The Annunciation: Did Mary doubt?
I apologize to my readers for being late with this post. I was hoping to have it ready in the middle of last week before celebrating the Sunday of the Cross. But since we are still approaching the Annunciation on the Old Calendar, and time-wise it is actually a universal event, I hope this will be of interest.
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Rejoice, O full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son, and shalt call His name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end.” Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:26-34)
Why wasn’t Mary rebuked as Zechariah? In the Temple when the angel announced to him that his wife would bear a son he replied, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years?” Their answers to the angel are basically the same. So then, why wasn’t Mary rebuked? Did Mary doubt? Our Lady Theotokos did not doubt, she exercised discretion. As a person’s purity increases so does his discernment. Our most pure Lady Theotokos was discreet. In order to understand this we must consider the historical background and look into the account of Mary’s life before the visit of the Archangel Gabriel.
From the age of three she lived at the Temple of the Lord in of the Lord in Jerusalem. When she reached the marriageable age for young women of her time she was obliged to leave the Temple and marry. But we learn from early Christian literature that Mary had vowed to remain a virgin. So let us take a few excerpts from the historical information we have available (I will use the titles for these works as given by recent scholars). First “The Protoevangelium of James” tells us:
When she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, test perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord? And they said to the high priest: Thou standest by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto thee, that also will we do. And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8, p. 363)
This lacks detail and leaves us with a question that needs to be answered: Why did the high priest need to pray specially for her? Why was she different from all the other young women at the Temple? In “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” we read more:
Then Abiathar the priest offered gifts without end to the high priests, in order that he might obtain her as wife to his son. But Mary forbade them, saying: It cannot be that I should know a man, or that a man should know me. For all the priests and all her relations kept saying to her: God is worshipped in children and adored in posterity, as has always happened among the sons of Israel. But Mary answered and said unto them: God is worshipped in chastity, as is proved first of all. For before Abel there was none righteous among men, and he by his offerings pleased God, and was without mercy slain by him who displeased Him. Two crowns, therefore, he received-of oblation and of virginity, because in his flesh there was no pollution. Elias also, when he was in the flesh, was taken up in the flesh, because he kept his flesh unspotted. Now I, from my infancy in the temple of God, have learned that virginity can be sufficiently dear to God. And so, because I can offer what is dear to God, I have resolved in my heart that I should not know a man at all.
Now it came to pass, when she was fourteen years old, and on this account there was occasion for the Pharisees’ saying that it was now a custom that no woman of that age should abide in the temple of God. (Ibid, pp. 371-2)
Finally, in “The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary” we have a few more details:
The virgin of the Lord advanced in age and in virtues; and though, in the words of the Psalmist, her father and mother had forsaken her, the Lord took her up.7 For daily was she visited by angels, daily did she enjoy a divine vision, which preserved her from all evil, and made her to abound in all good. And so she reached her fourteenth year; and not only were the wicked unable to charge her with anything worthy of reproach, but all the good, who knew her life and conversation, judged her to be worthy of admiration. Then the high priest publicly announced that the virgins who were publicly settled in the temple, and had reached this time of life, should return home and get married, according to the custom of the nation and the ripeness of their years. The others readily obeyed this command; but Mary alone, the virgin of the Lord, answered that she could not do this, saying both that her parents had devoted her to the service of the Lord, and that, moreover, she herself had made to the Lord a vow of virginity, which she would never inviolate by any intercourse with man. And the high priest, being placed in great perplexity of mind, seeing that neither did he think that the vow should be broken contrary to the Scripture, which says, Vow and pay, nor did he dare to introduce a custom unknown to the nation, gave order that at the festival, which was at hand, all the chief persons from Jerusalem and the neighbourhood should be present, in order that from their advice he might know what was to be done in so doubtful a case. And when this took place, they resolved unanimously that the Lord should be consulted upon this matter. And when they all bowed themselves in prayer, the high priest went to consult God in the usual way. Nor had they long to wait: in the hearing of all a voice issued from the oracle and from the mercy-seat, that, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, a man should be sought out to whom the virgin ought to be entrusted and espoused. For it is clear that Isaiah says: A rod shall come forth from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall ascend from his root; and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of wisdom and piety; and he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. According to this prophecy, therefore, he predicted that all of the house and family of David that were unmarried and fit for marriage should bring their rods to the altar; and that he whose rod after it was brought should produce a flower, and upon the end of whose rod the Spirit of the Lord should settle in the form of a dove, was the man to whom the virgin ought to be entrusted and espoused. (Ibid. pp. 385-6)
We see that young Mary had a vow of virginity which was blessed by the priests. So then, who is this that comes to her and tells her she will bear a child. Is it really an Archangel or is it satan tempting again as he did with Eve. Young Mary, who was to become the Mother of God, was discreet and she questioned. And when she learned that the conception would come to pass through the power of the Holy Spirit without the touch of man she replied: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke1:38).
Through the prayers of the all-holy Theotokos may we acquire these virtues of discretion and obedience.