There might have been more than one hint, obvious to a mind like hers, by which she might have divined from the Sacred Scriptures that the Holy Ghost might work the wonder. But this would involve a new and unheard of condescension, which could not be assured without a distinct revelation. How then was this to be, seeing she knew not man?
Thus, in these first recorded words of our Blessed Lady, we have an evidence of her intense love for purity, of her prudence, of her wonderful faith, and at the same time of her modesty and humility and obedience. For when she asks how is it to be done, she implies that same perfect surrender of herself to the will of God in all things, which was afterwards more fully expressed in her second speech, " Behold the handmaid of the Lord." This shows us that she considered her vow as some thing which belonged to God, a pledge which He had accepted, and which He would certainly preserve unbroken, whatever might be the marvels required for the execution of His great design in a new way.
The third speech of the Angel is remarkable as leaving the ground of prophecy and opening an entirely new revelation to the Blessed Mother of our Lord. It has already been said that the Conception by the Holy Ghost was not one of the features in the revelation concerning the Incarnation as it had been already made. The doctrine of the Ever Blessed Trinity itself \vas not known to the Jews with anything like the fullness in which it is now presented to Christian faith. To say this is the same thing as to say that the whole doctrine of the Third Person in the Godhead must have been far less fully possessed by them than that concerning the Eternal Father and His only-begotten Son. It is not, therefore, unreasonable to look upon the Annunciation as marking a great onward step in the manifestation of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, and especially of the doctrine concerning the Holy Ghost, as if this great and marvellous work of His, by means of which the Incarnation was carried out by the Conception of our Lord in the womb of His Mother, was to be made the occasion of a more direct manifestation of His Person. At the same time it was most fitting that this feature in the mystery should be first of all made known to her in whom the Conception was to be wrought. In any case, we have in these words of the blessed Angel a great advance on the language of the Old Testament concerning the manner of the Incarnation.
"And the Angel answering said to her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee, and therefore also the Holy which shall be born in thee, shall be called the Son of God." These words form the divinely appointed answer to the question of our Blessed Lady, and they therefore contain the revelation of the manner of the Conception in her womb. "How shall this be done, seeing I know not man?" It shall be done in this way, that " the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee," and the rest. The Holy Ghost, therefore, was to come to Mary for the purpose of bringing about in her this miraculous Conception. When He is said to come to any with whom He is already by His presence in grace, it is meant that He comes with a fresh array of graces, for the purpose of the particular work for which He comes. In this case it was for the purpose of the further and final sanctification of our Blessed Lady, by which she was made fit for her part in this mystery, that is, to minister of her most pure blood for the formation of the Body of our Lord. The Holy Ghost was to sanctify also the Conception itself, to form our Lord's Body, and prepare it completely in every way for the infusion of the Soul which God was to create, that the Soul and Body together might be united to the Eternal Person of the Word. All this is conveyed by the words, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee."
The words which follow, "the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee," and the rest, convey the further specific truth that the Child thus conceived was to be the Person of the Son of God in human nature. For it is possible that a miraculous Conception might have been brought about by the Holy Ghost, in which the Body and Soul would not have had that Divine Personality. And the last words sum up the whole effect of the operation of the Holy Ghost, and of that work of Power of the Eternal Father by which the Hypostatic Union was made. From these together issues the Incarnation of the Son of God. "Therefore it is that the Holy which is born in thee, that is formed in thee in perfect Man hood from the very beginning, shall be called, that is, shall be and shall be known to be, the Son of God."
Before speaking of the perfect faith and obedience which are the virtues which shine out most conspicuously in our Blessed Lady's reception of this magnificent revelation, it is natural to add the other words of the Angel, though they refer to a different subject. It is found in other such revelations that some proof or sign is frequently either asked or given, by means of which the certainty of the truth which is revealed may become more secure in the mind to which the communication is made. Sometimes the sign is asked, sometimes it is offered. But it seems as if it were a kind of rule in such cases, that it should be given. In the case of our Blessed Lady, she did not need anything more to make her grasp, with the most perfect faith, the truth proposed to her, than the proof contained in the fact that the communication was made by an angel of God. Although the truth set before her so far transcended any other revelation that had ever been made, and although it had about it all the difficulty which besets revelations which concern most intimately the person to whom they are made—for humble and holy persons are more ready to believe such things of others than of themselves—still her faith was equal to the demand made upon it. She did not therefore ask for or require any sign. But what she did not ask for was given to her, not so much for the confirmation of her faith in its intrinsic strength and perfection, as for its confirmation by tidings of joy concerning another great mercy of God, in the same kind as that vouchsafed to herself, and also in order that an intimation of the will of God as to her immediate conduct might be conveyed to her.
