THE FIRST WORD.
THE First Word of our Blessed Lady was spoken at the time of her Annunciation, when the Angel entered the room in which she was engaged in prayer, probably about that very mystery which was soon to be accomplished in her own person. We are all familiar with the story. The words of Gabriel and of Mary are on our lips several times a day: “And the Angel being come in, said unto her, Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, Blessed art thou among women.”
But we are to remember that, before our Lady made any answer, she remained silent, and her first use of speech, if we may so say, was not to use it. For the virtue of prudence in speech, as we all know, consists as much in not speaking as in speaking at the right time. Before the word of speech comes the word of silence, as we shall see. “And when she had heard she was troubled at his saying, and thought within herself what manner of salutation this should be.” The words of St. Luke do not so much signify that she pondered in herself what the meaning of the salutation was, as how great it was, and whence it came.
We know that the message sent by God to our Blessed Lady was not sent till the fulness of time had come, that is, till the long preparation which was to precede the Incarnation in the counsels of God in the providential government of the world was accomplished. It is not likely that there was no analogous preparation made in the chosen Virgin who was to be the conscious and intelligent instrument of God in the execution of the great mystery. As a matter of fact, Catholics believe that the process of the Divine preparation of Mary for her position in the Kingdom of her Son began at the very instant of the dawn of her intelligent life, and continued from that moment without interruption till the time came for the message of the Annunciation to be delivered to
her. The intelligent life of Mary began with her use of the spiritual gifts with which she was so largely endowed at the time of her Immaculate Conception, the graces and virtues, the knowledge of God and His works, which she then received, and this was met on her part by so perfect and faithful a correspondence as to win her an ever continuing increase from His bounty of the gifts with which she began.
Although the few words which conveyed to Mary the first part of the message of God did not fully unfold the whole of that Divine message, as it was afterwards drawn out by St. Gabriel, still they conveyed to her enlightened mind, so fully versed in the knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and of the ways of God. the whole truth at least in germ and in essence. There was only one point in the whole Divine counsel of the Incarnation which was kept back for later revelation, namely, the manner in which the mystery was to be brought about by the agency of the Holy Ghost Himself. The words she now heard conveyed to her mind the intimation that she was the chosen Woman by whose means God was to be born into the world, in order to redeem it. This would be a natural conclusion to form concerning the thoughts of Mary at any ordinary time. We mean that, if she had known that the very same salutation had been made to another Virgin, she would have thought that it meant to announce to that Virgin that she was to be the Mother of God according to the promises made to mankind from the very first. But, more than this, it is certainly most natural to suppose that according to the usual ways in which God deals with His chosen instruments, she would have had an extraordinary internal illumination as to the meaning of the message. delivered to her, corresponding to the extraordinary external grace of the visit and words of the Archangel. We may therefore fairly conclude that she understood the message, and that her trouble was not so much as to what it meant, as on account of the greatness of the dignity to which, as it implied, she was about to be raised. We must take this into account in considering what we are
told of her trouble.
Mary was full of grace, and her humility was the choicest of all her virtues, and that in which she was most like our Lord Himself. Moreover, it is believed that she had been guided by a special instinct of the Holy Ghost to desire, and even to pray that, if her wish was granted that she might live in the times of the advent of the Messias, she might be the handmaid of the peerless Virgin who was to be chosen to be His Mother. It is not therefore wonderful that she should be troubled at the words of the Angel. It was not trouble of that sort with which we are ourselves familiar, an emotion interfering with the calm rule of reason in the soul or turning away its gaze from the presence of God. There are theologians who think that she may have shared in degree the privilege of our Lord in His Sacred Humanity, according to which He was never troubled, except when He deliberately took the trouble to Himself for His own reasons, as the Scripture says of Him that He “troubled Himself” or “began to grow sorrowful.” (St. John 11, 33; St. Matthew 26, 37) Mary’s trouble, even if involuntary, did not disturb the perfect dominion of reason in her soul.
It may be that the Blessed Virgin felt troubled at the appearance of an angel, though she was probably not unaccustomed to such visitations. At all events her humility must have been alarmed at the greatness of the Salutation, and perhaps also for the cause which St. Bernardine assigns, and which makes him call her Word in answer to the Angel, a “flame of separating love.” We shall speak of this presently. But the fear and awe of the Angel’s presence, added to her intense humility, is enough to account for her silence, on which we have already remarked. The saints of God are silent when they are praised, and are more inclined not to speak at all, than to be loquacious after commendation. Thus, as has been said, the first lesson which we learn from the words of Mary is that our words should be very few and not at all in our own praise. There is a tradition about the Holy Home of Nazareth that, of the three persons who lived therein, forming what has sometimes been called “the earthly Trinity,” the One who spoke the least was Jesus, next to Him Mary, and after her Joseph, who was the ruler and head of the house, and thus had more occasion to speak, while our Lord, as the Child, had the least.
