When the Virgin saw the Archangel, she was afraid lest he be a deceitful messenger beguiling unwary women like Eve, and she did not accept his greeting unquestioningly. As she did not yet clearly perceive the bond with God which the Archangel was announcing to her, “she was troubled”, it says, “at his saying”. She was utterly determined to hold fast to her virginity, “and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be” (St. Luke 1:29). So the Archangel dispelled the godly fear of the Virgin full of grace by telling her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God” (St. Luke 1:30). What favour? “That grace which is only possible for Him Who can do the impossible, and which has been in thy womb” (Luke 1:31). “When you hear about conception”, he told her, “do not suppose that there will be any deviation from virginity. You must not be anxious or troubled on that account”. For these words, “Behold, thou shalt conceive”, spoken to her who is a virgin, show that the conception is to accompany virginity.
“Behold, thou shalt conceive”, he said, “and bring forth a son” (Luke 1:31). Continuing as you are now with your virginity inviolate, you shall conceive a child and bear a son of the Highest. Isaiah foresaw this many years before the prophesied, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14), and “I went unto the prophetess” (Isaiah 8:3). In what way did the prophet go to the prophetess? In the same way as the Archangel now came to her. What the Archangel now saw, the prophet foresaw and foretold. That the Virgin was a prophetess with the gift of prophecy, is proved to all by her hymn to God in the Gospel (Luke 1:46-55).
It says that Isaiah went to the prophetess, wholly in the spirit of prophecy, and she conceived. Before the pain of labour arrived, she fled and bore a male child (Isa. 8:3-4). The archangel now told the Virgin, “Thou shalt bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus” — which means “Saviour” — “He shall be great” (Luke 1:31). Again, Isaiah’s words were, “wonderful, counsellor, mighty one, governor, prince of peace, father of the age to come” (Isa.9:6 Lxx). In harmony with this, the archangel now said, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1:32). (Why did he say, “He shall be,” and, “shall be called,” and not, “He is great and is the Son of the Highest”? Because he was referring to the humanity of Christ). The archangel disclosed at the same time that He would be known to all and proclaimed by all to be great and the Son of the Highest, so that later Paul could say, “God was manifest in the flesh, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world” (1 Tim. 3:16). The archangel continued, “The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). He whose kingdom is eternal and without end is God. But the child to be born also had David as His father, therefore He was also man. he was both God and man, Son of man and Son of God. As man He received the inalienable kingdom from God the Father, as Daniel saw and announced beforehand: “I beheld till the thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of days did sit, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, which shall not be taken by any other king (Dan. 7:9; 7:13-14 Lxx).
He was to sit upon the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob. Jacob was the patriarch of all godfearing people, whereas David was the first to prefigure Christ by reigning in the fear of God and in a way pleasing to Him. Christ brought together patriarchate and kingship into one heavenly and earthly dominion. As soon as the highly favored Virgin heard those extraordinary divine words addressed to her by the Archangel, “The Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28), and, “Behold, thou shalt conceive, and bring forth a son, the Son of the Highest Who shall reign forever” (Luke 1:31-33), she replied, “How shall this be unto me, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). “Although you bring spiritual tidings far above the passions of the flesh, you speak to me of conception in the womb, being with Christ and childbirth, and you emphasize the mention of conception by adding the word “Behold.” “How shall this be unto me”, she said, “seeing I know not a man?”
The Virgin did not say this because she disbelieved, but because she wanted to find out as much as possible about the matter. Therefore the Archangels told her, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). “You are holy”, he says, “and full of grace, O Virgin.” However, the Holy Spirit shall again come upon you, preparing and completing the work of God within you by the bestowal of a higher sanctification. The power of the Highest shall overshadow you, to strengthen you, and by overshadowing you and uniting you with itself, shall form the humanity of the one to be born of you, that He may be holy, the Son of God and the power of the Highest in the shape of a man. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth, who has been barren all her life, is now mysteriously with child in her old age, by the will of God, for with God nothing shall be impossible.”
How did the highly favoured Virgin, with her unrivalled and holy understanding, respond to these words? She ran to God and reached out to Him in prayer, saying to the Archangel, “If, as you tell me, the Holy Spirit shall come upon me, purifying my nature still further and strengthening me to receive the unborn Savior, if the power of the Highest shall overshadow me, forming Him Who is in the form of God as man within me and bringing about a birth without seed; if the Holy Child which shall be born is to be the Son of God and God and the Everlasting King, since with God nothing is impossible”, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (St. Luke 1:38). And the Angel departed from her, leaving the Maker of all united with a body within her womb. By means of this union, which was the object of his ministry, he had procured salvation for the world. Isaiah clearly revealed all this beforehand by what he was so blessed as to be counted worthy to experience. He did not see the seraphim take the live coal directly off the heavenly, spiritual altar. The seraph took it with tongs, and it was by means of these that he touched the prophet’s lips to purify him (Is. 6:5-7). The tongs were the same as the burning bush which was not consumed by the fire, in that great vision seen by Moses (Exod. 3:2-6).
Surely it is obvious to anyone that the Virgin Mother is both the burning bush and the tongs. She conceived the divine fire within her and was not burnt, and an Archangel ministered at the conception, and though her the Bearer of the sins of the world was united with the human race, purifying us thoroughly by means of this indescribable bond. The Virgin Mother, and she alone, is the frontier between created and uncreated nature. All who know God will recognize her as the one who contained Him Who cannot be contained. All who sing hymns to God will praise her next after Him. She is the cause of the benefits which preceded her, the protectress of those which came after, and through her those good things which are eternal shall be received. She is the theme of the prophets, the first of the Apostles, the support of the martyrs, the dais of the teachers. She is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of the whole creation. She is the beginning, fount and root of the hope stored up for us in heaven.
To which may we all attain by her prayers for us, to the glory of Him Who was begotten of the Father before all ages, and, in these last times, became incarnate of her, even Jesus Christ our Lord. To Whom belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
St Gregory Palamas