Those of other Christian denominations who do not recognise, or who underplay the hugely important role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Queen of all the Saints, or who insist that she can in some way be overlooked, or be left unpraised, not venerated or who maintain that her prayers are ineffective before her Son's Throne, are often those who use biblical passages in order illustrate their particular version of the Christian Faith, which is, in so many ways, a 'reformed' or distorted version of that which the Catholic Church holds as its own.
Therefore, in order to illustrate to readers the importance of Mary, the ever virgin Mother of God, a belief held by the Church since its birth, it would serve us to examine what God said to Mary. Mary, it will be noted, does not feature greatly in the New Testament, even if she is prophecised from even the first of the Old Testament, when God promises that the 'seed of the Woman' will crush the head of the serpent who led, through cunning persuasion, our first parents into sin and disobedience.
We will recall then that when when an Angel speaks, the Angel is a messenger not of himself, but of Almighty God. The very word, Angel, means Messenger. We can be assured very well that the Blessed Mother of God was close to God in a way in which no other human being can or will be during their earthly life, save her Divine Son, Who was and is God, the Son. There will never be a human being who is like Mary, since, though she was not and is not God she was without sin and perfect in every possible virtue. The only woman we can look at in the history of the World who was ever like Mary was Eve before the Fall. As we give to Christ the name of the New Adam, so we give to Mary the name of the New Eve. Never again will there ever be born a human being who, from the very first moment of their conception, is Immaculate, free from all taint of human sin, who is beyond reproach, pure, sinless and without fault or blemish.
At the Annunciation, we see a hint of this. The New Testament records the words addressed to Mary in that indescribable moment at which the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her. Let us pause for a moment and listen to these words and listen to the response of Our Lady to the Archangel, recalling that the Archangels are the highest of the Angels that God used, as recorded in Scripture, as His Messengers.
“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”
The Angel does not speak for himself but is the Messenger of God. For when Angels speak to human beings they serve no other purpose in terms of their interaction with human beings, than as messengers of God. The first words, "Hail, full of grace," at least as Scripture records (and we believe that it is trustworthy) that God addresses to Mary, are words which do not appear as a salutation to any other figure in the entire Bible. I am happy to be corrected, but I believe this to be true - that God offered no such salutation to any other biblical figure. If this is so, for I am no biblical expert, then it is for good reason.
Further, the Book of Tobit records how Tobias encounters another Archangel, the Archangel Raphael and yet St Raphael took on such form that Tobias did not recognise him as angelic, for 'he did not recognise him as an angel of God'. The Angel protects and counsels Tobias for what appears to be a long duration of time. Only after the wedding of Tobias and Sarah and well after Tobias's sight is restored does the Archangel introduce himself by these words...
'I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ever ready to enter the presence of the glory of the Lord'.
This occurs long after Tobit has met St Raphael. Notice, too, that an Angel does not appear to St Joseph in waking time, but in a 'dream'. Our Lady is fully awake, fully alert, is, we assume, not expecting a visitation from the Angel of the Lord, and yet greets an Archangel not in a 'vision', but in 'real time' - that is - reality - and we are not told that the angel has come in any other way but as he was created. Why? Because she already is aware of ever being in the presence of the Lord, in reality. God is her reality. She always has the Beatific Vision before her eyes. She is sinless. Her humility means that the Angel's sudden appearance is, we assume, a great surprise, but not such a surprise that she cannot bear it for she is accustomed to God in a way no other creature was or will be. Not only does she greet him, but is utterly docile to his words.
here, but I link to this only to emphasise a point and this is that the interaction between the Angel, speaking for God, and Our Blessed Lady, is entirely different to that which takes place between Angels and men in the rest of the Bible. It is extremely different. It is not recorded that the Angel tells Mary his name or that Mary asks for the name of the Angel. The Gospel writer says that the Angel is Gabriel. She does not ask, 'Who are you?' or, as I would before an Angel, 'Just what on Earth is going on, here?'
