The Personalist Project

At Mass this morning I was struck again by something I've noticed before. Mary's response to the angel's announcement that she would bear a child, "How can this be, for I do not know man?" is outwardly very similar to Zechariah's, when an angel appears to him and tells him that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son. "How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?"

Yet, Mary's question is favorably received, while Zechariah is punished with muteness, because he didn't believe the angel's words.

Evidently, the "rightness" and "wrongness" of the response doesn't lie in the words, but in something else. 

Mary's response was an expression of pure and reverent inquiry, while Zechariah's was one of skepticism and doubt. Hers sprang from deep humility; his sprang from pride.

It's true in human relations too. The same outward words and gestures can have a very different "feel" and very different effect, depending on the inner attitude they convey.

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Comments (5)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Dec 21, 2014 9:52pm

You and Newman think alike.  (I knew it!)  He notes the same contrast in his university sermon on doctrinal development. Mary, he writes,

is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she developes it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Dec 21, 2014 9:59pm

Probably I got it from him and forgot. :)

Deacon Peter

#3, Jan 7, 2015 4:02pm

Ms. Schaijik, your assessment of Mary and Zechariah's response is very astute.  I've given this explanation myself.  I would posit in addition, that the attitude of each is indeed in the words of their response.  For Mary it is was a matter of amazement and curiosity "How can this be . . ."  Her words accept the announcement and want to know how it will happen. With a very subtle difference, as you said, Zechariah is speaking from pride and doubt and his words seem to be asking for proof; "How can I know . . ."   By paraphrasing, we could say that Mary's words are asking "how is this going to happen," and have an implicit antecedent belief.  Zachariah's word's are asking "how can I know this is true," which has an antecedent doubt with anticipatory belief, if the angel can give him certainty.  Both responses as we read from the texts are very very similar and most people read them the same way, that's why we are asked this perennial question.

May Mary give us the Grace to believe so that we might understand, rather than understand that we might believe.  (cf. St Augustine)

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jan 7, 2015 5:19pm

That Newman-like term "antecedent beliefs" nails it. And you may well be right that the exact words chosen reflect the difference between Mary's subjectivity and Zechariah's. 

On the other hand, I think it's also true that the very same words can be used by one person to express skepticism and another to express faith.

Or take "What is truth?" In the mouth of Pilot it's rhetorical—a practical denial that the truth can be known and that he is responsible to search it out. In another person, the same question may be wrung from deep existential anguish and express a spirit of sincere inquiry.

One person who says "I love you" is offering her heart; another is manipulating someone else's. "I'm sorry" from the mouth of a true penitent has a radically different effect from the "i'm sorry" of the person who doesn't really think he's done anything wrong...

Deacon Peter

#5, Jan 9, 2015 12:56am

I think we seem to be on the same page, or rather facing pages of an open book.  There is no question that the meaning of what someone says is not entirely in their words, and the examples you give are sound.  On the other hand, or back to the first hand, it seems that we are on complementary sides of Newman's notional-real apprehensions.

What you seem to be describing is a general perception of human communication and expression which puts distance between us and Mary and Zechariah.  What we speak of when we speak of what Mary and Zechariah actually said in their moment of encounter with the angel's message is, as you said, their subjectivity.  Their words express their real apprehension of what the angel said and through intersubjectivity we apprehend their existential experience and we can interiorize it, not because we know their personal attitude (there is nothing in scripture that would indicate a doubtful attitude in Zechariah,) rather we encounter them and understand their response through their words.  There is no doubt in my mind that we agree, and it is clear that we are expressing our agreement on two different levels.

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