Before, therefore, Mary gave her most joyful and most humble consent to the execution of the mystery on herself, the Angel added the tidings concerning the conception of the Blessed Baptist in the womb of St. Elisabeth, a conception not so utterly super natural as that of our Lord, but still impossible in the ordinary course of nature. " And behold thy cousin Elisabeth, 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." These last words, again, presuppose in our Blessed Lady a perfect acquaintance with the Sacred Scriptures. For they are a quotation of the words used to Sara when she hesitated to believe the declaration that she was to bear a son in her old age, 3 and thus they bring again before the mind of Mary the whole series of such marvellous conceptions in the history of the holy people, all of which had been in some sort predictions of the miraculous Conception of our Lord, which was thus shown to be the accomplishment and final crown of a long range of such mercies. Thus, before the Incarnation had taken place, our Blessed Lady was furnished with the line of conduct which she was to pursue after it had come about, in going on her errand of charity to console St. Elisabeth, and bring about the sanctification in her womb of her unborn child.
It must always be remembered that all these marvels which are spoken of in the words of the Angel might have been brought about by an act of the Divine Power alone, and without any consent or consciousness on the part of our Blessed Lady. When Eve was formed from the side of Adam, he was not informed beforehand of what was to take place, nor was his consent asked. He was not informed beforehand because his consent was not required. But in the execution of the decree of the Incarnation God proceeded in a different way, not by the use of the power of His Majesty, but by the gracious sweetness of His condescension and reverence for His creature, so informing beforehand our Lady of what He was to do, as to make the performance of this great work an act in which she had her part, by her perfect and ready submission, by a voluntary act of her own will, which was in itself ineffably beautiful and meritorious. All through this scene of the Annunciation, Mary is acting according to the instincts of her most consummate prudence, purity, humility, and charity, and the virtues which she has exercised all through are crowned and surpassed in their merit by the perfect oblation of herself which is expressed in her last words, '' Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word." Thus she appears to ground her consent to the proposal of the Angel on the will of God her Lord and Master, though it was for her the highest of exaltations, the most sublime of dignities, the greatest of joys. It was all these, but it was these because it was the will of God, Whose handmaid she was, and her words imply that if the message had contained abasement instead of exaltation, and humiliation instead of dignity, it would have been the same to her, because it was the word of her Lord. And indeed, perhaps, even then, that most blessed soul, in her contemplation on the prophecies, may have discerned that as the Christ was certainly to suffer, so the dignity of being His Mother could not but bring with it a chalice of suffering to herself. And the words in which she signifies her acceptance are the largest possible, "Be it done to me according to thy word." Whether she had divined it or not, understood it or not, exactly all that was contained in the terms of the message which conveyed to her the intimation of God's will, that she wished to be done to her. These considerations must suffice to set before us the first of the two points of which mention was made at the outset of this chapter, namely, the wonderful sublimity of the grace and merits of our Lady before the great mystery took place. It is certain that the perfection of her virtues as here displayed must have won for her, according to the ordinary rules of the distribution of grace, a most marvellous confirmation and increase of all that she had already received. But, besides this, as at this moment the dignity of the Motherhood of God was actually conferred upon her, it is equally reasonable to suppose that the collation of this dignity brought with it immense gifts, in keeping with all the elevation which it implied, and all the offices to God, to our Lord, and to mankind which it involved.
Immediately on the words of Mary followed the accomplishment of the Incarnation. All came about as the Angel had said. The Holy Ghost formed the Body of our Lord out of her blood. His Soul was created by the operation of the Divine Power, the Soul and Body were at once united one to the other, and the Divine Person of the Word of God took to Himself the Sacred Human Nature thus produced. In that most absolute silence of the night, in the little chamber of the cottage in front of the cave where Mary dwelt, with no pomp or visible manifestation by which the creation might know what was being done, the greatest act of the power and mercy of the Creator was accomplished. In a moment God had become Man, and the whole uni verse was renovated and elevated by His Presence.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus began to beat, the homage of the Incarnate Son rose up to the throne on high, —a homage worthier of the majesty of God than the adoration of a thousand worlds, summing up in itself and adorning with its own beauty and merit the worship of creation. Who can count up the difference between the world with Jesus Christ, and the world without Him?
It is by this measure that we must give an account to ourselves of the elevation which came at the same moment to the Blessed Virgin, who had been chosen as the instrument of this ineffable condescension. We have seen how great Mary was in the designs of God and in His prediction of the coming mercy on the race of men. We have traced her from the wonderful grace of the Immaculate Conception and the accompanying gifts bestowed on her soul, the anticipation in her case of the power of using her faculties and graces, the capacity of working, always with perfect meritoriousness, through her life in the womb of Anne to her birth, her childhood, her education and training in the Temple, on to the dedication of herself by her vow to God and her final preparation for her office as His Mother in the mystery of her Espousals. In the dialogue of the Annunciation she has manifested the most perfect virtue, the most consummate intelligence and prudence, and, after receiving with calm tranquillity the most startling message, and taken in with unshaken faith the most stupendous revelations, she has said the word on which the execution of the great Counsel of God was made to depend. She has mounted up ever higher and higher, until the magnificence of her beginning seems dwarfed by the majesty which she has now reached. But the moment of the Incarnation, as it was like no other moment in the past history of the creation, and as its effects changed and left their stamp on the whole future of that history, so was it unlike any other moment in the series of the ascensions of Mary, a moment the results and fruits of which in her were to last on for ever. When Jesus Christ ceases to be Man as well as God, then will Mary cease to be the Mother of God, and when the fruits of the Incarnation are wiped out of Heaven and earth, then will the effects of the exaltation of Mary fade away from her.
