The Annunciation. Part 3.
The angel, who perceived her trouble, said to her mildly, " Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. 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 these words, which would have transported any other but Mary with immoderate joy, the chaste and prudent young woman thought of nothing but her pure white crown of virginity, which she desired to preserve at any cost, and asked how she could reconcile this magnificent prediction with the vow of virginity with which her life was linked. 1
The modesty of a young woman is a thing so sacred in the sight of angels, that Gabriel, to remove all apprehension from Mary on that head, was not afraid to unveil a part of the mystery of the Incarnation. "The power of the Most High shall overshadow thee," said he, " and the Holy that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." 2 Then, according to the custom of the messengers of Jehovah, he would give her a sign which should confirm his words: "And behold," continued the angel, " thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also 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."
Sarah had laughed with incredulous laughter when an angel, in the guise of a traveller, seated in the shade of the great oaks which covered her tent, had announced a son to her, aged and barren as she was. Mary, to whom was announced a new prodigy, as Isaias declares, a thing without example under the sun, in fine, a virginal maternity, believed at once the divine promise, and, annihilating herself before Him who exalted her above all women, she replied, in a submissive voice, " Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word." At these words the angel disappeared, and the Word was made flesh to dwell among us. 3 Thus did the angel of light treat of our salvation with the new Eve, and the fault of the sinful Eve, who had conspired for our destruction with the infernal angel, was gloriously repaired; thus was a simple mortal exalted to the unequalled dignity of Mother of God, and being both virgin and mother, she confounded, by a new miracle, the two most opposite and sublime states of her sex. " Proceed no farther," says St. John Chrysostom, " seek nothing beyond what is said nor say, How did the Holy Ghost effect this in the Virgin ? .... Enquire not, therefore, but receive what is revealed, and search not curiously into what is hidden." 4
We have adopted the opinion of those doctors and theologians who maintain that Joseph was legally the husband of Mary at the time of the Incarnation ; yet this opinion is disputed, and among the authorities who assert that Mary was not yet the wife, but only the betrothed of Joseph, we find in the first rank the great St. John Chrysostom himself. 5 Nevertheless, according to the same father, Mary dwelt in the house of St. Joseph at the time when the angel appeared to her. " For," says this illustrious sacred orator, " among the ancients it was the custom generally to have the betrothed in the house, and this may be seen even now; and the sons-in-law of Lot lived with him." 6
Notwithstanding the profound veneration inspired by St. John Chrysostom, the Church has not adopted his opinion. Moreover, the reference to the sons-in-law of Lot, with which he would strengthen his opinion, is badly chosen : the Scripture nowhere says that they lived with Lot, and everything leads us to think the contrary, since the patriarch was obliged to go out of his house in a moment of trouble and affright, while the most hideous commotion was fomenting in the city, to speak to his sons-in-law that were to have his daughters, to arise and get out of the place, because the Lord would destroy the city. Supposing even that the young men betrothed to Lot's daughters had formed a part of the family of this patriarch, whose flocks covered the hills and valleys of a whole province,—according to the manners of the times, these young men would have been nothing more on the banks of the Jordan than what Jacob was later on in Mesopotamia, active and vigilant servants, day and night parched with heat and with frost. 7 We nowhere see that they had their betrothed spouses in their tents; they lived under the protection of the patriarch, being only his principal shepherds : there is nothing in all this at variance with the manners of ancient Asia. An orphan, left alone, and living under the roof of her betrothed, the Blessed Virgin, on the contrary, -would have been in a position quite exceptional. A generally received custom among the Hebrews could alone have authorised such a supposition, and all that we find in their code is a law expressly opposed to it. 8 St. Chrysostom, agreeing in this respect with the ancient theologians, himself informs us that God for a long time covered with a thick veil the miraculous maternity of Mary, to save her from a revolting suspicion, which would have been as dangerous to the divinity of the Son, as to that respect which the whole world owed to the Mother. But marriage alone could cover with its honourable mantle the mystery of the Incarnation, for mere espousals could not suffice for that purpose ; and then, if Joseph and Mary had been only affianced at the time of the Incarnation of the Word, they would have been no more four months later, since the Evangelist informs us that Mary, after the Annunciation, went with haste to visit St. Elizabeth,' and that it was not till her return from her journey to Hebron, which had lasted three months, that she was found with child, —an expression which indicates a situation visible to all. At this rate, the marriage of Mary would not have been celebrated till her maternity had become evident, proved, undeniable! What would both families have thought of it ? What would have been said by all Nazareth, who would have hastened to witness the ceremony ? To what outrageous reproaches would the pure Virgin have been exposed, among a people where female honour was a thing so sacred as to be infallibly avenged by murder ? Would not the birth of the Messias—that birth which was to be pure as the morning dew, according to the poetical expression of David —have been thereby tainted and denied ? The Jews, particularly the Jews of Nazareth, who showed such hostility to Jesus Christ, and called him the son of the carpenter, would they not have bitterly reproached him with the irregularity of his birth ? If they did not do so, it was because they had apparently no hold on that side.
