Quomodo fiet istud quoniam virum non cognosco – “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
I’m not sure who pointed it out to me first – perhaps it was a meditation from Father Peyton’s Rosary Prayer Book? —the similarity of Mary’s question to that of Zachariah a few verses prior: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” But unfortunately for the Levite the similarity does not extend to the angel’s response: why is it that Our Lady received a polite explanation while Zachariah was struck dumb for his skepticism?
The difference is the fine line between “How shall I know this?” and “How can this be?” Zachariah, upon receiving news of a coming child, demands some further proof – when of course a future pregnancy would have been proof enough of God’s word. God is not asking him to do anything other than continue serving him faithfully. But Zachariah wants assurance ahead of time, some absolute peace in certainty that things will all work out for the best, rather than have the patience to see his faith rewarded by the near-miraculous birth of a child to his old age.
But Mary doesn’t ask for assurance; she wants to know how. In what way, by what method will this child come? It occurs to me that this question only makes sense if you believe in her perpetual virginity. Imagine it: she is already betrothed to Joseph. If you were to make predictions about a future child to any woman about to get married, she might scoff and say something like “we’ll see”. But it’s unlikely that she would object on the grounds that she isn’t currently sexually active, because she’s surely about to be and children are, after all, usually part of the package. Mary’s question, then, is not doubting the angel’s words but asking for clarification: how is she to conceive this child? Is the angel instructing her to forgo her vow of virginity and instead live as Joseph’s wife? But no: Mary, like Zachariah, doesn’t need to do a thing – except say ‘yes’.
Sometimes the Word of God arrives to knock you off your horse. But sometimes revelation reveals that the path you’re on IS the right one but that it leads somewhere very different from what you expected. Hearing Luke’s first chapter for the umpteenth time this Lenten solemnity I was struck by how that’s how all parenting goes, even for those of us parents not granted an angelic herald. We choose to say “yes” to life, but little initially changes in our lives because of it. We say yes but we rarely know what our “yes” will ultimately mean. It can mean the pain of pregnancy loss or the long dark night of infertility. Or it can mean the life-changing cataclysm that is a child, ANY child, exploding into our stable existence with their own unique self. The child that you are given is always a surprise. We don’t get the certainty Zachariah craves, ever; instead we must open our hears and watch our lives take a new course, trusting God at the end of it.
This year the feast of the Annunciation fells near the halfway point of Lent – i.e. the point at which I generally start to feel that I’ve failed. My best intentions for cheerful penance, fruitful prayer and generous almsgiving have largely fallen by the wayside and I’m just staggering toward Easter at this point. It’s nice to be reminded or how much God wrought from Mary’s simple fiat. If so much came from a word, surely, then, he can wrest something from my half-baked attempts? God can change the world at a word; so may he change each of us.