the Nativity, says,
Pope Leo XIII in an Apostolic Letter, wrote: "O how sweetly, then, how pleasingly did the greeting of the angel come to the Blessed Virgin who then, when Gabriel saluted her, felt that she conceived the Word of God by the Holy Spirit."8
Really, the reason why some say she did not know what she was doing on the day of the annunciation is that the same misguided persons have convinced themselves that even He, her Divine Son, did not know who He was, although as we shall see later,9 such a view not only lacks Scriptural or other proof, but flatly contradicts the reiterated, express teaching of the Church. But these persons in error continue their thought: If He did not know who He was, she must not have known, or she would have told Him. Actually, sometimes it is even hinted that perhaps there was no virginal conception-for then she would have known much, and would have told Him. But He was ignorant, so there may not have been any virginal conception.
Vatican II treats the annunciation account as fully factual,10 so let us see for ourselves the implications of the account in St. Luke.
Before the day of the annunciation she, of course, like so many devout Jews, had been preparing for the coming of the Messiah, and, as Pope Leo XIII wrote, "The prayer of the Virgin surely had great force in [bringing] the mystery of the incarnation."11
Mary was at first frightened, as anyone might be at a supernatural appearance. The angel hastened to reassure her (Lk 1:30-32): "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found grace with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High." Thus far she might not have gathered much of the nature of her Son, for the term "Son of the Most High" could be applied to any devout Jew-we think of Hosea 11:1, quoted by Matthew 2:15: "Out of Egypt I have called my son." The son meant the whole people of Israel, rescued from Egypt at the Exodus.
But things became clearer, for the angel continued (Lk 1:32): "The Lord God will give to Him the throne of David His Father." Many prophecies in Scripture-we have noted just one, Is 11:112-had spoken of the Messiah as a son of David. So now she would readily grasp that her Son was to be the Messiah. But further (Lk 1:33): "He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and there will be no end of His kingship." Most Jews believed13 that the Messiah would live forever. That is why the Targum on Isaiah 53 could not see what was so obvious, that the Messiah (the Targum knew the Suffering Servant was the Messiah) would suffer and die, and the Targum reacted so vehemently as to make the Servant quite the opposite of what Isaiah foretold. But what most Jews could not see, that the Messiah of Isaiah 53 would suffer and die, Mary, full of grace, surely would see.
But now, those who wish to attribute ignorance to her must make a choice difficult for them: Since the angel said that her Son would reign forever, then either she would think of Him as the suffering Messiah of Isaiah 53 who was also to rise so as to reign forever, as we saw in chapter 6, or else, not thinking of Him as Messiah, she would have to reason: "Only God reigns forever, so my Son is to be God."
We insist that at least at this point in the angel's message she would think Him to be the Messiah. But there is more. For after her inquiry about how it should be carried out, since she "knew not man"-an implication of a vow or resolve of virginity14-the angel continued and explained (Lk 1:35): "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. For this reason the Holy offspring will be called Son of God."
At this point Mary would readily grasp that her son was to be God, for the reason why He would be called Son of God was something unique: He would be called Son of God because the power of the Most High would overshadow her. That word had been used in the Old Testament to describe the Divine Presence filling the tabernacle in the desert (Ex 40:34) and similar language described the filling of the temple in Jerusalem with the Divine Presence at the time of its consecration.15 The prophecy of Haggai 2:6-9 had said that the splendor of the Lord would fill the new temple with more glory than that of the old temple. But we need to note that precisely "for this reason," namely, because the Divine Presence would come upon her, her Son would be "Son of God."16 This is obviously far different from the sense in which any devout Jew could be called a son of God. Her Son would be uniquely, naturally, the Son of God.
Further, since she, like any devout Jew, had often meditated on the ancient Scriptures, she knew the words of Isaiah 9:5-6 that the Messiah would be "Mighty God," as we saw in chapter 6. And although others, in the hardness of their hearts and stiff necks might not understand, certainly she, full of grace, could not fail to grasp the meaning. Really, when the angel came to Zachary to announce the birth of John the Baptist, it had already been indicated that the one whose forerunner John was to be would be God Himself. Using the words of Malachi 3:1, which in themselves foretold the coming of God personally, the angel said that John (Lk 1:16-17) "will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And he himself [John] will go before Him [God] in the spirit and power of Elijah."17
Mary at once acquiesced in what God asked through the angel. She, as Pope Leo XIII put it, consented "in the name of the whole human race," to be the Mother of the Messiah, the Mother of God.18 "Behold the slave girl of the Lord," she said, "be it done to me according to your word." At the very moment at which she was raised to a "dignity second only to God," as Pope Pius XI said,19 she called herself slave girl, for that is the precise meaning of the Greek doule.
Throughout the centuries since that day, many privileged souls have reached such a point of spiritual development-without yet being Saints-that they have been allowed to perceive20 the presence of God to them, to feel it, not with the senses, yet in a way that seems as real as putting a hand on a table. Beginning with the Annunciation, that divine presence began to be even physically within her, as her Son. But she, as Pius IX told us, was from the start so far advanced in holiness that, "none greater under God can be thought of, and only God can comprehend it."21 It is obvious that she must have registered, as it were, that presence within her, that presence which was her Son. Had she not learned from the angel's words of His divinity, obviously at least by this means she would have.