This, then, which is the central moment in the history of God's dealings with His creatures, is naturally the central moment also in His dealings with His Mother. All that has gone before has been only her preparation for that dignity. At this moment that dignity is hers, never throughout eternity to be taken away from her. It is natural that we should try to give to ourselves some account of what is contained in the truth. Let us take the catalogue of her privileges as they are counted over for us by the saints, and see how they all depend on this one fundamental grace of her selection for the Divine Maternity.
The immunity from original sin, the sanctification of her soul which accompanied her Immaculate Conception, the acceleration of her power of know ing and loving and acting meritoriously, the graces she had received at her birth and during her child hood, have been already mentioned as given to her as the preparation for this crowning grace. Now, then she is the Mother of God. She is made, in the first place, a Mother in a new and unheard of way, a way which preserves to her the glory of her spot less Virginity, together with the fruitfulness of Maternity. Thus she is Virgin and Mother at the same time, a Virgin beyond compare, in the beauty of her purity, which was not a negative beauty only, but the beauty of the closest union with the ineffable purity of God, and a Mother beyond compare in her fruitfulness, which germinates no less a treasure than the Incarnate God Himself.
It must, moreover, be remembered that far more is meant when Mary is called the Mother of God, as to her relations with her Son, than could be the case as to the same relations in ordinary cases. The Son Who was conceived in her womb was from the very first instant of His Conception perfect in His Manhood as in His Godhead. We know that He could not but have had, from the first, that complete and uninterrupted use of all His inherent faculties and powers, which we suppose to have been imparted to His Mother when she was a child, for the more rapid advance of her sanctity, and for His sake. This must have materially influenced and coloured her relations and inter course with Him from the very beginning. It may be that we cannot produce any certain proof that the heart of His Blessed Mother was enabled to converse with Him intelligently while He was in her womb, although, if St. Elisabeth could understand the joy of St. John while he was yet unborn, it might seem in accordance with theological reason to conclude that our Lady had the same or a higher and more continual privilege. But in any case the relations between our Lady and her Son were intimate, loving, intelligent in a degree which could exist in no other case, because they were each capable of more perfect and penetrating intimacy, more tender love, more entire sympathy of heart and of mind than any other souls that have come from the hands of the Creator. Thus her Maternity must have been a greater and tenderer Maternity than any other, and His relations to her as her Son were in a like manner most perfect in their kind. And the ties between the parent and the child are ordinarily more or less limited to the affections and mutual services of this life, whereas the Motherhood of Mary and the Sonship of our Lord w r ere from the beginning realities which belonged to the eternal Kingdom of God, they have remained in Heaven as on earth, they are active and operative now as of old at Nazareth, and thousands and thousands of mercies and wonders in the realm of grace are continually issuing from them.
Many of the saints are fond also of the contemplation which dwells on the relations which were begun at the moment of the Incarnation between our Blessed Lady and the Persons of the Eternal Father and of the Holy Ghost, and these also are relations which did not end with the accomplishment of the mystery, but live on in all times in the King dom of Heaven. As our Lord is the Son of the Father, so also is He the Son of His Mother, and thus by a special act of the power of His Father, which is the foundation of a peculiar relation of Mary to the Father, which is expressed by saying that she is His daughter in a way of her own. The Holy Ghost brought about the Incarnation in her womb, and then she became in a special way beyond that in which it can be said of all saintly souls, the Spouse of the Holy Ghost. He had yet much to do in the consummation of that sanctity with which she was to be clothed at the time of her glorious entrance into Heaven, but all the history of the work of this grace in her must have been a continuation of the sanctification now imparted to her. In this sense the work of this moment lasted on for ever, and increased continually in the gifts of the three Divine Persons to this chosen Mother.
There are other privileges of our Blessed Lady in the list of which we are speaking, which may be considered as founded upon the grace of the Divine Maternity which she now received, although the time at which they began to manifest themselves in actual exercise was not yet. Thus, for instance, she is called the Virgin of virgins, in various senses, for her Virginity was altogether her own, and of a perfection not shared by others, and in this sense the privilege we speak of was hers at this time. But in another sense the name applies to her by virtue of that large and most beautiful company of virgins who have followed the holy counsel of continence as her children, of whose praise and of the fruits of whose work in the world, the- Church is full. In this sense the privilege was something yet future. So again, when we speak of her as the Mother of the Redeemed, as the Gate of Heaven, as the Queen of Mercy, as having the Passion communicated to her, and as being exalted above all creatures, these are privileges which flow from her Maternity, and are contained in it as in germ, but the time for their development had not come at the moment of the Incarnation. The privileges which are thus ex pressed are the fruits and issues of our Lord's greatness, and of the accomplishment of His work in the world. She has them from Him, and when she became His Mother she received her right to them, and began to be, in relation to those whom He has redeemed and exalted, what the names imply by which she is designated in respect of them.
3 Genesis xviii. 14.