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I am a Roman Catholic convert from Protestantism. My wonderful wife Tenille and I live in Louisville, Ky., with our daughter Esther, and two sons, William and Ezra. We attend Mass at the beautiful St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church on Broadway Street.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Blessed Virgin, Part VII: More Themes in the Annunciation

From the very outset, my intention in writing this series of posts on the Blessed Virgin Mary has been to offer evidence, and to present arguments for those peculiarly Catholic doctrines which concern the Mother of Christ. However, as so often happens when writing, these essays have seemed to take on a direction of their own, one which I am inclined to pursue for the time being, while not losing sight of my original purpose.

For now, I would prefer to adopt a less argumentative, or demonstrative, approach, and focus rather on continuing the examination of the Marian passages in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, with an aim to exploring the various themes, Old Testament prophecies, and Scriptural connections contained within them. These themes will serve us well later on when we seek a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church's teaching on the Blessed Virgin. I hope to finish this all-too-brief overview in the next two to three posts, at which point we will proceed to a more doctrinal and demonstrative approach.

Until then, let us pick up where we left off.

In the last post we examined the expression "The Lord is with you",or Dominus tecum, with which the archangel Gabriel greeted the young Virgin of Nazareth. We learned, among other things, that this expression, taken within its Scriptural context, never stands on its own. It is always followed by an announcement of momentous importance, which will radically alter not only the life of the one to whom it is addressed, but also the history of the whole people of God. We saw that Mary "was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." (Lu. 1:29)

We may now read on expectantly, pondering with Mary, what tremendous message was to follow this extraordinary greeting.

"Then the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.'" (Luke 1:30-33)

Here, at last, is the denoument, the revelation of the vocation for which God had prepared the Virgin Mary; and that revelation is nothing less than the unveiling of the coming Incarnation, the parousia of the God-Man, the mystery of the Word-made-Flesh.

All the Old Testament examples of announcements following the Dominus tecum formula, simply pale in comparison with the message which was declared to Mary. The Incarnation is the center point of the history of our species, and it is the center point of Mary's life, as well. An understanding of the Incarnation is crucial to our understanding of the person and role of Mary. It was for this purpose that she had been prepared from the moment of her conception; and it was for this vocation that she had been chosen from all eternity, in the mind of God.

Concerning this holy Mystery, however, what are we to say? Two thousand years and countless volumes have not even remotely begun to exhaust the riches of the Incarnation. While we will frequently return to this topic in the course of these essays ( since the life of Mary is so intimately connected with the Incarnation) the topic is so vast that I prefer for now to say rather too little than too much, and to focus on other themes.

For the moment, our chief interest will be in Mary's response to Gabriel. In verse 34 she replies: "How shall this be, seeing that I do not know man?"

There are two principal points which we will consider here, concerning the Virgin's response to the paradigm-changing announcement which she had just received. The first concerns her faith; the second, her virginity.

Faith and Virginity

1. Faith. A cursory reading of this passage would give us the impression that the Blessed Virgin was either lacking in faith, or that her faith faltered in the face of the tremendous promise which she had just been given. "How shall this be....?" she asks. This idea is emphasized by the fact that other notable Biblical personages (Abraham, Sarah, and Zechariah), have posed similar questions when told that they would miraculously conceive, and these questions seemed to indicate a lack of faith.

"God further said to Abraham: 'As for you wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai: her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. Him also will I bless; he shall give rise to nations, and rulers of peoples shall issue from him.' Abraham prostrated himself and laughed as he said to himself, 'Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Or can Sarah give birth at ninety?'" (Gen. 17:15-17)

"One of them said, 'I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.' Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, just behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her womanly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, 'Now that I am so withered and my husband is so old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?' But the Lord said to Abraham: 'Why did Sarah laugh and say, "Shall I really bear a child old as I am?" Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do?'" (Gen. 18:10-14)

"But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John....' Then Zechariah said to the angel, 'How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.' And the angel said to him in reply, 'I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at the their proper time.'" (Lu. 1: 13-20)

The parallels between these passages, especially the annunciation to Zechariah found in the same chapter of the same Gospel, could easily lead us to imagine that Mary's question also indicated a lack of faith. However, a closer reading will render such an idea untenable.

A paragraph further on, we find the expectant Virgin traveling to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, now more than three months pregnant with John the Baptist. After Mary had greeted Elizabeth, her cousin is "filled with the holy Spirit" (vs.41) and declares, "...Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." (Lu. 1:45) This can leave little room for doubt that Mary did not lose faith.

We may also consider the fact that Zechariah is rebuked by Gabriel for his lack of faith, and is even punished by being made temporarily mute. No such rebuke or punishment follows Mary's question to the archangel. Thus we must conclude that the Virgin's question was not motivated by lack of faith, but was rather of a more practical nature. Since the normal means of conception were not available to her, she simply asks how this miracle is to be accomplished. She did not doubt the word, she merely wished to know how it was to be fulfilled.