Those who dispute Our Lady's Immaculate human nature may wish to consider why this is so, for those who disregard her importance and the esteem in which the Church in Heaven, Purgatory and Earth holds her are gravely mistaken and among their numbers are men and women of the Catholic Church, which attributes to her honour and praise surpassed only by the Blessed Trinity, for even of the Angels, she is Queen.
Notice, too, that Our Lady is not, we are told, 'taken aback' by the presence of the Archangel but by his 'saying'. The Gospel records that...
And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.
Our Lady is troubled 'at his saying', yet it is not said that Our Lady is troubled that an Archangel of the Lord is standing before her or appearing to her. Strange, no? Neither does the Gospel record that the Angel has appeared to the Virgin in human form, in disguise, nor in a vision, nor in a dream, but in the objective reality that she is experiencing at the time. She thought with herself 'what manner of salutation this should be', we discern, because her ineffable humility protects her from deeming herself as a woman 'full of grace', even if her confidence and trust in God is such that she knows that the Lord is always with her. All her merits she attributed solely to God.
Twice Blessed by Men and Angels
As recalled by Pope Benedict XVI, only two other women have been greeted as 'blessed among women' in the Old Testament and both of these were 'warrior women' set aside by God to save Israel at the appointed time. These prefigure Our Lady. Yet these two described as 'blessed among women' are not hailed as 'full of grace'. Note too, that it is not just the Angels who revere and honour Our Blessed Lady, but human beings as well, since St Elizabeth, upon the visitation by Our Lady to her saintly cousin, says of her exactly the same as did the Angel, yet adds even more praise and veneration upon her than did the Angel, recalling her unworthiness before this Virgin Mother, when she says...
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Our Lady then, Scripture recalls, wins praise from men, or indeed women, and Angels, as it was then, is now and ever shall be. And yet, Christians who do not venerate Our Lady will use biblical resources to demonstrate their beliefs, yet will not use Scripture to assert that this is just an 'ordinary woman'. For they cannot! No, dear Christian. This is no ordinary woman. She is extra-ordinary and Scripture records it very well indeed!
Now notice that in St Elizabeth's cry, that the praise of 'blessed' lavished upon Mary by the Angel, repeated by human lips, is followed by the immediate acknowledgement of why this is so, for St Elizabeth says to Our Lady, 'Blessed is the fruit of thy womb'. Does St Elizabeth know who this Child is? All we know is that she considers both the Mother and the Child to be 'blessed' and yet, she goes on to say, 'And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?'
There is really no confusion here, no obfuscation. St Elizabeth has recognised, or has foreknowledge, or prior knowledge, or divinely-inspired insight, that the Child in the Virgin's womb is 'my Lord'. My Lord means, quite plainly, my God. Our Lady is carrying within her sacred womb the Lord her God. This Child is God the Son. Now I say this not to go into detail into the account of the Visitation, but to show to you that not just the Angels praise Mary and call her blessed, but human lips too, which cry out to her that she who bore the Son of God, was and is above all other creatures born of the union of man and woman, in merit, in virtue and in holiness. She is not an ordinary woman. She can rightfully be praised and revered in such manner as the Catholic Church does. The Gospels tell us so plainly.
A Woman Who Says Nothing but That Which God Desires Her to Say
Let us return to the Annunciation. It is recounted by the Gospel writer that the exchange between Our Lady and the Angel Gabriel is not long, but short. It is less a dialogue than a brief encounter. Our Lady does not even ask the Angel, 'What do you want of me?' She thinks 'with herself' at what 'manner of salutation' the Angel has greeted her with. She does not reveal it to the Angel who, in turn, consoles her immediately.
'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.'
Ne timeas, Maria. Do not fear, Mary, for thou has found grace with God. Mary is described as 'full of grace' and yet has also 'found grace'. God is completely pleased with her in a way in which He is not pleased in other creatures in biblical narratives. She is full of grace and always finds grace since it is God who fills her with it to overflowing, to His good pleasure from the beginning of her existence. She who was 'full of grace' is not, perhaps, consciously aware of the plentitude of grace bestowed upon her from the first moment of her being since her thoughts and very being are always turned towards the Lord. During her Magnificat, it is true, she will proclaim that 'all generations shall call me blessed' but only because 'the Almighty has done marvels for me, and holy is his name'. This is not a canticle of praise for herself but a cry of praise to God since she knows that the One within her womb is none other than God Himself and she is carrying with her womb, as the Ark which prefigures her, the New and Eternal Covenant.
