Chapter 3 of The Seven Words of Mary Derived from St. Bernardine of Siena



“AND the Angel answering said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee, and therefore also the Holy that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold Elisabeth thy cousin, 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.” It is needless to point out how great is the advance in the revelation of the counsel of God which is made in these words. Nothing had been said before this moment as to the Divine Person by Whose agency the Incarnation was to be brought about, and on the other hand there had been a remarkable silence as to any human person but Mary herself having any part in it. It was not so in former announcements, somewhat the like in kind, in Sacred Scripture, as, for instance, it had been said by st. Gabriel to Zachary, “Thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.” The omission of all reference to a father was significant, and fell in altogether with the desire of our Blessed Lady. And now that she had asked her question, so full of the love of God of which St. Bernardine speaks, a supplementary revelation of the highest and most ineffable importance is made by the mention of the Holy Ghost. The crown is thus put to the revelation as it before stood, and the article of the Christian Creed is proclaimed for all time, that the Son of God made Man was to be conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.

But we are not now to draw out the full meaning of these most sublime words, for we are dwelling upon the effect which they produced upon her who was the first to hear, from the messenger of Heaven, this truth which it was beyond the highest imaginations of the Cherubim to conceive. The change which these words wrought in Mary herself cannot be described. It is certain that they overwhelmed her soul with the most intense joy and gratitude, that she no longer hesitated or was uncertain, as before, as to the course which the great mystery of the Incarnation was to take, and as to her own immediate part and duty. Thus it drew from her the words which she uttered at once, words of the most perfect obedience, humility, charity, and joy, ” Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word.”

Mary, the humblest as well as purest of women, understood, then, that she was to be the Mother of God, as the former words of Gabriel had shown, and that further, she was to become the Mother of God without any impairing of that virginal purity of which her own First Word showed her to be afraid. And further still, she understood that this marvel was to be brought about in her by no created agency at all, even of the highest angel, but by the direct action of God Himself, the Third Person in the Adorable Trinity, and that, in consequence of that “supervention” of the Holy Ghost and of the overshadowing of the power of the Most High, by which the action of the Eternal Father is signified, her Child was to be the true Son of God made Man.

St. Bernardine calls this utterance of our Blessed Lady, in answer to the final revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation, a flame of “transforming” love. For it is the property of love to transform the one of the two who love into the other, uniting them most closely and inseparably. All true love, indeed, he says, must consist in this perfect union of those who love one the other, and so it might seem that this was the first flame which should have been mentioned in order, instead of the second. He explains that he has put the love which he calls of separation before this, because the flight and avoidance of everything whatsoever that is inconsistent with and opposed to the interests of the object of love must precede any perfect union with him, and thus it was right to put the perfect abandonment of any love but that of God in its perfect purity, before this second flame which manifests itself in the Second Word of Mary.

He sees the qualities of this perfect love in the words themselves of the Blessed Virgin. Her great humility, and readiness to serve God with all kinds and degrees of service, are shown in the words, Behold the handmaid or the servant of the Lord. Her confidence and intense love and great hope, are shown in the other words, Be it done to me according to thy word, as if to say, he says, that she would not dare of herself to ask or pray for this that had been announced to her, and at the same time that she neither dares nor wishes to lessen the promise of God, and thus she desires and wishes neither more nor less than that which the words spoken by the messenger of God have declared to her. “Be it done to me according to thy word!” This, too, was spoken by the one person in the world who understood most perfectly all that was contained in the message of the Angel, and in the prophecies and promises of God which that message embodied and set forth. The word, “behold,” implies the complete and irrevocable manner of her surrender of herself to God, the word, “the handmaid,” signifies the entire humility of the offering, the words, “be it done unto me,” show the breadth and extent of the subjection she professes, and the words” according to thy word,” signify the depth of her faith in what had been promised.

St. Bernardine has in another place (Sermon viii., De Consensu Virginali (in the same volume)) some more to say about the consent of the Blessed Mother which was given in her Second Word, and, although some of his expressions are obscure on account of the brevity which characterizes the records which we have of his sermons-unless, indeed, we have little more than the notes from which what he actually said was expanded by him when he came to preach–it is well worth our while to draw out his meaning as far as we can. St. Bernardine uses scholastic words which may now and then frighten us, but they have often very simple meanings. His great sermon De Cousensu Virginali is the source from which our commentary on this Second Word will be chiefly derived.