2. Virginity. While most orthodox and traditionally-minded Protestants and Catholic have both accepted the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, the question of the perpetual virginity of Mary has long been a point of contention between the two. In the early days of the Protestant Reformation it was not as uncommon to find Protestants adhering to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity as now. Luther firmly accepted the position, as did many Anglicans.

In keeping with the non-argumentative theme of this post, I do not intend to attempt to treat with this doctrine here at any great length. The perpetual virginity deserves its own post (or two, or three!), so I will confine myself to one brief comment here.

It is in the Virgin's response to Gabriel that many Catholic apologists have traditionally found Scriptural evidence for Mary's continued virginity. There has long been a tradition within the Church that not only did Mary remain a virgin after the birth of Christ, but that she must have taken a of vow of virginity in her youth, and had never intended to have sexual relations with any man.

This idea, of course, poses the obvious question of why any person so consecrated would then enter into a state of betrothal and marriage. Such a concept would seem not only illogical, but even unnatural. For the time being I must leave this objection to the side, to be treated with in its appropriate place. Let it suffice to say that there is more than one very plausible answer to the problem, which appear to me not only reasonable, but quite convincing.

The only point which I wish to address here is Mary's question, "How shall this be, seeing that I do not know man?" The angel's words to Mary had given no specific indication of a time frame within which she would conceive. He does not say that her conception will take place immediately, but merely that it "will" happen. As an engaged woman, one who would probably be married in a matter of months, the announcement that she "will conceive" would naturally be understood as meaning "conceive by sexual relations with your husband." In fact, given her betrothed state, the Blessed Virgin's confusion over how she was to conceive makes absolutely no sense at all.

If, on the other hand, she had no intention of fulfilling normal relationships with her soon-to-be husband, Joseph, her question make perfectly good sense. Of course, there are many more arguments to be found on both sides of this issue, but at least this may serve as an introduction to the question of Mary's perpetual virginity.

The Overshadowing

Gabriel's response to the Virgin's question supersedes all previous human experience:

"And the angel said to her in reply, 'The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.'" (Lu.1:35-37)

There is a great deal to ponder in this passage, but for now I would like to draw our attention to the first line: "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you."

The word "overshadow" (or a grammatical variant of it) appears in five other places in the New Testament. In Acts it is used in reference to those who sought healing by Peter's shadow falling upon them. This passage is not directly connected to our present theme, so we will focus upon the other four.

Three of the passages in which the word occurs are actually different versions of the same story: the three Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration of Christ.

In this particular scene, Jesus leads the three principle disciples (Peter, James, and John) up onto Mount Tabor. While they are there, Moses and Elijah appear, and begin conversing with Jesus. Peter, confused and frightened, not knowing what to say or do, suggests that they build shelters on the mountain so that the great prophet and the great law-giver can remain longer with them. At this moment, however, something tremendous happens. A great cloud "overshadows" them, and from it a Voice speaks, saying, "This is my beloved Son, listen to Him." Terrified, the disciples fall on their faces, but when they are recovered, they discover that they are now alone with the Christ.

The mountain, the cloud, Moses, the Voice of God-- all these things draw us inexorably to the Old Testament. In the cloud we now recognize the Shekinah, the bright cloud of the glory of God, which figured so prominently in the early history of the children of Israel.

The fifth use of "overshadow" appears in the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 9, in which the writer is describing the furnishings of the sanctuary, which he tells us were "patterns of heavenly things":

"For a tabernacle was constructed, the outer one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of offering; this is called the Holy Place. Behind the second veil was the tabernacle called the Holy of Holies, in which were the gold altar of incense and the ark of the covenant entirely covered with gold. In it were the gold jar containing the manna, the staff of Aaron that had sprouted, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the place of expiation." (Acts 9:2-5)

We know from the Old Testament that the ark of the covenant and the place of expiation were also covered with the same Shekinah cloud of glory which we mentioned above. Let us then turn our attention to the Old Testament passages which concern this bright, yet inscrutable cloud, in which the glory of God was both revealed and hidden.

We first encounter the Shekinah in the thirteenth chapter of Exodus. It appears as a cloud by day, and a column of fire by night. It leads the children of Israel (Ex. 13:21-22; Ps. 78:14), and offers them protection (Ex. 14:24-25). Through the cloud God proclaims His name, "Lord", to His people (Ex. 34:5).

