Sunday, March 26, 2006

More on the Annunciation

Today is the “leave-taking” of the feast of the Annunciation, which gives me permission to say more about it. In the Byzantine tradition, every major feast is followed by a post-festive period, usually a week or so (like the octave that used to be observed in the Latin Church). Since it’s Lent, however, the post-feast for this one is reduced to a single day, which is also set apart for the commemoration of the Archangel Gabriel, the “best supporting actor” of this divine drama (God and Our Lady are the co-stars).

One little point (though really not so little) that ought to be cleared up is a common mistranslation of Mary’s response to the Archangel’s greeting. Most bibles have her say: “How can this be?” But this response is little better than Zachariah’s a half-chapter earlier, when he asked how he would know that the same Archangel’s message would come to pass. (If Gabriel had his way, he might have said: “Because I just told you, that’s how!” But He was there only to deliver God’s message, and angels are very good at doing just that.) Mary, however, didn’t ask: “How can this be?” as if she were doubting the Archangel’s words. Her response is Pos estai touto. There, that clears it up, doesn’t it? It means: “How shall this be?” And that makes all the difference in the world (certainly it did to God, since He struck ol’ Zack mute and He blessed Mary beyond all measure). For it means that she already believed and accepted the word of the Archangel, and was awaiting further guidance to its practical working-out.

But why would she have to ask a question at all, if their relationship was that of an ordinary engaged couple (but engagement means much more to them that it does to us; as is clear in Matthew’s account, an engagement, or betrothal, had the force of marriage and could only be broken by a formal divorce). There has been speculation on whether or not Mary and Joseph had agreed, even before the great Annunciation, to live married life celibately. There’s no way to prove that, but the evidence of the Gospel strongly suggests it. If they were planning to get married and live as married couples do, and have children as all good Jewish couples did, then the announcement of a child—while certainly being joyful and marvelous (this whole experience was marvelous, what with the angel from Heaven and all)—did not, at that point, have anything particularly miraculous or incomprehensible about it. She was soon to marry, and if she were planning to consummate the marriage, then at Gabriel’s announcement, however extraordinary it might be—you will have a child, and He will be the Messiah—she could still see it fitting into the general plan of married life.

Perhaps Mary, as would any pious Jewish young woman, felt like fainting with awe and gratitude at the prospect of giving birth to the Messiah. But she said, “How shall this be, since I do not know man?” That is, since I do not have sexual intercourse. Now, the Archangel and Mary, both being intelligent creatures, knew that “I do not know man” wasn’t a smart-aleck answer, as if to say, I don’t know man at the moment, but soon I will. It only makes sense for her to be unclear as to how a child was going to be conceived if she wasn’t planning to have intercourse or children at all, if she had already decided to remain virginal even after marriage. She knew how children came into the world, so if she was planning an ordinary marriage, her question to Gabriel would have been entirely meaningless and unnecessary. But at that unique, pivotal moment in the history of mankind, meaningless or unnecessary questions were not allowed. Also, she was aware of extraordinary conceptions in the past, like those of Samuel and Samson, but even those required the standard combination of man plus woman before there could be a child.

Therefore the Archangel, knowing that the question wasn’t meaningless (knowing her intentions), didn’t have to say: “After you get married you will know man, and then you will conceive, silly!” No, the holy Archangel knew full well that she would never know man, that she was set apart by God from all eternity for a unique and utterly astounding mission—to bear the eternal and divine Son of the Most High in the flesh, and to bear Him alone. Anything else is unthinkable to anyone with even a shred of pious sensibility about things divine and holy. This mission consumed her entire being (how could it not?), and her whole life was focused on Him alone. For Mary, this moment itself was worth a lifetime of reflection, prayer, and gratitude.

So Gabriel proclaimed the reason Mary didn’t need to know man, the awesome, incredible, and wholly unexpected truth—I imagine him doing it in the style of the “mighty angel” in Revelation 10: “he called out in a loud voice, like a lion roaring… lifted up his right hand to heaven and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there should be no more delay”—and Gabriel answered Mary’s question: “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.”

I think I’m not finished with this mystery yet (can we ever be?). See you tomorrow.