The Annunciation and the Blessed Virgin’s consent

An extract from Homily IV by St Bernard of Clairvaux*

“But Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?” At first she kept a prudent silence, for she was in doubt what this salutation might be, and she preferred in humility to give no answer rather than risk speaking of what she did not understand. Now, however, she was strengthened and prepared, for, while the angel spoke externally, God disposed her heart, for the Lord was present with her when the angel said, “The Lord is with thee.”

Thus animated to cast out fear by a spirit of faith, she said to the angel: “How shall this be done, for I know not man?” She doubts not the fact, but only inquires about the manner of its accomplishment. She says not “Will it be done?” but “How will this be done?” As if she would say: “Since my Lord knows, and my conscience bears me witness, that His handmaid has made a vow to know no man, by what law shall it please Him to work this wonder? If I must break my vow that I may bring forth such a Son, I rejoice on account of the Son, but I grieve because of my vow. Nevertheless, His will be done. If, however, as a Virgin I may bring forth this Son – and it is not impossible if He so wills it – then I shall know that He hath had regard to the humility of His handmaid. How, then, shall this be done, for I know not man?”

“And the angel, answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.” It had been said before that she was full of grace; how is it now said: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee”? Could she be filled with grace and not possess the Holy Ghost, the giver of all grace? And if He is already in her, how is it promised that He shall come upon her in some new way? Was it not to explain this to us that the angel said not merely “in thee”, but also “upon thee”? For the Holy Ghost was in her before His coming by an abundant grace; now it is declared that He will come upon her by the fullness of the more abundant grace which He will pour out upon her.

But how will she be able to receive a fresh infusion of Divine grace when she is already full of grace? And if she can receive more, how are we to understand that she is already full of grace? Was it that hitherto grace had only filled her mind and soul, and that the new infusion of it was to penetrate her body, such that the plenitude of the Divinity which had hitherto dwelt in her spiritually – as He dwells in many of the saints – might begin to abide in her corporally as He has never dwelt in any other saint? Yes, this is what the angel reveals to us. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.”

“And therefore also the Holy One which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” That is to say, “Since it is not of man, but of the Holy Ghost, that you conceive, and since you conceive by the Power of the Most High, therefore what is born of thee is holy, and shall be called the Son of God.” In like manner, “He Who was born of the Father before all ages will also be called your Son. What was born of the Father shall be thine; what shall be born of thee shall be His; yet there will not be two Sons, but one Son” and “therefore the Holy One that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

“And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age.” Why was it necessary to make known this event to the Blessed Virgin? Had she been doubtful or incredulous of the angel’s words? Far from it. We read that the hesitation of Zachary was punished by this same angel, but we do not read that Mary received the least blame; on the contrary, we know that her faith was praised by Elizabeth: “Blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.” Her cousin’s happiness was announced to Mary so that, miracle being added to miracle, joy might be heaped upon joy. For it was needful that no ordinary prevenient joy and burning love should take possession of her who, with the joy of the Holy Ghost, was about to conceive the Son of the Father’s love. Only the most glad and most generous heart was capable of containing so exuberant an influx of sweetness and delight.

Again, the announcement may have been made to Mary, in order that she might be cognisant, not only of the Saviour’s coming, but also of His precursors, and that, by preserving a faithful remembrance of the order and circumstances of events, she might later be better able to unfold the truth of the Gospel to those who were to write and preach it. This was the rightful office of her who from the first had been fully instructed by Heaven in all its secret mysteries. Or we may believe that Mary was told of Elizabeth’s happiness to give her, the younger of the two, the opportunity of tendering her loving service to her cousin, and that the little unborn Prophet might offer to his younger Lord the first-fruits of his ministry, while the joy and devotion of both infants being excited by the meeting and mutual joy of the mothers, wonder might be added to wonder, miracle to miracle.

Lest, however, it should be supposed that the accomplishment of these magnificent promises was brought about by the angel who declares them, he adds: “For no word shall be impossible to God.” As if he would say: “In all that I faithfully promise I rest not on my own power, but on the power of Him Who sent me, for no word shall be impossible with Him.” How could any word be impossible to Him Who made all things by the Word? And this is striking – that the angel expressly says no word shall be impossible, not no act. He says word because, as men can easily speak what they wish, even though they cannot afterwards carry it into effect, with the same or, rather, with incomparably greater facility can God accomplish in act what they are able to express in words; therefore with good reason “no word is impossible with God”. For instance, the Prophets by God’s power could foresee and predict that a virgin and a barren woman would have sons; but God alone, Who enabled the Prophets to foresee these events, could by His own power fulfil what He had promised. Because He is both Infinite Power and Infinite Wisdom, “no word shall be impossible with” Him.

You have heard, O Virgin, the announcement of the great mystery; the means designed for its fulfilment have been unfolded to you, each wondrous, each replete with joy. “Rejoice, O daughter of Sion, and exult exceedingly, O virgin daughter of Jerusalem.”  (Zac. 9:9) And because to you has been given joy and gladness, allow us to hear from your lips the answer and the good tidings which we desire, that the bones that have been humbled may rejoice. You have heard the fact, and have believed; believe also in the means which have been explained to you. You have heard that you are to conceive and bring forth a Son, and that it will not be through the power of man, but by the virtue of the Holy Ghost.

