AND THE BLESSEDVIRGIN’S CONSENT
(Part II of III)
An Advent Homily by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Doctor of the Church
Editor’s Note: In Part I, St Bernard began his homily by reflecting on the Kingdom of David and the House of Jacob, over which the King of Kings would reign. Today, St Bernard imagines what Mary must have been thinking when the angel greeted her, telling her the Lord was with her and she would conceive.
“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 will 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 Spirit, 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 Spirit was in her before His coming by an abundant grace; now it is declared that He will come upon her by the fullness of 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, so 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 has believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.” Her cousin’s happiness was announced to Mary 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 soon to conceive the Son of the Father’s love. A most glad and most generous heart was alone 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 cognizant, not only of the Savior’s coming, but also of His precursors, and that, by preserving a faithful remembrance of the order and circumstances of the 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 fulfill what He had promised. Because, too, He is 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 fulfillment have been unfolded to you, each wondrous, each replete with joy. “Rejoice, O daughter of Sion, and exult exceedingly, O virgin daughter of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 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 virtue of the Holy Ghost.
* The term “word” is found in the Vulgate and Douay-Rheims Bible.
Editor’s Note: In Part III, Saint Bernard concludes his homily with his reflection on Mary’s response to the angel.
Art: La Virgen en Oración (
The Virgin in Prayer), Rosario Weiss Zorrilla, circa 1840, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons. Detail of Holy Spirit from Pentecostés (Pentecost), Fray Juan Bautista Maino, 1612-1614, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Restored Traditions, used with permission.