The Saint begins by speaking of what he calls the object of the consent which our Lady declared in the words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word.” Under this head there are four points to be considered. Mary consented to conceive the Son of God, in visible, passible, and mortal flesh. She understood and consented to the proposal that He should take human and visible flesh, and all that belongs to our nature in soul and body, that He should be a mortal man like others; and should be capable of suffering in all its forms, that He might be like unto us in all things, except sin. Moreover, He was to suffer and die for our sins, the sins of the whole world, and make satisfaction to the infinite justice of God for all men. All this was contained in the prophecies which she knew so well, and was actually expressed, though not in greater detail than was necessary to put her in mind of the truths that were so familiar to her, by the saying of the Angel, “Thou shalt call His Name Jesus”–words which were afterwards repeated by the Angel to St. Joseph, “Thou shalt call His Name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” This was the proposal, the acceptance of which was now Mary’s part, and depending on her use of her own free will.

When we consider the immense range of the predictions concerning our Lord, and especially concerning the redemption of the world by Him, and the way in which that redemption was to be carried out, we see what a wonderful depth and power of resolution was required of Mary in order that she should close with the offer now made to her. One thing must be quite clear, namely, that unless she could throw her whole heart and affections at the feet of God with the utmost abandonment of herself, and her whole life and will, she could never have given a worthy and due acceptance to so momentous a work. She must have seen that the work was absolutely unique, and could have no parallel in the self-surrender it required, her faith must have been most immovable and robust, her humility must have been utter in its submission, her emptying of herself and self-annihilation altogether unrivaled, and, as far as such a result could be obtained by the power of love, she must have desired and been ready to make herself as far as could be one and the same thing with the Saviour of the world Who was to become Man in her.

It is also needless to try to think how lofty must have been her conceptions of the Divine Person, One with His Father and the Holy Ghost in the ineffable Unity of the Godhead, Whom it was proposed to her to receive for a Son, and, again, her conceptions of the infinite and most marvellously loveable humility with which He was to enter her womb, to be a little Child, and then to suffer the most bitter pangs for our sins, dying for them on the Cross. This was to accept Him as Crucified and to be Crucified, as the ransom to be paid to the justice of God in superabundant satisfaction for the sins of all, and moreover in impetration for all boons, as the reparation of all that had been lost, and as the mediation required by all the elect and the children of God. Such were the conditions under which she was asked to receive in her womb the Son of God, for thus it was that His mortal Body was to be formed out of her most pure blood.

In the second place St. Bernardine bids us consider that it was proposed to our Blessed Lady that the Holy Ghost was to come upon her for the purpose of sanctifying her, and producing in her the marvellous change which was necessary, in order that the Body of our Lord might be formed in her in a most spiritual and supernatural manner, according to the decree of God. We know that there are changes made in us from time to time, as when persons pass from a secular state to the state of religion, or when they are raised to a higher state, or higher stages in any state in which they live, or even when they pass to new scenes and new duties and new habits. Some of these changes are like passing from death to life, from the utmost pain and infirmity to the most robust health, from utter poverty and destitution to great riches, from the greatest danger or despair to the happiest and most secure condition in the world. Such changes are sometimes most surprising and alarming on account of their novelty, and even produce astounding bodily effects by the suddenness of the horror and fright which they engender, making the hairs to stand on end, or the body to become rigid, so that the shock is sometimes like the shock of death.

But we can well imagine that the shock must have been great indeed when our Blessed Lady was asked to give her consent for this overshadowing of the power of God, and this coming upon her of the Holy Ghost, nor could it have been without fear and dread, notwithstanding the ineffable clearness of her faith, and the wondrous strength of her hope and confidence, that she gave herself up, trembling and astonished, to receive that incomprehensible and most Divine advent of the Holy Ghost upon her which was to make her the Mother of God. No wonder if she was filled with calm and reverential confusion, with anxiety in order that she might receive so great a dignity in no unworthy manner, as far as that was possible. With all her eager love for the coming of the salvation of mankind by means of the promised Incarnation, when the moment came for its accomplishment in her own person, what immense courage must she have required, who can imagine?

Again, St. Bernardine tells us that as the Eternal Father proposed to bestow His Son upon her to be her Son, and asked her consent to this, we are to consider how she must have felt the immensity of the obligation laid upon her, of love, of gratitude, of acknowledgment, for so great a gift. It was no other than God Who was to become her Son, the Father was to give Him to enter her heart, her womb. He was to form in her and of her the Body for His Son, Who was to be at the same time His Son and hers. To correspond to the dignity of the Father Who offered this, and of the Son Who was thus offered, must have required an act of love and gratitude and self-oblation higher than the merits of all the saints. She was bound to “bring into captivity,” as St. Paul speaks, all her intelligence and all her affections to assent and consent to the truth of the mystery now proposed to her in so sublime a manner, all that was now declared to her mind, and all the consequent truths which it involved. She knew that it involved nothing less than this, that in her, in one moment, the foundations of the whole fabric of our restoration and the redemption of the whole world were to be firmly and solidly laid. Her faith and her hope were the means by which she was made strong enough for this, together with the loving and humble obedience and subjection with which her assent and consent were given at the words of the Angel.

St. Bernardino adds, that Mary was moved to this by her great desire that that which the whole world was in need and in expectation of should come about, the redemption and restoration of the whole universe, including her own salvation and the salvation of all men, and the immense glory to God which would follow therefrom. Who can imagine how much she desired and longed for this? And he quotes St. Augustine, in his sermon on her Nativity, who says to her that the whole world beseeches her consent, and bids her answer for the faith, “Delay not, O Blessed Maiden, speak the word of answer, receive the Son of God, and begin to feel His power!” Her consent was as beautiful and royal as that which was asked of her was great. God had predestined that the salvation of all the elect should depend on the consent of Mary, and it is reasonable to suppose that He gave to her consent a corresponding merit and power.

St. Bernardine goes on with some considerations in the great virtues which our Lady exercised at this moment of her consent to the Conception of the Son of God. He first speaks of the kind of martyrdom to which she offered herself in this. With her enlightenment as to the manner in which the kingdom of the Incarnation was arranged in the decrees of God, she must have foreseen the cross which awaited her, and she must have welcomed it with an incomparably greater love than that which would have moved her before to undergo anything whatever for the glory of God.

At the time of His Conception, our Lord Himself made a most intense interior act, by which He satisfied for the sins of all the world, and offered Himself freely to undergo every pain and death, fully and completely, with the utmost promptitude. We know also that God, by means of His Angel, proposed to Mary that His Son should be conceived in her womb as the future Redeemer and Saviour of all the world. She knew the gravity of the reason for which the Incarnation took place. She must have known all the shame and pain and suffering of all kinds ill which she might be herself exposed, and certainly we hear from her no word of inquiry from the Angel how all this might be avoided or be met. She knew she was to conceive Him, Who was to be crucified, and the part that she might herself have to bear in the Crucifixion. “And the wisdom of God ordained,” says St. Bernardine, “to show that she was conscious of this, that on the same day on which our Lord was conceived, He was also crucified.”

The Saint speaks next of the virtue of pity and mercy as exercised in a wonderful manner by our Blessed Lady in consenting to the Conception of our Lord in her womb. She had always desired and prayed for the salvation of the elect, and at this moment she dedicated herself to the carrying out of the counsel of God which was ordained for that salvation. From that moment she bore in her womb the Saviour of all, and she bore, all in her heart as tenderly as her own children. And in the same way he speaks of her wonderful purity of mind and heart. She showed, as we have seen, her intense love for purity in the vow which she had made of old, to which she had referred in her First Word to the Angel. This love of purity, St. Bernardine says, was increased in her at the time of our Lord’s Conception, and he gathers this from the words of St. Gabriel, that the Holy Ghost was to come upon her and the power of the Most High was to overshadow her, and that therefore the Holy which was to be born in her was to be called the Son of God. The action of the Holy Ghost and of the power of the Most High, which is here spoken of, could not be without producing in her a still greater sanctification than it found in her.

We may therefore consider these words as showing that Mary’s intelligence that at this time she was to be so entirely purified, pure as she already was, as that the fruit of her womb was to be purity itself, and the Son of God. Her consent, therefore, given to His Conception, involved her consent to and her desire for this further advance in purity. Indeed, St. Bernardine adds, she now tasted and partook of the purity of God Himself. For the nearer that a creature draws to God, the more does it become like to Him, and share His character. It is a very little thing to think of Divine purity that it is free from all that is contrary to cleanness in thought. But Divine purity consists in the freedom from any thought or image that is short of the highest sanctity, It is into this heavenly region and atmosphere that the pure in soul ascend, and it was this atmosphere that our Blessed Lady habitually breathed. So it was at this time of the Conception of our Lord that she became the Virgin of Virgins, and attained a purity than which no higher can be found except in God Himself.

St. Bernardine adds some beautiful considerations as to the immense helps by which our Blessed Lady was aided to make this wonderful act of consent, on which the happiness of the universe depended, He speaks of four heads under which these helps may be ranged. The first is her election by God, the second the perfection of virtues she already possessed, the third the suffrages of the whole angelic host, and the fourth the “paternal affection” of all the ancient saints. By this he means all the prayers and merits and desires of the servants of God before her time, which all were directed to the obtaining from Him the one great object, the gift of the Saviour and His introduction to the world to which He had been promised.

It is so important that we should endeavour to raise ourselves, as far as possible, to the full height of the conceptions of the saints concerning the ineffable and unique importance of the mystery of the Incarnation, and of Mary’s part therein, that we must dwell for a few moments on this part also of the words of St. Bernardine. The Saint reasons thus. It is certain that the” elective grace” and charity of God, now shed upon Mary, cannot be compared to that which has been given to any of the saints, but must have been far greater. For this grace or charity is borne down upon the saints in a greater and higher measure of love in some cases than in others, and produces greater effects on their souls in proportion to that measure. For if God chooses, efficaciously and meetly, to raise anyone to a lofty and difficult state, His charity must move that soul in a degree proportionate to the difficulty of that state, and especially if there be no resistance and want of disposition on the part of the person moved. But the state of the Divine Maternity, for which God chose the Blessed Virgin, was the highest possible state that could be conferred on a pure creature. Therefore the elective charity and grace of God came to our Lady and moved her heart so as to help her to rise to this state, and the consent, now given by her, shared in the highest degree the perfection of the charity of God that moved her to it, the charity of God, full of love to her, and raising the act of her will to something resembling, as far as could be, His own love and choice of her.

In the second place our Lady was helped and strengthened to this act of consent by her own formal possession of all virtues. How great these were is shown: by the words of Gabriel, who calls her “full of grace,” “blessed among women,” and declares that the Lord is “with her” in a way which has no peer. It may be supposed as certain, therefore, that she was “full of grace” beyond all others, the habits of charity and of the other virtues being in her in a far higher degree than in any other saint. This seems to be contained in the words of the Angel.

Here, again, St. Bernardine reasons thus. Every holy and discreet mind girds itself up with intense vigour, collects its forces, and strives to rise to the performance of any work in a due, and devout, and perfect manner, the more it feels that that work is divine and sublime, and calling for the greatest possible virtue, and effort, and carefulness, and perfection, that it may be performed worthily and meetly, and in a way most pleasing to God the Father. But any believing mind will see that to conceive God, and to be the Mother of God, is the highest of all works, and that therefore the act by which it is brought about must be a most perfect act above all. This act was the consent of our Lady. When therefore she perceived that God had chosen her for this, and prevented her by His grace for this, and that her consent was required for this, then it behoved her with her whole heart, and the utmost efforts she could make, to dispose herself and lay herself open to receive so wonderful a grace in a worthy manner and without the slightest flaw of sin or imperfection. This was done by consenting to it worthily and fitly. But a means to such a consent was the whole array and armament of her wonderful virtues, which were all, as it were, strained to their utmost force in forming that consent.

A third aid to this magnificent consent of Mary is said by St. Bernardine to be the “infusion” of the angels. The whole body of the angelic hierarchies desired and laboured for nothing so much as the salvation of all the elect. When Gabriel was sent to salute our Lady, all the angels became aware that the beginning and foundation of our salvation, that is Christ, God made Man, to be brought into being by the consent of our Lady. Therefore the whole company of the angels bent all their desires and efforts to the helping of Mary, that she might undertake and bring to perfection this great work, and for this they all prayed to God, and used the “influence” which they all have, in proportion to their rank, in aiding and assisting her, the highest of all receiving their “influence” from God, and all working with one another in due order, until the grace reached Mary. So that St. Gabriel spoke in the name and in the power of all, as the ambassador and delegate of the whole angelic body. In this way they all cooperated, and the power of all with God was exercised in her favour.

In the fourth place St. Bernardine tells us that our Blessed Lady was assisted to the great act of her consent by the “paternal affection” of all the ancient saints. For all of them, either explicitly or implicitly, had longed above all things for the obtaining from God the Saviour Who had been promised, and His bringing into the world. Their holy intentions and desires and prayers and merits, all concurred to this effect. It follows that we must conclude that God had regard to their prayers and merits in bringing about the Incarnation, and in this sense they had a share in helping on its coming, and in aiding her on whose consent it depended, when the time duly came, to make that most wonderful act. The whole company of the ancient saints, therefore, as well as all the hierarchies of the angels, had a part in this great second Word of Mary, which involved a magnitude of perfection almost inconceivable to man, and of which we can only say that it hears some correspondence and proportion to the ineffable dignity to which she who was to he the Mother of God was elevated by Him.

These thoughts of St. Bernardine represent the consent of Mary, expressed in her second Word, as a choice, indeed, of the exercise of her own free will, and yet as an act brought about by the immense love of predilection with which God regarded her, as the fruit of immense graces received with immense fidelity, and assisted by all the power of the good angels, and all the prayers and merits of the ancient saints.

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