Behold the Handmaid: Mary's Part in the Incarnation

Chapter 7 of Mother of God by Fr. Cyril Bernard Papali O.C.D.

Read the other chapters here.

And the Angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a Son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus … And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke I, 30, 31, 38.)


          “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that gave Thee suck,” cried the woman in the Gospel; at which Our Lord rejoined: “Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”[1] And every word of His, like Himself, is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many. Down the centuries the heretic has exulted over this remark of Our Lord for he has contrived to see in it a denial of the blessedness which the woman claimed for Mary. And the heretic has not suspected for a moment that this does not dismiss the case for Mary, for the second blessedness was pre-eminently hers who more than all others had heard the word of God and kept it. The Catholic on the contrary sees in the words of Our Lord not a retort or a denial, but an improvement on the words of the woman. The inconceivable blessedness, which is Mary’s by reason of her material co-operation in the Incarnation, itself pales before the blessedness that her spiritual co-operation has brought her. And this second blessedness needed special stressing both because it is not self-evident to the cruder minds and because it is the one all can and ought to participate in. It is the Hebrew way to emphasise a thing by eclipsing everything else even to the extent of seeming to deny them. No one familiar with the Scriptures will be surprised at it. God loved Jacob and hated Esau even before they were born, says St. Paul.[2] There was no question of hatred at all, He merely loved Esau less. “I want mercy, not sacrifice,” says the Lord;[3] certainly He wanted sacrifice, but He wanted mercy more. Any way the Church does not suspect in those words of Our Lord an attempt on His part to discourage or hush up that particular praise of Mary, for daily she concludes the Divine Office which is her official praise of God with those very words repeated almost after the fashion of a challenge: “Blessed is the womb that bore thee and the breasts that gave Thee suck.” And without waiting for a rejoinder she shuts the breviary for the day. Evidently the Church makes much of this blessedness of Mary.

          The first Adam on seeing the first Eve exclaimed: “She is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”[4] He could say that in the fullest sense of the words, for her material substance was taken entirely from him. Since that day non one has said this about another with the same fullness of meaning till a new Adam and a new Eve appeared on the scene. But this time it was the Eve that could say of the Adam: He is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She can say so not only with as much truth as Adam, for the whole material substance assumed by the Incarnate Word was taken entirely from her, He being born of a mother without a human father; but she can say so with infinitely more truth, for while Adam was only a sleeping and passive partner in the formation of Eve, Mary was far otherwise in the Incarnation of God as we shall presently see. But the point we stress here is that she co-operated materially and fully in the Incarnation, supplying the whole of the material of which the sacred Body of Christ was formed. As in the creation of the First Adam God did not produce his body from nothing but formed it out of virgin earth, so for the Second Adam God formed a body not from nothing, not from some astral material or celestial stuff, but from the immaculate blood of the Blessed Virgin. And this, not merely to perfect the parallel, but to ensure that Christ is Second Adam in every way, one with the human race not merely by a mystical incorporation and adoption, but fundamentally by ties of flesh and blood. He must be recognised as the “Son of Man” without any need of a stretch of the imagination.

          The first few centuries of the Church saw most of the heresies against the truth of the Incarnation, and everyone of them was either openly or by implication an attack on the dignity of Mary and her part in the Incarnation. The blood-relationship between Christ and His Mother has always been particularly disconcerting to the heretics, and they have left no stone unturned to save Him from what they believed to be an embarrassing situation. Some denied His Divinity, which certainly rendered the situation less embarrassing! Others multiplied personality in Him, a human person to be born of the Virgin and a Divine Person to have nothing to do with it. Yet others denied the reality of His body altogether and reduced His earthly existence to an illusion. And a fourth variety of them, while admitting the reality of His body, claimed to have discovered that it came from somewhere above the clouds and merely passed through the Virgin’s womb as an apology for a human birth. In answer to them all, the Church has raised a grand chorus, almost a riotous uproar, down the centuries and throughout the length and breadth of the world, repeating some thousand millions of times a day: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus.” If anything, the “Hail Mary” is the watchword and war cry of the Church Militant. One after another all these heresies were refuted and condemned by the Church. They even turned out to be blessings in disguise, for Marian theology grew at their provocation.