St. Bernardine, when he speaks of the flame of “separating” love, as manifesting itself in our Lady on this occasion, does not of course refer to her silence, but to the answer which she gave to the further speech of St. Gabriel, which was itself a kind of answer to her silence. “And the Angel said to her, 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.” It is not a part of our business here to draw out the full meaning of these great words, which Mary must have understood in their full sense, and which, together with the appellation which Gabriel had first used when he saluted her as full of grace and blessed among women, called to her mind the whole magnificent range of the prophecies concerning the Incarnation, which had been the precious possession of the holy nation, ever increasing in fulness and clearness of detail as the ages rolled on. It is enough to say that our Lady must have perfectly understood the meaning of the language of the Angel, hardly any word of which was not taken from the prophecies preserved in Sacred Scripture, while at the same time, as has been said, the manner in which the mystery was to be carried out, had not been explicitly declared as yet, either in the predictions of the prophets, or in the words of the Archangel.
“But Mary said to the Angel, How shall this be done, because I know not man?” That is, as St. Bernardine explains, “since my state of life and condition require that I should not become a Mother in that usual manner?” She knew, he says, that God had many ways in which His will as to the Incarnation might be carried out, and she wished to declare that as to her own mind and desire, that way was to be excluded. Many writers are of opinion that she had made a vow to remain ever a perfect Virgin, singly and wholly God’s. St. Bernardine quotes St. Augustine to the effect that our Lady had determined in her heart to keep her vow of virginity, although he thinks that this vow had not been expressed in words, on account of her perfect submission to the will of God, and he adds that, after she had conceived her Divine Son, both she and her Spouse made the vow expressly, whereas before she had made it privately, with the stipulation that it should be kept unless God otherwise revealed such to be His will.
St. Bernardine then bids us observe the great devotion of our Blessed Lady to the pure and simple love of God alone, which she considered might be impaired in herself by the slightest departure from the virginity she had offered to Him, even though without any sin she had conceived in the usual manner. And it is in this that our Saint sees the “separating flame of love” of which he speaks. He bids us consider the intense purity and fervour of the love for God which is revealed to us by this Word. Even when the matter proposed to her was nothing less than the Incarnation of God in her chaste womb, she shrank back from this inestimable honour and blessing, until she knew the declared will of God in the matter, preferring, even to what was proposed to her by St. Gabriel, to remain entirely and singly and wholly His.
There are many other things said about this First Word of Mary by the writers of the Church which do not exclude the truth of St. Bernardine’s contemplation. For, as has been said above, the active part which was to be taken in the Incarnation by the Holy Ghost was a hidden secret, and no one, however deeply read in the prophecies and anticipations of the Old Testament, could have done more than guess at the truth–even if such a guess could have been formed by mortal mind–without a special guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who was Himself to he the agent in the matter. And even, therefore, if our Lady had some anticipation of the truth, she could not have presumed that it was so to be without some positive declaration of the will of God. St. Bernardine says that he thinks that the reason why the manner of her proposed Maternity was not before this explicitly told to her, was that she might form in her heart this most perfect resolution with regard to virginity, and thereby show her immense and boundless love of purity and merit so much the more thereby.
It was fitting that the revelation of the manner decreed by God for the execution of His great counsel should have been made to no one before it was made to Mary herself at this time, and thus we see how her silence and her trouble brought down upon her the inconceivable blessedness of this most glorious revelation, filling her mind with heavenly light and her heart with the most intense and overwhelming ingratitude. It is natural to compare her treatment of the message of God and His consequent dealing with her, with the corresponding reception in the message of God by the same Archangel to the father of St. John the Baptist, related just before this by St. Luke. The inquiry of Zachary, “How shall I know this, for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” is punished, on account of the incredulity which it manifests, while our Lady’s question, “How shall this be done?” which assumes the truth of the message, and only seeks information as to the manner in which it is to be executed, is rewarded by the astounding revelation of the action of the Holy Ghost. But here we pass to the second utterance of our Blessed Lady on which we have to comment.