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Question

Hello dear Father Bellon,

I would like to ask you a question about the passage of the Annunciation  narrated in the Gospel according to Luke.

We know that after  the words of the Angel ” You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus” Mary asked   “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”.

Over the centuries, many   have interpreted Mary’s statement as a vow of virginity and,  among them, if I am not mistaken, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine were of the same opinion. Yet, at present, even some members of Roman Catholic circles maintain there is no clue of that vow because Mary basically said: “How can I conceive, considering that I am a virgin?”. 

On the contrary I think that Mary’s  vow of virginity is recognizable in Her words  as  the Angel did not  say “You are conceiving now”  but he used the  indefinite future tense: “You will conceive, you will give birth”, therefore it was natural for Mary to think that the son who was to be born would have been the fruit of her marriage with Joseph. Even though They were not married  yet, They would get  married  soon after. Therefore, why did Mary provide such an  answer? Since  She  had excluded the possibility that Joseph could ever be the biological father of Jesus,  She could only have made a vow of virginity.

Given that  Elisabeth called Mary “the Mother of my Lord “,  we tend to think that Mary conceived on the day of the Annunciation, but the Angel said nothing about when his words would  come true.

What do you think about it?

Am I right?

I thank you so much, and I really want to express all my appreciation for the Dominican order that is so dear to Our Lady,  and that gives so much importance to study and preaching.

Stefano


The Priest’s reply 

Dear Stefano,

1. Your reasoning about Mary’s virginal intention is right.

As we are going to  see,  the same reasoning  is also supported  by Saint Thomas.

Meanwhile, let us  see what Father M.J. Lagrange, who has been categorized as  the modern-day Saint  Jerome. says.

As for Mary herself, she was astonished by the angel’s words and asked: 

‘How shall this be, because I know not man?’ We have to admit that this was a surprising question to ask; so much, indeed, does it appear out of place that many biblical critics want to strike it out of the text altogether. 

But it is clear that if we were to do this we should thereby completely lose what St. Luke chiefly intends to convey in this passage: it would be like taking away the diamond and leaving only the setting. 

An author like Luke, possessing such a delicate touch and skilled in the art of expressing delicate shades of meaning, could never have placed on the lips of this Virgin full of grace anything that savoured of excessive nazvete, could never have allowed her to interpose mere commonplace truisms in the midst of such a divine communication. 

Hence, what Mary wished to say was that she was, as the angel well knew, a virgin and intended to remain so: according to the interpretation of the theologians, she had made a vow of virginity and was determined to keep it. 

Nevertheless, she was far from presuming to oppose her own will to the will of God which He had just begun to reveal to her. 

Thus, on her lips ‘I know not man,’ means ‘I desire not to know.’ 

She did not say ‘I will never know,’ having no desire to thwart the designs of God. Hence, she awaits the outcome of her question. But if this was the case, object those who cannot rise above the mere commonplace, why had she allowed herself to be betrothed to Joseph? 

To this we might answer that, owing to the will of her parents she would be left with no choice in the matter; and, more urgent still than the wishes of her parents, there was the tyranny of established custom to be reckoned with: voluntary celibacy was not approved of in a daughter of Israel. [The natives of Palestine say even to this day: ‘Either marriage or the grave.’]

Had she ventured to refuse, the consequence would have been endless strife between herself and all her kinsfolk, to whose mind her resistance would have seemed altogether unreasonable.Hence she had been betrothed. But her betrothed was Joseph, and the subsequent train of events gives us good ground for surmising what is the explanation of the fact that she was able to reconcile a vow of virginity with the intention of marrying. It may very well be conjectured that Joseph was of the same mind as herself in the matter, surely not an unreasonable conclusion when we remember that these sentiments were shared by so many of their contemporaries: we mean those Jews who are called the Essenes. Joined thus in marriage with this just man, chaste as herself, Mary might be confident of being left in tranquillity and peace to lead a life wholly devoted to God by two souls capable of understanding and loving one another in God. (The Gospel of Jesus Christ, by Père M.-J Lagrange, O.P., First published by Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd 193 – Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2007, vol.1, Chap.1, para.4).

2. The footnote relating to Lc 1:34 in the New Jerusalem Bible CEI (2008),   provides the following explanation: “Nothing in the text suggests  a vow of virginity”.

But one may also object that it cannot  be excluded either . In the 1974 edition, we read the same words, but the Italian translator  had added:” Some people on the other hand think of a vow of virginity, as best suited to the global sense of the narrative”  (Editor’s note)

Nevertheless, the original text of the Jerusalem Bible,   that is written in French, reads as follows:  “The expression affirms the absence of marital relations as a matter of fact and perhaps as a decision  already made.”

Surely, the difference between the original French text and the Italian translation is astonishing.

4. Saint Thomas, in his Catena Aurea, reports a very enlightening text by Gregory of Nyssa, that practically anticipates your reasoning: “ Hear the chaste words of the Virgin. The Angel tells her she shall bear a son, but she rests upon her virginity, deeming her inviolability a more precious thing than the Angel’s declaration. Hence she says, Seeing that I know not a man.” These words of Mary are a token of what she was pondering in the secrets of her heart; for if for the sake of the marriage union she had wished to be espoused to Joseph, why was she seized with astonishment when the conception was made known unto her? seeing in truth she might herself be expecting at the time to become a mother according to the law of nature. But because it was meet that her body being presented to God as an holy offering-should be kept inviolate, therefore she says, Seeing that I know not a man. As if she said, Notwithstanding that thou who speakest art an Angel, yet that I should know a man is plainly an impossible thing. How then can I be a mother, having no husband? For Joseph I have acknowledged as my betrothed.” 5. In the Summa Theologiae , Saint Thomas Aquinas wonders clearly if the Mother of God made a vow of virginity. 

Here is how he answers that question: “Augustine says (De Sanct. Virg. iv): «Mary answered the announcing angel: ‘How shall this be done, because I know not man?’ She would not have said this unless she had already vowed her virginity to God.»

As we have stated in the II-II:88:6, works of perfection are more praiseworthy when performed in fulfilment of a vow. Now it is clear that for reasons already given (1,2,3) virginity had a special place in the Mother of God. It was therefore fitting that her virginity should be consecrated to God by vow. Nevertheless because, while the Law was in force both men and women were bound to attend to the duty of begetting, since the worship of God was spread according to carnal origin, until Christ was born of that people; the Mother of God is not believed to have taken an absolute vow of virginity, before being espoused to Joseph, although she desired to do so, yet yielding her own will to God’s judgment. Afterwards, however, having taken a husband, according as the custom of the time required, together with him she took a vow of virginity.” (Summa Theologiae III, 28,4)

What about the thought of the Holy Fathers along with that of  Saint Thomas Aquinas  which seems  to be different from that currently postulated by many scholars?

First of  all, there are reasons linked to the text itself that the Holy Fathers and Saint Thomas used to read very attentively.

The aforementioned texts  of Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Thomas confirm this. 

Secondly, we must observe that, in order to know deeply the sacred text, a great erudition and the knowledge of many languages are not enough.

We need above all to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit,  for such gifts don’t stop at the materiality of words, but they penetrate them to seize the deepest meaning that the Holy Spirit, Who  is the main author of the Sacred texts, put  in those words.

6.  I finally thank you for your words about the Dominican Order: “I really want to express all my appreciation for the Dominican order, that is so dear to Our Lady, and that gives so much importance to study and preaching.”

Yes, this is  true. And I think that is the reason why, in such a period  of widespread and dramatic crisis of vocations anywhere our Order, after all, still resists and  particularly in some areas of the western world it does seem to increase.

I wish you well, I commend you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo