Imagine entering a quiet church, looking about to ensure no one else is there, then walking up the center aisle toward the altar, bowing, and sitting in one of the first couple of pews on the right. You drop the kneeler and take on the position of a supplicant to God, beginning your prayers. But unlike the many times you have done this in the past, you suddenly feel a wave of heat to your left. Opening your eyes, you behold what has to be an angel, a dazzling bright young man, wings outstretched behind him, and his feet not exactly standing on the cold stones of the sanctuary. How would you react?
I think that most of us would respond the way the Biblical characters tend to do. We get a pretty keen impression of these responses by the usual things the angels say. “Fear not!” has to be the most often cited angelic greeting. Why? Because we get scared out of our skins. It’s not just the startle reflex which can be bad enough; it’s the otherworldly nature of this encounter with a being whose entire mode of existence is outside the laws of our universe. It also makes real everything we’ve been told in church all of our lives, a rubber meets the road, the nails going through the palms shock of it all coming together as most real. It’s not myth. It’s not ancient stories. It’s not what happens to all those saint people. It’s here, and it’s me, and oh God, what is he is going to make me do?
The other thing the angels tend to say is this: “Don’t worship me.” Which means, of course, that we mortal creatures of flesh tend to fall down and worship these immortal creatures of light. Since there has literally been nothing in our experience to rival the glory of an angel, it’s not altogether surprising—however shameful it actually is! The angels never judge people for worshiping them. They just say, “Get up, no worshiping me. Pay attention to what I’m saying to you.”
So, the usual human responses are animalistic terror or overwhelmed spirituality. We miss what the angels are actually trying to say. But not Mary. Not at all. She listened first and reacted to what she heard. Why? Listen to how she described to St. Luke what happened when the archangel Gabriel came to her:
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Mary’s first response is intellectual. She is not shocked at the presence of an angel! She is troubled—greatly—by what he says to her. And it’s not the part about the Lord being with her. She tells St. Luke in her recollections that it was the nature of the greeting that bothered her. And only then did she feel fear, leading Gabriel to encourage her not to be afraid. So, what is going on here? What did Mary know?
We’ve all probably heard that the greeting, “Hail,” was a political protocol for greeting a royal person, that Mary was a mere peasant girl, and that she couldn’t possibly have felt comfortable with this greeting. All true, but not enough to motivate her actual response: “greatly troubled.” And then, the fear.
Let’s consider what Jewish women understood about their status within human nature and the divine plan to direct it back to God. First, even though many people in the ancient world were unable to read—men and women alike—Jewish culture placed a premium on knowing the Scriptures and reflecting on them. In their synagogues each week they would hear those Scriptures read to them and explained. In their songs they would sing them, for what are the Psalms but those very songs? Second, the concerns of men and women diverge in the specificities of their sexuality, women thinking about marriage and child-bearing much more intimately and thoughtfully than most men. Historically, women handed down the knowledge and wisdom belonging to these categories to their daughters and granddaughters. So, third, those parts of the Scriptures that related directly to women would have been noticed by Jewish women. What are these?
The launching book of the Torah, Genesis, offers us our first insight. Eve was given a prophecy by God, as God curses the Serpent:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.
God establishes an enmity, a state of militant rage between the Serpent and Eve, between her offspring and the Serpent’s. Thus, women are going to be specifically targeted by the devils, because of their demonic rage—the “enmity”—at what women specifically are and do. Women will strike at the Serpent’s head, while he strikes at their heel. I’ve explained in other of these Questions how much Satan and his “offspring,” i.e., his fallen angelic cohorts, resent the merger of spirit and matter within human nature, feeling a racist disgust and antipathy that God should create such a “half-breed.” And it is through women that these “revolting” creatures come into the world. The demons accordingly take great pleasure in humiliating women in their womanhood, of turning the natural powers of protection and provision that God supplied to men against women and their children. They also relish convincing women to turn against their own children, especially through abortion, since it is through human offspring that the demons’ own doom will come.
And so, we come to the other part of the prophecy, that women will strike at the head of the Serpent. Notice the difference between the heel and the head. A blow to the head is mortal, while a bite to the heel is agonizing and crippling—but not fatal. Women will suffer because of their womanhood, but they—not the men—the women, will strike at the head of the serpent, dealing the deathblow. And it’s not just one woman, but women. We tend to think of this prophecy solely in terms of its fulfillment in Mary, but it is broader than Mary, and yet also contained within Mary. For Mary is the archetype of Woman, the best exemplar and model for who and what women are. And every woman who lives up to who Mary is participates in her action of squashing the head of the Serpent, of shattering the demented dreams of the demonic. How? Through the cleansing power of child-bearing. No matter how much the demons corrupt any human generation, the next one is being born into the world anew, and new mothers are loving those children with the milk of divine grace. Our children are our hope. And Mary’s child is the Hope. Women are constantly populating the earth with the very creatures—made in the image of God—that the demons hate. And the very act of bringing these spirit-matter hybrid creatures into the world is repugnant to them, just as Mary’s ultimate act of bringing the Incarnate God into the world is the harbinger of their doom.