These, no doubt, are the reasons which have induced a number of illustrious divines to pronounce in favour of the marriage, notwithstanding the countenance which the opposite party found in the words of St. Matthew, words which seem to favour the other interpretation, but which nevertheless do not convey a meaning precise enough to remove the difficulty.9 After all, the dispute never bore upon the principal point: wife or betrothed, no one, among Christians, has ever doubted that the Mother of God was the purest and most holy of virgins; even the Mussulmans admit that she was the spring and mine of purity. 10
1 Calvin, that proud heresiarch, who had Servetus "burned, while he himself preached up toleration, has dared to calumniate the Virgin, taking his text from this answer, to accuse her of unbelief. St. Augustin had answered him long before. " The Virgin doubts not," said he, "non quasi incredula de oraculo; she only desires to be informed as to the manner in which the miracle is to he accomplished." St. John Chrysostom adds, " that this question is the effect of respectful admiration, and not of vain curiosity."
2 This gospel narrative has been received by the Mussulmans themselves. This is how the Koran relates the interview of the Blessed Virgin and the angel:—"The angel said to Mary, God announces his Word to thee, he shall be called Jesus, the Messias, the Son of Mary, great in this world, and in the other, and the Confidant of the Most High; he shall make his word heard by men from the cradle to old age, and shall be of the number of the just.—My Lord, replied Mary, how shall I have a son ? I know not man.—It shall be thus, replied the angel: God forms creatures at his pleasure; is it his will that a thing should exist? he says, Be thou made, and it is made."—(Koran, c. iii.)
3 The mystery of the incarnation was accomplished on the 25th of March, on a Friday evening, according to F. Drexelius.
4 St. J. Chrys., Serm. 4, in St. Matt.
5 Descoutures is wrong in placing St. John Chrysostom in the ranks of those who maintain that Joseph was legally the husband of Mary at the moment of the Incarnation: this writer, who is in general judicious, probably quoted him on trust.
6 St. J. Chrys., Serm. 4,.in St. Matt.
7 Gen. xxxi. 40.
8 Misnah, t. iii. de Sponsalibus. Selden, Uxor Hebraica.
9 The verse which has divided the doctors is this: " Christi autem generatio sic erat: cum esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph, antequam convenient, inventa est in utero habeus de Spiritu Sancto. Those who dwell on the force of the words, say that the Virgin was only betrothed, because the Greek verb, which is a translation of the Hebrew expression of St. Matthew, means desponderi, to be promised, and because there is another term to signify to be married, as we find among the Latins desponderi and nubere, so that St. Joseph had not yet taken the Virgin home to his house; which they prove by those words of verse 20 :—" Noli timere accipere Mariam con jug em tuam : quod enim in ea natum est, de Spiritu Sancto est" which they explain thus: " Take Mary for thy wife without fear, for what is born in her is born by the operation of the Holy Ghost." But to be translated thus it must have been in conjugem tuam. The opposite opinion, which is maintained by fathers, interpreters of considerable weight, and almost all theologians, finds wherewith to combat its antagonists in the second chapter of Si. Luke; for, notwithstanding that the Virgin was already married to Joseph, the gospel uses the Greek termwhich signifies to be promised, and says: " Ut profiteretur cum Maria desponsata sibi uxore prægnante, to be enrolled with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child;" and in verse 19 of the first chapter of St. Matthew, St. Joseph is called vir ejus } her husband, and not her espoused. If St. Matthew calls the Blessed Virgin sponsa, spouse, although she was wife, it is not to say that she had not yet contracted marriage; it is merely to show, as one of the fathers remarks, that she had no more intimacy with her husband than if she had been only his betrothed.
10 The purity of Mary is so fully recognised by the Mussulmans, that Abou-Ishac, ambassador of the caliph at the court of the Emperor of the Greeks, holding a conference with the patriarch and certain Greek bishops, on the subject of religion, the bishops reproached the Mussulmans with many things which had been formerly said by the Mussulmans themselves against Aischah, the widow of their prophet, which had stirred up divisions among them. Abou-Ishac answered them that they need not wonder at these dissensions, since among Christians opinions had been so divided on the subject of the glorious Mary, mother of Jesus, " who may be called," said he, " the mine and fountain of all purity, genab ismet mealo kon offet."—(D'Herbelot, BibL Orientale, t. ii. p. 620.)