That which God says to Mary and that which Mary says of or to God is little in the Gospels, but that which is said is deeply important because it tells us so much about the figure of the Woman who conceived with her womb the Eternal Word of God. Next the Angel issues what appears to us as a command.
'Behold thou shalt conceive...'
We associate 'thou shalt' with the Ten Commandments, do we not? And yet, the infallible teaching of the Church does not teach that of this commandment, Mary is a passive instrument at all, for, like all who are called by the Lord she is free to choose. Her liberty, however, finds its fullest expression in her utter obedience. Commandments can, as we sinners know, be disobeyed, or ignored, even rejected, but Mary is an active co-operator with God. We can thank Mary and praise her, because to her, what would appear to us as a commandment was for her not just a commandment, but too a prophecy, a promise of a New Beginning in which she would be instrumental and, without her co-operation, would never have availed to mankind our salvation and when she replies she will reply on behalf of the whole human race. This is no ordinary promise either, but the Promise, the very promise she longed for with all her heart. The Redemption of Israel and the Coming of the King and Saviour of all mankind.
Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.
Note, too, that there are three commands, or promises given to Our Lady. One, that she will conceive, two, that she will bring forth a Son and, three, that she will 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.
Let us pause and take note that the majority of the account of the Annunciation is one of instruction. Our Lady is listening and then obeying. The only point at which she speaks to the Angel are these moments. The first is a question. There is only one question that Our Lady poses to the Angel and that concerns her virginity.
And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?
Our Lady is a virgin. And not just that, she is only interested in the service of God. She will remain a virgin before, during and after childbirth since not only the conception of Our Lord in her womb is miraculous, but, too, the Birth of Him who would redeem us, the infinite merits of whose Passion, Death and Resurrection were applied in a singular manner by God to Mary from the first moment of her conception.
The Blessed Virgin and the Most Blessed Trinity
Let us recall that at this point in the exchange between Our Blessed Lady and the Archangel Gabriel, who speaks for Almighty God, all that Our Lady has been told at this juncture is that she will conceive, that she will bring forth a son and that his name will be Jesus. The only question that she has is one concerning how this is to be done. Our Lady knows not man, nor does she see on the horizon, or is expecting any kind of sexual interaction with one. How can she conceive a child when she is consecrated, or set apart, for the Lord?
And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
As we say in the Creed then, 'by the power of the Holy Spirit', God will, by His own incomprehensible power, overshadow her and become 'incarnate of the Virgin Mary' and become Man. Nor is this to be any normal man, nor is it to be 'a' son of God, or 'a' holy child, or prophet, but 'the' Son of God. The use of the definite article stresses quite clearly that like this Man there is no other, nor has there been, nor will there ever be, for He is the Son of God. Not only this but the three Persons of the Holy Trinity are at work here in this miraculous conception.
Firstly, that God, the Holy Ghost, shall come upon her. Secondly, that the 'power of the Most High' shall overshadow her. There is no need for the Angel to say 'And' in the the second phrase unless it connotes something different, though Someone intimately united, to the first. The first 'And' is followed by a third 'And' which connotes another, though, again, intimately united to the first and second who, we are assured is God the Son. Just to make it clear, I shall summarise the definite articles used to describe the thrice All-Holy God.
'The Holy Ghost' and 'the Most High' and 'therefore also the Holy....which shall be called the Son of God.'
Tell me, please, if I am seeing things that are not there. The Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that which God has kept in store since the beginning, the news that has not yet at this point been revealed to the People of God and which unto that day has been hid in the Heavens from all eternity. Not only that she will conceive of the Son of God who will redeem Israel and bring Salvation to the Gentiles, but that to her is revealed that God is One God, of three distinct Persons, who, equal in power, holiness and majesty, though One, deserve for each Person to be given the definite article - 'the'.
It is worthy of note, too, that Our Lady is informed that St Elizabeth, her cousin,
...hath 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.
