25 March 2009



The dictionary defines “annunciation” as: an act or instance of announcing; proclamation. Announcement about what? What is being proclaimed? A virgin shall conceive and bear a son (Isaiah 7:14). The ancient Hebrew text actually translates more to mean “maid” or “young woman” or even “damsel” rather than “virgin”. This, however, should not put a damper on our understanding of Isaiah’s prophetic text because it refers more to a time or period rather than a state in life. But as with most things scriptural, the scholarly arguments continue.

Saint Leo the Great tells us that “lowliness was taken by majesty, weakness by strength, and mortality by eternity” (Epist. 28, ad Flavianum). The announcement, then, what is being proclaimed, is unthinkable, inconceivable. The eternal God will be born – and born of a Virgin. He Who is incapable of suffering will suffer. He Who is incapable of dying will die. The incorruptible God will enter into a fallen world.

Ave, Gratia Plena

Pope John Paul II writes in Redemptoris Mater: The messenger greets Mary as “full of grace”; he calls her thus as if it were her real name. He does not call her by her proper earthly name: Miryam (=Mary), but by this new name : “full of grace”. What does this name mean? Why does the archangel address the Virgin of Nazareth in this way?

In the language of the bible “grace” means a special gift, which according to the New Testament has its source precisely in the Trinitarian life of God Himself, God Who is Love (cf. 1 John 4:8). The fruit of this love is “the election” of which the Letter to the Ephesians speaks. On the part of God, this election is the eternal desire to save man through a sharing in His own life (cf. 2 Peter 1:4) in Christ: it is salvation through a sharing in supernatural life. The effect of this eternal gift, of this grace of man’s election by God, is like a seed of holiness, or a spring which rises in the soul as a gift from God Himself, Who through grace gives life and holiness to those who are chosen. In this way there is fulfilled, that is to say there comes about, that “blessing” of man “with every spiritual blessing”, that “being His adopted sons and daughters… in Christ”, in Him Who is eternally the “beloved Son” of the Father.

When we read that the messenger addresses Mary as “full of grace”, the Gospel context, which mingles revelations and ancient promises, enables us to understand that among all the “spiritual blessings in Christ” this is a special “blessing”. In the mystery of Christ she is present even “before the creation of the world”, as the one whom the Father “has chosen” as Mother of His Son in the Incarnation. And, what is more, together with the Father, the Son has chosen her, entrusting her eternally to the Spirit of holiness. In an entirely special and exceptional way Mary is united to Christ, and similarly she is eternally loved in this “beloved Son”, this Son Who is One being with the Father, in Whom is concentrated all the “glory of grace”. At the same time, she is and remains perfectly open to this “gift from above” (cf. James 1:17). As the Council teaches, Mary “stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently await and receive salvation from him” (Lumen Gentium).

If the greeting and the name “full of grace” say all this, in the context of the angel’s announcement they refer first of all to the election of Mary as Mother of the Son of God. But at the same time the “fullness of grace” indicates all the supernatural munificence from which Mary benefits by being chosen and destined to be the Mother of Christ. If this election is fundamental for the accomplishment of God’s salvific designs for humanity, and if the eternal choice in Christ and the vocation to the dignity of adopted children is the destiny of everyone, then the election of Mary is wholly exceptional and unique. Hence also the singularity and uniqueness of her place in the mystery of Christ.

Behold, You Shall Conceive in Your Womb

We now return to the unthinkable, the inconceivable. Saint Thomas Aquinas writes: “It may perhaps in the first instance of reflection, appear shocking to our ideas, that a God should dwell in a human body; but does not the sun emit its rays into all kinds of places, without any detriment to its purity? How much more would the Sun of Justice, assuming a most pure Body, formed of the purest blood of the spotless Virgin, not only remain free from every the least stain Himself, but even impart additional sanctity to His Virgin Mother.”

How Shall this be Done

Some would like to suggest that our Lady was doubting what the angel Gabriel was saying to her. On this celebration of a Divine Conception, we must conclude that this explanation is misconceived. This is more about the curiosty of a young girl. Saint Augustine explains that Mary is only asking the manner in which this will take place. Being a Virgin, it’s quite logical to ask how one is to be with Child. You can almost see the incredible innocence radiating from Mary in that question. It’s as if she thinks the angel is unaware of her virginity or that perhaps Gabriel is in need of a lesson on human sexuality.

Saint Augustine also adds something very interesting by suggesting that Mary would not have asked this question had she not made a vow to God to live always as a Virgin.

In agreement, Saint Gregory of Nyssa adds: “She did not doubt the truth of what the angel said, but she wished it might not happen to the predjudice of her vowed virginity.”

Be it Done to Me According to Your Word

That beautiful response flows from the mouth of Mary demonstrating her humility of heart and mind and her total trust in God. It’s not very likely that she comprehended all that was about to happen. But that did not outweigh her faith and trust in her Lord. Saint Ambrose writes: “Thus ought the Virgin, who brought forth meekness and humility itself, show forth as an example of the most profound humility.”