We speak of this Annunciation as a joyful mystery, and so it was. But the joys of this life are seldom without alloy. This great joy brought with it a double trial, and the beginning of the sword to Mary. For that day was a most severe trial of her faith, and a beginning of very painful adherence to the will of God.
Her faith was tried, for she, like all faithful Jews, had had it hammered into them incessantly that there is only one God. Yet, from Gabriel's message, she knew that there is God the Father, and then, that her Son was God also. How can that be? We today have sunk into a sort of comfortable rut: we can speak of the Most Holy Trinity saying there are Three Divine Persons, but only One God. We have, in other words, become accustomed to this staggering truth, we have, we might almost say, developed a callous, becoming used to it. We do not of course understand how there can be three such that of each one we say He is God-and yet one plus one plus one does not equal three Gods, but one God.
She did not have such a formula of words, but, as we said, the formula of words does not let us understand: it is just that we have gotten used to it. She had had no time to get used to it. She knew she had to retain the faith of her fathers that there is only one God, yet to know of two who are God. How to reconcile? She did not know; she had to merely hold on in the dark, as it were, without any possibility of understanding. And that she did: she believed the unbelievable.
Did she also gather from the archangel's words that there is a third Divine Person, the Holy Spirit? We do not know for certain. The mention of the Holy Spirit in this message could have brought a different thought to her mind. Many times in the Old Testament there was a mention of the spirit of God, for example, the spirit that moved over the waters at creation. But the Jews did not think of that spirit as a person, only as a power or force emanating from God. So we have no means of knowing what impression the words Holy Spirit made on her. It could have been either way.
We do know that her reverence for the Divine Presence within her was most profound. As we saw earlier, so many souls today suffer from a spiritual sickness because they think only of the love and goodness of God-which are infinitely real-but they forget in practice His Infinite Majesty. She had never forgotten. Good Jews in her day would never pronounce His sacred name, Yahweh, not even in prayer, not even in reading the Scriptures. So great was their respect. But now she had Him within her, for nine months, as her Son!
Secondly, the sword began to pierce her heart. For she knew in full light what the targumists knew less clearly, that He was the Messiah. And she understood what they missed, that that Messiah was to be "marred beyond human semblance . . . despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." She knew He would bear our griefs, be smitten by God and afflicted, wounded for our transgressions because the Lord would lay on Him the iniquity of us all. He would be cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of His people. She knew too of course that He would see the fruits of His travail, and would be accounted great, by living again. But just as a woman about to give birth does not find her pain lessened by the anticipation of a future baby, so neither did the thought of the future make Mary's pain any easier to bear.
Rather, the fact that she would have to live with this painful knowledge for so many years would, as it were, wear the skin thin, and make it all the more painful. That happened even to Him, divine though He was. As we will see in the next chapter, His human soul even at the moment of conception, because it had the vision of God, knew fully all He would suffer. He at this instant accepted, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us (Heb. 10:7), saying: "Behold I come to do your will, O God." Thus He echoed her fiat at this very moment. So, years later He told His apostles (Lk 12:50) "I have a baptism in which to be baptized-and how am I straightened until it is accomplished!" And when His passion was only days away, in distress He broke into a discourse to a crowd (Jn 12:27): "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say? Father save me from this hour!"
Yet her fidelity never wavered: she adhered without any hesitation to the acceptance of the will of the Father that she had made in saying "Fiat, be it done to me according to your word."
Now at last God had a human Heart. Men could confidently feel they could understand many things about His ways, even though those ways are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth. God always was Infinite Goodness, Infinite Love. But we needed a help to understand Him.
The very existence of this humanity, the very fact of this Incarnation, would have been enough to redeem countless worlds. For if we recall (chapter 3) the various ways in which God could have effected our Redemption, we will see that the mere fact of God becoming man meant that humanity was offering God a worship, a reparation of infinite worth.
St. Athanasius, along with the Eastern Fathers in general, has a remarkable way of looking at this fact. In his Second Oration against the Arians he wrote that the Son assumed our nature, "So that He, the original Maker, might remake it [and] make it divine in Himself . . . that He might join what is man by nature to that which is divine by nature, so that man's salvation might be firm."22 Similarly St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that at the Incarnation, "He was mingled with our nature so that it [our nature] by mingling with the divine might become divine."23 The thought is this: our humanity was sick or wounded by sin; but in the Incarnation, God joined divinity to that sick human nature by union with the humanity of His Son, which became part of humanity; that contact with the divinity healed our ills, and made us partly divine.
The frail edge of the mind of one of our greatest philosophers, Aristotle, thought, as we have seen, that even his god was so far above men that there could be no thought of friendship. What would he have thought had he learned that the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, making Himself man, so He might make us gods by participation! What if Aristotle heard that this God-man would even die horribly and shamefully for us! No wonder St. Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:22): "We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews, foolishness to the gentiles!"