Behold the Handmaid of the Lord
The Annunciation, March 25, is one of the greatest feasts of the Church year and one of the oldest. It dates from the seventh century, at least, and perhaps even from the fifth. Actually, it is a feast of Our Lord as well as a feast of His Mother, because on this day we commemorate the virginal conception of the Son of God in the womb of Mary. Indeed, in old calendars this festival was sometimes called Festum Incarnationis, Initium Redemptionis and Conceptio Christi. But it is now firmly established as a feast of the Blessed Virgin in the ecclesiastical cycle.
The main reason for regarding the Annunciation as primarily a feast of Mary rather than of the Word Incarnate is probably the fact that the description of the angel's visit and message, contained in the Gospel of St. Luke, does not state that the Incarnation actually took place on this occasion. In fact, this point was the subject of some discussion on the part of theologians in former centuries.
Suarez proposes the question: "Whether the Blessed Virgin at the time of the annunciation conceived Christ at once?" He answers that it is held as certain by Catholics that the conception of the Word took place before the angel departed from Mary. He goes on to say that according to many of the Fathers the conception occurred either simultaneously with the words of the angel: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" or even prior to those words. Suarez himself, however, proposes as a certain doctrine that the Word did not assume human nature until Mary gave her consent to accept the office of the Redeemer's mother: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word." He argues very well from the text: "His name was called Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb." The name "Jesus" was announced by the angel some time after he had saluted her; so evidently the conception did not take place before or concomitantly with the salutation.
Suarez tries to reconcile the Fathers in question with the view which he himself upholds by explaining that they meant that the Incarnation took place during the colloquy of the angel with Our Lady. "They speak of the entire colloquy as of one moment." The precise moment of the conception, according to Suarez, was that which immediately followed the sublime words of Mary: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." It is true, the internal consent of Mary must have preceded the external expression of consent; nevertheless, it was fitting that the conception should take place only after Mary had manifested her willingness to be the mother of the Redeemer, since the invitation came to her externally through the angel's message.
Undoubtedly, the views of Suarez represent the traditional belief of the Church concerning the day and even the precise moment of the Incarnation. We find corroboration in the exact nine-month period between the feast of the Annunciation and Christmas, and also in the approved formula of the Angelus, which asserts "and the Word was made flesh" immediately after the repetition of Mary's expression of conformity to God's decree. Liturgy, too, supports this belief, for the Collect in the Mass of the Annunciation is directed to God the Father "who didst will that at the message of an angel (angelo nuntiante) the Word should take flesh from the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary."
It is also a traditional belief that the Almighty determined to await Mary's consent before effecting the hypostatic union, the intimate union between the Person of the Word and the human nature made up of the body provided by Mary and the soul created by divine power. It is true, the angel's words in themselves seem to indicate an absolute divine decree: "Thou shalt conceive . . . The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee." But these words must be taken in connection with Mary's final response: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word." No coercion was to be applied by God; the outcome was to be Mary's own choice. Beyond doubt she realized that the acceptance of the exalted office proffered to her would involve excruciating suffering. She was aware that the Messias was to be a man of sorrows; perhaps, too, with the infused knowledge granted to her she had a more detailed prevision of the share that would be incumbent on the Redeemer's mother than we have today of the lot which fell to the Mother of sorrows. Yet, in her great charity she was willing to accept the office because thus the salvation of the world would begin to be realized. In the words of Roschini: "She most generously accepts the most dolorous mission offered to her in order that the human race may be saved, and pronounces her 'Fiat,' thus opening the door to the Incarnation of the Word of God, from which our objective redemption, so to say, takes its beginning."
In one of his famous October Encyclicals, Pope Leo XIII proposed this doctrine in this poetic manner: "The eternal Son of God, when He wished to take human nature for the redemption and glory of man, and in that way was about to enter on a kind of mystic wedlock with the human race, did not do so until the most free consent of the chosen Mary had been given."
It is the fact that Mary gave free consent to the function of the divine maternity that constitutes the basis of her participation in man's redemption and entitles her to be designated the Co-redemptress of the human race. Her co-operation toward the Incarnation and its consequence, the redemption, did not consist basically in the divine maternity as a merely physical function. It arose from her free and conscious acceptance of the office of mother of the Saviour. It was a divine vocation, voluntarily undertaken. Even if she had not accepted the task, it would seem that she would not have committed any sin. Her acceptance, then, was a most sublime act of charity toward mankind, and most meritorious on her part. St. Bernardine of Siena wrote: "The Blessed Virgin, by her consent to the conception of the Son of God merited more than all creatures, whether angels or men, in all their acts, desires and thoughts."
It does not follow necessarily that if Mary had not given her consent the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Redemption would not have taken place in some other way—perhaps through the consent of some other chosen woman. Moreover, it should not be objected that Mary had already received supernatural gifts precisely because she was to be the Mother of God, especially the Immaculate Conception. We have here an example of the mysterious workings of divine prevision and the freedom of the human will. From all eternity God knew that Mary would accept the office; yet, He still allowed her freedom of choice. Thus, she freely became the mother of God, and by a corollary the spiritual mother of all mankind.
While it is commonly admitted that the "Fiat" of Mary constituted a true co-operation toward our salvation, there is a discussion among theologians whether this co-operation is to be regarded as proximate or remote toward man's salvation. Those who champion the doctrine of Mary's office as Co-redemptress (always subordinate to the redemptive activity of her Son) are inclined to favor the former opinion." However, as far as Catholic teaching is concerned either opinion can be accepted.
Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R.
Catholic University of America Washington, D. C.
1 Cf. Holweck, "Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1, 542.
3 Luke 1:26-38.
4 Luke 1:38.
5 Luke 2:21.
6 Suarez, Comm. in summam. III, q. 30; disp. IX, sect. 4. Opera omnia (Paris, 1860), XIX, 142-43.
7 Roschini, Compendium Mariologiae (Rome, 1946), p. 243.
8 Leo XIII, Encyl. Octobre Mense; Ada Leonis XIII, V, 10.
9 Some theologians, however, would dispute this because they regard positive imperfections as sinful. In any event, however, it would seem that a refusal on the part of Mary would not have been a sin of disobedience.
10 St. Bernardine of Siena, De Immac. Concept., Sermo 4, art. 3, cap. 1.
11 Cf. Roschini, op. cit., pp. 243 ff. © American Ecclesiastical Review, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.
© American Ecclesiastical Review, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.
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