The woman who will call Our Lady 'blessed' is the woman whose own conception, late in her years, beyond that time which childbirth is considered natural, as connoted by the phrase 'old age', is the very woman whose pregnancy the Angel relates to Mary. Mary's cousin is pregnant, in a miraculous fashion. Mary is to give birth to the Saviour of all mankind and her cousin, Elizabeth, to St John the Baptist, who will be the Messiah's forerunner, the herald of Christ the Redeemer.
|Ruth: Among the biblical 'handmaids of the Lord'|
The Handmaid of the Lord
Mysteriously, and our Faith is ever mysterious, at this point, the Blessed Virgin Mary has heard enough, with the only question posed by her to the Angel concerning how she is to conceive when she 'knows not man' as she has offered herself already, body and soul to God. Most people, in fact, all people, would require from an Angel a little more information than that which is given to Our Lady, but having been told that God Himself, by His Ineffable Power will come down from Heaven so that she may give birth to Him on Earth, and call Him Jesus, is told of her cousin's miraculous pregnancy, through natural means, though of a supernatural order, Our Blessed Lady, the Mother of the Lord replies...
'I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.'
There goes that definite article again. Aside from the astonishing docility of Mary to the news that, basically, her womb will house Almighty God, the Eternal Word, Second Person of the Trinity and Ark of the New Covenant, who she will name Jesus, at whose name every knee shall now, when she says 'Be it done to me according to thy word', note that Mary does not describe herself as 'a' handmaid of the Lord, but the handmaid of the Lord. In other words, she is confessing to the Angel with her lips that she is the handmaid and that in this she is alone and unparalleled.
No other words than these are recorded in the Holy Gospels of Our Lady's words addressed to God, via a heavenly Messenger, or otherwise, until her words to her Son are recorded upon her discovery of the Child Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve. That is precisely why they are so important. They give us the glimpse of the purity, virginity and the Immaculate human nature of the creature upon whom our Redemption depended. They tell us all we need to know even if the Church has so much more to say of her, in praise and pious reflection and meditation.
It is instructive, finally, that 'handmaids of the Lord' are not uncommon figures in the Old Testament, but that the phrase is ascribed to nobody but Mary in the New Testament and that in the Book of Ruth, Ruth describes herself and her relationship to her master as thus...
'I have found grace in thy eyes, my lord, who hast comforted me and hast spoken to the heart of thy handmaid, who am not like to one of thy maids.'
I can say even to the Heavenly Lord, 'Lord, I am thy servant, I come to do thy will', but this does not infer that I am in any way singular or of any prominent importance in my service to Him. Others are serving the Lord as well and better than I. If I were to say, 'Lord, I am the servant and I come to do thy will', that would not make sense unless there were no other servants. I am a layman, among others but not the Pope of which there is only one.
Ruth calls herself 'thy' servant in relationship not even immediately to God but to her earthly lord. Mary does not and her words are addressed to God through the Angel. She is the handmaid. She is singular in grace, in virtue and perfection, even if, while Ruth tells her lord she has 'found grace' with him, Mary is told by the Angel that she has 'found grace' with God. The similarities are striking between the two women, but so are the differences and this is because the Holy Ghost inspired the human authors of the Gospels to make evident that Mary is like no other.
Mary is different. It is apparent that her response and co-operation with God is unlike that of any other human being documented in Scripture. Mary applies to herself the definite article, since there is only one of her, has only ever been one of her kind, whose role is such as hers was in the Plan of Salvation. She is the handmaid of the Lord. She is the Immaculate. She is the Mother of God. There will never be another who is the Mother of my Lord. There will never be another sinless Virgin who conceives of the Son of God.
There is only one Queen of Heaven, only one God and there is only one True Religion even if other religions have within them elements of truth. That One True Religion is the Catholic religion, which contains the fullness of truth in the One Holy Faith which has been preserved, intact and passed on, 'from generation to generation' by successive Popes guarding the Deposit of Faith. Pray to Mary, the gloriously crowned ever virgin Mother of God as often as you can and she will lead those who entrust themselves to her to Heaven in the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of which her Son is the True and Victorious Head.