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The Two Annunciations

The Apparition To Zachary

St Luke indicates the date of the apparition to Zachary by placing it toward the end of the reign of Herod the Great (1:5). The true scepter had verily departed from Juda. For the Herod in question was the son of an Idumean, of the wealthy and influential Antipater or Antipas. Antipater actively cultivated the friendship of the Romans. Through the influence of his father the ambitious Herod obtained first the government of Galilee and finally that of Judea. History represents Herod as a cruel monster. His life was a series of murders of which the victims were not only the Holy Innocents but also his own wives and children.

Upon the death of Herod, the Emperor Augustus divided Palestine among Herod's sons: Archelaus, the eldest, succeeded his father and received the provinces of Judea, Saniaria and Idumaea; Herod II Antipas obtained Galilee and the south of Peraca (east of the Jordan); Philip II, the north of the country to the east of the Jordan, Ituraea and the country of Trachonitis. It was Herod II who later on beheaded John the Baptist and mocked the Saviour. Archelaus ruled with the same cruelty as his father and was exiled to Vienne in Gaul, A.D. 6. His territory was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria and administered by special Roman governors, of whom the fifth was Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36).

Shortly afterward the province of Herod II Antipas and also that of Philip II and the territory once governed by Archelaus were - by imperial favor - granted to a nephew of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I, who ruled as king of all Palestine from 41 to 44 A.D. About the year 41 he beheaded the Apostle James the Great, and caused Peter to be apprehended. Upon the sudden death of Herod Agrippa I, Palestine was joined to Syria and again administered by Roman governors. However, the son of Agrippa 1 - Herod Agrippa II - obtained and retained until after the destruction of Jerusalem the title of king of the northeastern parts of the country and the custody of the Temple; it was to him that St. Paul gave at Caesarea an account of his life (Acts 26). Prominent among the governors of this period were Felix, before whom St. Paul appeared in bonds at Caesarea (Acts 24), and Festus, who sent St. Paul to Rome to be judged (Acts 25).

Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by Vespasian and Titus in the year 70 A.D. Having briefly described the political setting of the events which we are about to explain, let us now turn our attention to the central figure of the present chapter - namely, Zachary. St. Luke tells us that Zachary was "of the course of Abia" (1:5), that is, a member of one of the twenty-four orders of Aaronic priests constituted by David. We know that in place of the first-born of Israel - whom God reserved to Himself in Egypt - God through Moses chose for Himself the tribe of Levi as a hereditary priesthood (Numbers 3). But while the whole tribe of Levi was chosen for service in the Temple, only those of the line of Aaron were selected for the priesthood. Aaron had four sons, but the two elder - Nadab and Abia - were struck dead for using strange fire in the sanctuary (Leviticus 10). The descendants of the remaining two sons - Eleazar and Ithamar - were in the time of David divided into twenty-four classes. Sixteen of these classes were of the family of Eleazar and eight of the family of Ithamar. The eighth of these twenty-four classes was that of Abia to which Zachary belonged. To these twenty-four courses of priests David distributed by lot the order of their service in the Temple, each course to serve for eight days inclusively from Sabbath to Sabbath (I Chronicles 24:1-19; II Chronicles 31:2). After the Babylonian captivity, only four of the courses returned. The Jews concealed their heavy loss by subdividing these four families into twenty-four courses to which they gave the original names.

The course of Abia to which Zachary belonged was not one of the four families, but another to which the name of Abia was assigned. This arrangement continued till the fall of Jerusalem, 70 A.D.

A priest was free to select a wife from any family or tribe. Elizabeth, however, is declared to have been "of the daughters of Aaron" (1:5). The future Precursor of the Great High-Priest would have the advantage of being connected through both father and mother with the priestly family of Aaron - a family which was at that time the noblest of Israel after that of David from which was to be born the Messias. Elizabeth was also - although in what degree we know not - a relative of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1:36). This fact does not require that they should have belonged to the same tribe. The Mosaic Law, in Numbers 36:8, prescribes that only the heiresses marry within their own tribe so that the property of the tribe should not pass outside of it.