The angel awaits your reply, for it is time that he should return to God, Who sent him. We, too, are waiting, O Lady, for a word of mercy – we, who are groaning under the sentence of condemnation. See, the price of our salvation is offered to you; if you consent, we shall at once be delivered. By the Eternal Word of God we were all created, and behold we die. By your short answer we shall be refreshed and recalled to life. Adam, with all his race – Adam, a weeping exile from Paradise, implores it of you. Abraham entreats you, David beseeches you. This is the object of the burning desires of the holy fathers, of your fathers, who are still dwelling in the region of the shades of death. Behold the entire human race prostrate at your feet in expectation.

And rightly, for on your word depend the consolation of the wretched, the redemption of the captive, the freedom of the condemned, the salvation of your entire race, of all the children of Adam. Hasten, then, O Lady, to give your answer; hasten to speak the word so longed for by all on earth, in limbo, and in heaven. Yea, the King and Lord of all things, Who has greatly desired your beauty, desires as eagerly your word of consent, by which He has purposed to save the world. He whom you have pleased by your silence will now be more gratified by your reply.

Hark! He calls to you from heaven: “most beautiful among women, give me to hear your voice”. If you let Him hear your voice, He will enable you to see our salvation. And is not this what you have sought for, what you have prayed for night and day with sighs and tears? Why, then, delay? Are you the happy one to whom it has been promised, or “look we for another”? Yes, you indeed are that most fortunate one. You are the promised virgin, the expected virgin, the much-longed-for virgin, through whom your holy father Jacob, when about to die, rested his hope of eternal life, saying: “I will look for thy salvation, O Lord.” (Gen. 49:18)

You, O Mary, are that virgin in whom and by whom God Himself, our King before all ages, determined to operate our salvation in the midst of the earth. Why do you humbly expect from another what is offered to you, and will soon be manifested through yourself if you will but yield your consent and speak the word? Answer, then, quickly to the angel – yes, through the angel give your consent to your God. Answer the word, receive the Word. Utter yours, conceive the Divine. Speak the word that is transitory, and embrace the Word that is everlasting.

Why do you delay? Why are you fearful? Believe – confess – receive. Let humility put on courage, and timidity confidence. It is certainly by no means fitting that virginal simplicity should forget prudence. Yet in this one case only the prudent virgin need not fear presumption, because, though modesty shone forth in her silence, it is now more necessary that her devotion and obedience should be revealed by her speech.

Open, Blessed Virgin, your heart to faith, your lips to compliance, your bosom to your Creator. Behold, the desired of all nations stands at the gate and knocks. Oh, suppose He were to pass by while you delay! How would you begin again with sorrow to seek Him whom your soul loveth! Arise — run — open! Arise by faith, run by devotion, open by acceptance. Mary speaks. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to thy word.”

Humility is ever the close companion of divine grace, for “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble”. (Jam 4:6) She answers humbly, therefore, that the throne of grace may be prepared. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” She is the chosen Mother of God, and she calls herself His handmaid. Truly, it is no small sign of humility to preserve even the remembrance of this virtue in presence of so great glory. It is no great perfection to be humble when we are despised; but it is a great and rare virtue to preserve humility in the midst of honours. If, deceived by my apparent virtue, the Church has raised me, an insignificant man, to some small dignity, God permitting it, either because of my own sins, or those of those subject to me, do I not immediately, forgetting my past deficiencies, imagine myself to be that which men, who see not the heart, have reputed me to be? Then I hearken to fame, and attend not to conscience. I forget that honour is rendered to virtue, and take the virtue for granted because of the honour, and so esteem myself the more holy when I find myself in an exalted position. Let us listen to the words of her who, though chosen to be the Mother of God, yet laid not aside her humility. “Behold,” she says, “the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to thy word.”

Fiat mihi (“Be it done to me”). Fiat is a mark of desire, not of doubt. In saying, “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” she expresses the disposition of one who longs to see the effect, not of one who doubts its possibility. Fiat may also be understood as a word of petition, for no one prays unless he believes, and hopes to obtain. God wishes that which He has promised to be asked for, and perhaps promises many things which He had predetermined to bestow, in order that the promise may arouse our devotion, and that what He intends to give gratis we may merit by devout prayer. Thus, our gracious God, Who desires the salvation of all, as it were, extorts meritorious works from us, and while He strengthens our will by His grace, He wishes that what He gives freely we shall labour to obtain.

This the prudent Virgin understood when to the prevenient grace of a gratuitous promise she joined the merit of her own prayer, saying: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to thy word. May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to thy word. May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived – that is, clothed in flesh – which may remain. May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time. “God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1:1) – to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures. Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to thy word.

Be it done unto me – not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me. In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word”. Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me – “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

* St Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas, compiled and translated at St Mary’s Convent, York (Benziger Bros., 1909) p 60–72.