          That the Son of God assumed a body formed out of the substance of the body of the Blessed Virgin is confessed by the Church in the Athanasian Creed where Christ is owned to be God, of the substance of the Father, and Man, of the substance of the mother. St. Paul had already stressed the point unmistakably when he wrote: “God sent His Son, made of the woman, made under the law.”[5] Tertullian thinks that it was not by accident that St. Paul made use of the expression “made of the woman” instead of “born of the woman”. Refuting the “distorting grammarians” of his time he wrote: “God sent His Son made of the woman. Is it through the woman or in the woman? Now, it is with a special stress that He is said to be made rather than born. It would have been more simple to say born; but the term made has made it clear that the Word was made flesh and that that flesh was truly taken from the Blessed Virgin.”[6] St. Basil argues on similar lines. “The Apostle has chosen a most significant word,” says he, “to show that the flesh was taken from the mass of human flesh. For if he had said ‘through the woman’ it might simply have meant a passage through her in the act of being born, but by saying ‘of the woman’ he has sufficiently declared the communion of nature between the mother and the Son.”[7] The Early Father seem to have had quite a series of wars to wage on this one point. Here is the fiery St. Athanasius crossing words with Apollinaris: “God the Word, conceived of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost (and born in Bethlehem of Juda), of the seed of David and Abraham and Adam as it is written, received from the Virgin everything that God had from the beginning created and prepared for the formation of the human constitution.”[8] What could be clearer than these words of St. Fulgentius?: “One and the same God who is eternally begotten of the Father is conceived and born of a mother as true man according to the flesh. It is not that God the Son assumed an already conceived flesh, but that He, by a marvellous depth of humility, was Himself conceived in that flesh. That same God was created in the Virgin and of the Virgin according to the flesh, who created the mother of whom and in whom He was to be created. If, however, the Word of God became flesh in the Virgin but not of the Virgin, He would not have received the bodily substance from the substance of the mother, but would have only passed through her. Hence His office of Mediator would not have profited us, not would there have been a perfect union of complete humanity and Divinity in Christ the Son of God. The goodness of God therefore found out this remedy that the only begotten Son of God who is in the bosom of the Father become man not only in the woman but also of the woman.”[9] Let us conclude this point with the words of St. Bede the Venerable: “But if the flesh of God the Word, born according to the flesh, be said to be other than that of the Virgin Mother, it is meaningless to proclaim blessed the womb that bore Him and the breasts that gave Him suck. For the Apostle says God sent His Son made of the woman, made under the law. They do not deserve a hearing who say it should be read: born of the woman, made under the law. It is, made of the woman, because conceived of the virginal womb He drew His flesh not out of nothing nor from anywhere else, but from the maternal flesh. Otherwise He would not then have originated from man. Now, therefore, having said these things against Eutyches, let us raise our voice with the Catholic Church, whose type that woman bore, let us raise our minds too from the midst of the crowd and say to the Saviour: Blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that gave Thee suck.”[10]

          But all this fades into insignificance beside her spiritual contribution to the Incarnation. “The Mother of God is Blessed indeed,” continues St. Bede, “because she became the temporal instrument in the Incarnation. But she is far more Blessed for becoming the loving guardian of the same Word for eternity.”[11] But even this is the least part of her spiritual co-operation in the Incarnation. If she did nothing more than knowingly and willingly consent to be a passive instrument in this divine work, that would suffice to make God and man indebted to her. But her role was far greater than that. God made her merit the Incarnation. We do not speak about a merit of equality compelling the justice of God, but a merit of congruity disarming the goodness of God, but a true merit all the same, infallibly obtaining and owning the desired object. The point is, God is free to bind Himself, and there is nothing surprising in it if His infinite condescension has ordained that not only the fruits of the Incarnation but even the whole fact should belong to us in some way. God said once to Abraham: “In they seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed My voice.”[12] That holy Patriarch by his obedience merited to become the forefather of Christ. But he could not influence the Incarnation as Mary did, for he was subject to sin like the rest of mankind. But Mary was on a far different footing. In her we have a pure and perfect creature, low enough to touch the earth, high enough to reach the very throne of God, designed by God Himself to bridge the chasm between the two and bring down the only Begotten of the Father. God has so made her merit His Incarnation as to enable Him to regard this fact as an achievement of the human race. In the “Regina Coeli” the Church congratulates Mary on the Resurrection of Him “Whom Thou didst merit to bear”. “The Blessed Virgin merited,” says St. Augustine, “to conceive and bring forth God.”[13] And again in another place: “From all the world, this Virgin is elected, who had such merit as to receive in herself the Son of God.”[14] St. Jerome in one of his epistles wrote: “Meditate on Mary, who was of such purity as to merit to become the Mother of the Lord.”[15]

          One might wonder what more there is to say about her part in the Incarnation. Almost everything remains to be said. We are so used to reciting the mysteries of the Rosary that we hardly realise there is a stupendous mystery behind the simple story of the Annunciation. An Angel appears to Mary and salutes her. It is not any angel that comes to her, but one of the seven who stand nearest the throne of God. Gabriel has a place of honour even among that chosen seven. Every message of extraordinary importance, message of joy and reconciliation, of hope and deliverance, has come through him. He fortified Gedeon and sent him forth against the Madianites. He brought good tidings to Daniel in the Babylonian captivity and led the people back in freedom. Again it was he who a short while before the annunciation we are speaking about, appeared to Zachary with the news of the approaching birth of the Precursor. He comes to Mary and delivers a message to her. He does not depart immediately; he does not instruct, command or reproach as we see him do on other occasions; he does not at all behave like a superior being, but waits in reverent anxiety for her reply. Surely there must be something of cosmic significance in the message, and what is more, her reply must be of supreme importance. That is why the Angel waited and all heaven perhaps held their breath. All creation must have trembled if it knew the true significance of that moment. For at that sublime moment the destines of heaven and earth were place in the delicate hands of a young maiden. It all hung on her word. Perhaps Solomon had a prophetic picture before his mind’s eye when he asked:” Who shall find the Strong Woman?” By the Annunciation God was not merely giving her a chance to take an intelligent and meritorious part in the Incarnation, He was so placing it in her hands that, if she had withheld consent, that fact would not have taken place. It was completely conditioned by her will. St. Bernard had good reason to exclaim: “The Angel awaits your reply, O Lady, and we too, miserably cast down by a death sentence, await a word of mercy from thee. Behold the price of our salvation is placed in thy hands. We shall soon be free if only thou wilt consent.”[16]

          What would have happened if she had not given her consent? Such a question finds no place in the plans of God. Certainly He did not feel constrained to provide against such a contingency. When He placed the destiny of the universe in her hands He knew it was in safe hands. When God was creating the universe He said “Fiat” and all things came forth from nothing; but when He Himself assumed a created nature He wanted that “Fiat” to be pronounced by a creature. It is entirely His work, it is true, but His merciful Omnipotence has so worked it out that it is truly her doing as well. “The Angel does not merely speak of the personal grandeur of Jesus,” says Bainvel, “he tenders Mary a call to become the Mother of the Saviour, of the expected Messiah, the Eternal King of regenerated mankind. The whole work of Redemption hinges on Mary’s ‘Fiat’. She is aware of what God proffers her; she accedes without restriction or condition to what God asks of her. Her ‘Fiat’ embraces the whole import of the divine invitation, it extends to the entire work of Redemption.”[17] And Mary said: “Be it done unto me according to thy word”… and the Word was made flesh.


[1] Luke 11, 27.

[2] Rom. ix, 13.

[3] Matth. ix, 13; Osee. vi, 6.

[4] Gen. iv, 4.

[5] Gal. iv, 4.

[6] De Carne Christi, c. 20. PL. ii, 831 A.

[7] De Spirit. S., c. 5; PG. xxxii, 86 C.

[8] Contra Apollinar. I, ii, 5; PG. xxvi, 1140 AB.

[9] Epist. xviii, c. 2, sq. – PL. lxv, 454, BC.

[10] In Luc. i, 4, c. ii. (Homil, in Comm. Fest. B.M.V.)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gen. xxii, 18.

[13] De Natura et Gratia, Cap. 30.

[14] Sermo 193 de Annunt. Dominica, n. 2; PL. xxxix, 2104.

[15] Epist. 22 ad Eustoch.

[16] Homil. 4, super Missus Est.

[17] Marie, Mere de Grace, pp. 73, 75.