The Annunciation. Part 2.
As to the Virgin, she lived on so little that ancient authors, fond of the marvellous, believed that she was fed by angels.
When Joseph, fatigued with the labours of the day, returned at sunset to his little low apartment, he found his young companion hastening to offer him, by turns, warm water, which she had heated to wash his feet, and cold clear water from the fountain, in a vessel pure from all unclean contact, 1 for the ablutions before the repast. That grave and simple man, with his fine patriarchal countenance, where every passion was silent; that angelical young female all eager to serve him with the solicitude of a dear daughter, formed a group worthy of the golden age. 2
Meantime, the hour marked out by the Eternal in his divine counsels for the Incarnation of his Christ had arrived. The angel Gabriel, one of the four 3 who are always before the face of the Lord, received a mysterious mission, which removed him, for a short time, from the kingdom of heaven. Clothed in one of those beautiful coverings of dense air, with which the pure spirits are surrounded when they would be perceptible to the gross senses of the children of men, 4 the angel left behind him the golden palaces and the emerald walls of the heavenly Jerusalem, the gates of which are twelve pearls, 5 and spread his vast white wings, 6 with his brow all radiant with benignant joy; for the holy angels are as glad at the happiness of men as the had angels are at their ruin and sufferings.
After traversing the immeasurable deserts of the sty, of which the stars are the oasis, the angel who had foretold to Daniel the coming of the Messias, and who came to act for the accomplishment of that grand promise of God, directed his course, with the rapidity of thought, towards our little planet, which his piercing eye discovered at an immense distance, in the state of a nebulous star, which next shone with a feeble milky light; and ..which finally took the rotundity and tranquil light of the moon, whose phases it has.
As he approached this little globe,-which man has proudly divided into zones and hemispheres, and in which he bestirs himself, with insane ardour, to pick up a few bits of gold, which he makes his god,—the angel began to distinguish expanses of blue and shining water, surmounted with dark points like small submarine rocks: these were our oceans and our high mountains. The towns were not yet visible, nor men; they are so small! But at last, the earth, which had at first presented itself under a microscopic form, was gradually enlarged into vast countries covered with kingdoms, divided by deserts, and planted with forests. Arrived directly over Palestine, the angel from on high directed his look, as a benediction, down upon the beautiful town of Nazareth, and descending softly from the clouds like the falling stars, he came down gracefully, like a fine swan.
The sun was declining towards the lofty promontory of Carmel, and would soon set in the horizon of the sea of Syria, when the angel presented himself in the modest oratory of the Blessed Virgin. 7 As a faithful observer of the religious customs of her people, Mary, with her head turned in the direction of the temple, 8 was then making her evening prayer to the God of Jacob. 9 "Hail, full of grace," said the celestial envoy, bowing his radiant head; "the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women."
Mary felt an involuntary trembling at this marvellous apparition. Perhaps, like Moses, she feared that she should see God, and die; perhaps, as St. Ambrose thought, her virginal purity was alarmed at the sight of this son of heaven, who entered, like the rays of light, into that solitary cell where no man penetrated; perhaps it was the respectful attitude and the magnificent eulogy of the angel which disconcerted her humility. Whatever may have been the cause, the Evangelist relates that she was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be, seeking, but in vain, to understand the object of this astonishing visit, and the hidden meaning of this mysterious salutation.
1 There was among the Jews a multitude of precautions to be taken for the purity of the vessels in which they drew water, and in which they prepared their food; not only did they take care that they had not belonged to strangers, but they carried their scruples much farther, for a thousand circumstances rendered them unclean.— (Misnah, Ordo, Puritatum.)
2 An ancient author makes the Virgin say, "Non dedignabar parare et ministrare quæ erant necessaria Joseph; and this is in perfect conformity with the customs still existing.
3 "There are four angels who are hardly ever seen upon earth," say the rabbins, " because they are always round about the throne of God, these angels are, Michael, who is on the right; Gabriel, who is on the left; Uriel, who is before 0od; and Raphael, who is behind him."
4 St. Thomas of Aquin, Quæst. Univ. de creat. Spirit., Art 6.
5 Apocal., c. xxi. v. 21.
6 The Jews represent the angels with wings, as do the Christians. The Koran gives a hundred and forty pairs of wings to the angel Gabriel, and says that he took but one hour to come from heaven upon earth.—(Legend of Mahomet.)
7 It is commonly thought that the visit of the angel to the Blessed Virgin took place towards the evening.
8 The people of the East turn to a certain point in the heavens when they pray; it is what they call the Kebla, The Jews turn towards the temple of Jerusalem, the Mahometans towards Mecca, the Sabeans towards the south, and the Ghebers towards the rising sun.
9 The Jews prayed three times in the day; in the morning, at sunrise ; in the afternoon, at three o'clock, when they offered sacrifice; and in the evening, at sunset. According to the rabbins, Abraham established morning prayer; Isaac, that of the afternoon; and Jacob, that of the evening.—(Basn., liv. vii. c. 17.)