At these words of praise the most humble virgin was “troubled” and, casting her eyes on the ground, reflected within herself what could be the import of the salutation. This was the cause of her perturbation, and not, as some have imagined, the appearance of an angel in human form. What need to seek further when the Evangelist speaks so plainly?
The angel gently comforted her, saying, “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God”; as if he would say, whoever has found grace has no cause to fear; it is for those only to fear who have lost grace; and then immediately follow the words, given by St. Luke, in which he acquitted himself of his embassage:
“Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David, His father, and He shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever: and of His kingdom there shall be no end.”
At hearing this glorious offer, which of the daughters of Sion would not have exulted with joy? Which of them would have hesitated for an instant in accepting the divine maternity? Nevertheless, Mary retains her heavenly calmness, and pauses before giving her assent. She well understood the meaning of the offer made to her, and never doubted for a moment the omnipotence of God.
She believes the mystery, but, prudent and most tender of her virginity, which she has solemnly vowed to God, she desires to comprehend how the two can be reconciled. She seeks, says St. Augustine, to know the mode in which the mystery can be accomplished.
Venerable Bede says that she had read in Isaias that a virgin should conceive and bear a son, but she had not read how this was to be, and this she sought to learn from the angel; that is, how her beloved virginity was to remain safe and intact: as if she were ready (as saints have said), had she the choice, rather to renounce the divine maternity than lose her virginal purity, so enamoured of it was she.
She is not incredulous, she does not ask for a sign, as did Zachary, to enable her to believe. She simply seeks a solution of the difficulty. Although the works of God, perfect in themselves, need no justification before men, nevertheless, when the human reason is called on by God to give its assent, and some contradiction is discernible by it, though only apparent, God is willing to come to the aid of the infirmity of human nature, that, all obstacle being removed, the adhesion given to His will by the intellect may be more entire and the homage more perfect.
And this was precisely Mary’s case. If the vow she had made was from God, of which she had no doubt, and if equally from God was the maternity now offered by the angel, whose veracity she never questioned, then it was certain that the latter must take place without violation of the former. But by what means could two things be reconciled which presented themselves to the intellect as so diametrically opposed.
Wherefore Mary, who had heard her own praises in silence, now speaks, and inquires of the angel, “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” These words of Mary are a manifest testimony to her own virginity and that of Joseph. St. Augustine draws from them an indisputable argument to prove that both she and Joseph had bound themselves thereto by a perpetual vow.
And because this question of Mary was not one of vain curiosity or cold mistrust, but was dictated by that consummate prudence with which she was endowed, the angel promptly satisfied her. “The Holy Ghost,” he said, “shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore, also, the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
By these words Mary was assured that, this conception being the marvellous work of the Spirit of God, she should become the Mother of God without detriment to her virginity; whence St. Peter Chrysologus says, “Mary is truly blessed, in that she possesses at once the dignity of a mother and the merit of virginity”. “This glory,” exclaims St. Bernard, “of having the joy of maternity and the honour of virginity belongs to Mary alone, who in this privilege had none either preceding or following her. It is her exclusive privilege, which shall never be given to another. It is a privilege at once singular and ineffable.”
St. Bernard deduces from the angel’s words two other great truths. The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, or of the Three Divine Persons, is clearly and distinctly revealed for the first time in the Annunciation. The angel names the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The other truth is that the whole Blessed Trinity took part in this great mystery, although the Second Person alone became incarnate.
Gabriel added, “And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren; because no word shall be impossible with God”. The angel made this known to Mary, not only that she might rejoice at the happy tidings, but that she might go and visit the mother of the Precursor.