The greatest victory that the demons could ever achieve would be to end the reproductive powers of women, for that would radically sidestep the divine plan for human nature. So, each woman who carries her child to birth and then nurtures him into the world keeps the train of God’s grace roaring down the tracks. Child-bearing is nearly sacramental for women. In Mary’s case it was absolutely Sacrament, for all sacraments point ultimately toward her Son. So, what did Jewish women know? They knew that through women and the art of childbearing would come the collapse of the demonic on earth.
But there is more, because the Jewish women also knew the prophecy of Isaiah 7, that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, shocking enough, but then that that child would bear the name of Immanuel, which they all knew meant, “God is with us.” Isaiah expands on the nature of this child whose name is not merely a sign of God’s general love for his people, but instead an act of incarnation:
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful,Upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustainsBy judgment and justice, both now and forever (Isaiah 9:5-6).
The King would be born to a woman, specifically a virgin woman, and he would be the Son of God, the Messiah. And he would sit upon David’s throne, meaning that he was to born of David’s house, thus, the tribe of Judah. So, all Jewish women knew that someday a virgin woman of the tribe of Judah would bear the Son of God into the world.
So, imagine what Mary must be thinking as Gabriel bows to her (look at Gabriel’s posture in the many paintings of the Annunciation if you doubt that) and rightly greets the Queen-Mother, “Hail!”
What is Mary thinking?
He’s saying hail to me.
I’m from the tribe of Judah.
I’m a virgin.
Mary becomes greatly troubled at what Gabriel has already said to her which, frankly, is hardly anything. But she knew what was happening. And then she did become afraid, because Gabriel only now encourages her not to be afraid. Why would she be afraid? Let’s see what Gabriel says next from Mary’s recollections to St. Luke:
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Now, it is intriguing that Gabriel repeats a specific point that he had just made in reference to her fear: you have found favor with God. He proceeds with the details of how she has found favor: God will come upon you and incarnate his Son, the Messiah and Eternal King, into your womb. Mary anticipated correctly what Gabriel was about to say to her, what, in other words, the favor was that God had in mind. When greeted only with “Hail” and “favored one,” she knew what was coming. But it scared her.
Now, we might wonder about that. Why would a woman spared the distortion effects of original sin and the fall of our race experience fear about the greatest act of God in the world? Especially when Gabriel then describes it in glowing terms? He doesn’t mention the murder of the children of Bethlehem, the holy family’s flight into Egypt, the hardship of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, his rejection by the Jewish religious leadership, the challenges of teaching 12 Jewish men one of whom was the hardest nut of them all—St. Peter. He doesn’t tell her of his betrayal by one of the 12, of his all night “trial” before the Jewish leadership, of his scourging and beating by the Romans, of a crown of thorns, a long arduous walk to Golgotha, or the terror of the cross.
But even though Mary did not know these details, she nevertheless knew what was coming. How? Because of that other prophecy of Isaiah:
Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth;He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him.He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain,Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem. Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth. Seized and condemned, he was taken away. Who would have thought any more of his destiny? For he was cut off from the land of the living, struck for the sins of his people. He was given a grave among the wicked, a burial place with evildoers, though he had done no wrong, nor was deceit found in his mouth. But it was the Lord’s will to crush him with pain. By making his life as a reparation offering, he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days, and the Lord’s will shall be accomplished through him. Because of his anguish he shall see the light; because of his knowledge he shall be content; My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear. Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty, because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors, bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors (Isaiah 53).
All of this, the whole horror of the Messiah’s mission—the “just one” bearing the sins of the world through an agonizing death—would also have been known to thoughtful Israelites. And there was no one more thoughtful, who as Luke says, “treasured all these things in her heart,” than Mary. So, yes, Gabriel said that he would be the king whose kingdom would have no end, but Mary knew that he would also be the savior of the world, as she later acknowledges in her Magnificat. So, she knew.
I think it is hugely significant that it is Mary who stands by his side at the cross. While the Father is forced to abandon his son to sin and death, Mary is there to encourage her son to hold on to the bitter end. She had carried this great dread of what was coming from the moment Gabriel said, “Hail,” all the way until Jesus announced that the redemption was finished on the cross.
Intriguingly, after his death, Mary obeys Jesus’ order to wait in Jerusalem, for remember, Mary always listens first. She remembered what her son had been predicting in the last days of his ministry, namely that he would die but then rise again in three days. So, she waits for him to rise. Notice that Mary is not among the women going to the tomb on Easter morning. They go to provide spices for his embalming. Not Mary. She was waiting in Jerusalem where he said he’d meet her. She wouldn’t be afraid anymore, and fifty days later she is in Jerusalem still, waiting with the Apostles as the Holy Spirit falls on all of them and fills them with the spirit of wisdom, power, and valor.