A little further on we find a great cloud descending upon Mount Sinai. Here we find a clear parallel to the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration. The cloud comes upon the mountain, God speaks from the cloud, Moses is upon the mountain, and Moses' face is transfigured. (Ex. 16:9,16; 24:15-18) There is an interesting connection between Sinai and Jerusalem as well, which St. Paul draws out: "These women represent two covenants. One was from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; this is Hagar. Hagar represents Sinai, a mountain in Arabia; it corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery along with her children. But the Jerusalem above is freeborn, and she is our mother." (Gal. 4:24-26) Later on in the Old Testament, the cloud appears again in connection with Mount Zion, in a deeply Messianic passage (Is. 4:2-6). The mountain theme is very important.

After the construction of the Tabernacle, the cloud descends again, and fills the Tabernacle with the glory of God (Ex. 40:34-38). The Hebrew people can only break camp when the cloud is lifted from the Tabernacle; as long as it remains upon the Tabernacle they must stay put (Nu. 9:15-22).

Within the Tabernacle itself we find mention of the Shekinah specifically within the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, over the Ark of the Covenant, and the Propitiary (Lev. 16:2). In the book of Numbers we also find the Ark leading the children of Israel with the cloud above them (Nu.10:33-36).

We find the cloud yet again appearing when God takes some of the spirit which was upon Moses and grants it to the seventy elders, who will assist Moses in ruling the twelve tribes (Nu. 11:25). This parallels the passage in which Christ sends out the seventy disciples (Lu. 10:1-12)

After God's covenant people have settled in the Promised Land, and the time of their wanderings in the desert are over, the mobile Tabernacle is replace with a Temple, constructed along the same designs. It is Solomon, the son of David, who accomplishes the building of the Temple. On the day of its dedication, the Shekinah so fills the Temple that the Levitical priests cannot continue with their liturgical duties (I Ki. 8:10-11; II Chr. 5:13-14). The cloud is also connected with the Temple in (Ez. 10:1-4), a book which also seems to connect it to the four living creatures (Ez.1:4-7).

Finally, the Psalmist mentions it as protective covering  (Ps.105:39).

These represent the principal occurrences of the Shekinah in the Old Testament.

Thus, when we read of the power of the Most High overshadowing Mary, and understand it in its Old and New Testament context, we may see three particular themes appear: the Mount Sinai/Mount Zion theme (and we have already briefly touched upon the Zion typology in an earlier post), the Tabernacle/Temple theme, and the Ark of the Covenant/Propitiary theme. Zion, Temple, and Ark-- these three themes will serve us well in the future, when we examine them more closely.

The New Eve

At the end of the angel's declaration we find the Virgin's response:

"Mary said, 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.' Then the angel departed from her." (Lu. 1:38) 

In Latin, the words "be it done to me" have traditionally been translated as Fiat mihi. The fiat of Mary has been the source of rich theological considerations and piety among Catholics for centuries. This is not the place to enter into a study of the fiat, except to note the interplay between predestination and free will. The angel's message to Mary is not formulated as a question, it is a declaration; this will take place. Yet God does not force Himself upon us, particularly in a matter such as this. There was never any question that the Incarnation would take place through Mary, yet the conception waits for her reply. One can imagine all the universe waiting, breathless, for her response. Mary is mankind's great "yes" to God, the "amen" which God Himself had prepared.

The attitude and disposition of Mary is that of the perfect disciple. She gives herself utterly to God, offering herself as the "handmaid of the Lord." She is attentive to Word of God, and obedient to His Will.  She is full of grace and faith, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, God Himself is formed in her, to bring salvation unto all the world.

Due to the limitations of time and space, we will consider here only one more theme from the Annunciation-- the theme of Mary as the New Eve.

The New Eve theme figures prominently in the Marian thought of the early Church Fathers, and will be granted a more lengthy consideration in a future post. For now we will only notice the parallels between Eve and Mary as found in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke.

The first Eve is formed from the side of Adam after he is cast into a "deep sleep". Mary, and all Christians are granted spiritual life from the sleep of death of the New Adam, whose side was pierced upon the Cross.

Eve is created free from original sin, in a state of original justice. We have already seen the strong argument from the word kecharitomene that Mary was also created free of original sin, and was full of grace.

Both were virgins.

Eve listened to the word of a fallen angel, lost faith in God, and was disobedient to her Creator. Mary listened to the word of the archangel Gabriel, was full of faith, and was perfectly obedient to God.

Eve is related physically to Adam, "bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh." The New Adam takes His flesh and bones from Mary.

Eve is the "mother of all the living". Mary is the mother of Christ, in whom the saved are now made spiritually alive.

Through the sin of Eve, and the cooperation of Adam, death came into the world. Through the faithfulness of Mary, and the work of the New Adam, life came into the world.

In conclusion, we may add to the themes we have already seen in these posts (such as that of Zion/Jerusalem)  four new themes: the theme of faith, the theme of virginity, the Temple theme, the Ark of the Covenant theme, and the theme of the New Eve.

Until next time, may God be with you, and may the Holy Spirit guide your meditations!