Both Zachary and Elizabeth were advanced in years. They had always carefully observed the moral precepts of natural and revealed religion. But they had no child, a privation which was regarded as a heavy misfortune because it cut off all hope of the birth of the Messias in that family. St Luke tells us that "according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his (Zachary's) lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord" (1:9). For a proper understanding of this point, it is necessary to recall the fact that the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple had fundamentally a three-fold division: the Holy of Holies, the Holy, and the Court. The Holy of Holies enshrined the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Table of the Law, and in the beginning also the budding rod of Aaron (Numbers 17:10), and the golden urn with manna (Exodus 16:32); the latter two were no longer there in Solomon's time (III Kings 8:9), while in the temple of Zorobabel the Holy of Holies contained - in the place formerly occupied by the Ark - only a stone on which the High-Priest placed his censer on the great day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies was separated off from the rest of the Temple by a rich, heavy veil of purple and gold sixty feet by eighty. In the Holy there stood in the center, before the veil, the altar of incense. To the right of the altar stood the table of shewbreads (Matthew 12:4), to the left, the seven-branched candlestick (Numbers 8:1-4). The Court contained the altar of holocaust and the brazen basin or laver.

It is at Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish theocracy, in the interior of the Temple, during one of the most solemn ceremonies of public worship, that the Gospel begins, thereby indicating the close connection between the New Testament and the Old. The sacrifice was offered twice every day in the name of the whole people: in the morning at the third hour (9 A.M.) and in the evening at the ninth (3 P.M.).

There is no indication in St. Luke's narrative whether the episode narrated by him took place in the morning or in the evening. Perhaps the morning should be preferred, since the perpetual sacrifice then took on a more imposing character. Some authors choose the evening hour of sacrifice because that was the time when the angel Gabriel had appeared to Daniel and foretold to him the date of the Messias' coming (Daniel 9:21).

The day in question was to remain memorable for Zachary for two reasons: because of the celestial vision and because on that day he was exercising the loftiest and most coveted of priestly functions - a function which each one of the 20,000 priests who lived at the time of Christ exercised only once in his life - the offering of the burning incense. Clothed in a white linen robe, which covered his body and was gathered at the waist by a colored girdle, his head covered according to custom, his feet un-sandaled out of respect for the holiness of the place, Zachary was still standing in front of the richly embroidered veil which shut off the Holy of Holies. He was facing the altar, made of acacia-wood and overlaid with plates of gold, on which he had just poured the precious incense. To his right was the table of the loaves of proposition, to his left the seven-branched golden candlestick.

Zachary was about to prostrate himself and withdraw from the sanctuary, when a supernatural apparition stopped him. "There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense," that is, between the altar and the golden candlestick. The angel reassured him with the words, "Fear not, Zachary," and then delivered to him the Divine message which contained the glorious promise of a son who would be endowed with eminent qualities and would become the Precursor of the Messias.

The words of the angel opened up marvelous prospects for the chosen race and especially for Zachary's promised offspring. Yet, suddenly a doubt disturbs his hopes. Can he truly count on the birth of a son? In his anxiety, he protests to the angel his advanced age and that of Elizabeth, and asks for some sign that would confirm the truth of the message. The angel grants the sign and declares that Zachary shall be mute until the birth of the promised son. The sign served at the same time as a punishment for Zachary's slowness to believe the truth announced by God's messenger.

By this time a feeling of hushed expectancy had seized upon the crowd because of the long delay of the priest within. From a feeling of reverential fear the priests never tarried in the interior of the Temple longer than was necessary. And the priest's reappearance from before the ever-burning golden candle-stick and the veil which hid the Holy of Holies was one which powerfully affected the Jewish imagination. At length Zachary comes forth and approaches the stairs that lead to the Priests' Court. Here he should bless the people by extending his arms and pronouncing the beautiful formula in use since the time of Aaron, the brother of Moses. He attempts to speak - but in vain. From his signs and from the emotions visible in his face, the worshippers begin to suspect that he had a supernatural vision. They quietly acquiesce, knowing from sacred history that Divine interventions were ever possible, especially in the Temple.

After finishing their week of duty, the priests of the course of Abia were replaced by another class. Zachary then returned to his home - to one of the cities and towns scattered throughout Palestine, which had been assigned to the priests and levites as dwelling places. Meanwhile, Elizabeth kept her joy in silence. Henceforth, not only will her shame be ended but in the history of the Redemption she will always occupy a unique place.

The Annunciation

The Annunciation, which took place six months after the conception of John the Baptist, is narrated by St. Luke in the following words: "And in the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: Blessed art thou among women" (Luke 1:26-28). The expression "being come in" denotes that the Annunciation took place within the Blessed Virgin's dwelling. More definite determination of place and time is not given us.

Before describing the mystery further, let us contemplate for a moment the principal personages - Gabriel, Joseph and Mary. Gabriel is one of the angels "who stand before God" (Luke 1:19). He announced - to Daniel the time - seventy weeks - after which Christ was to come (Daniel 9:21-27). To Zachary he announced the birth of the Precursor (Luke 1:11-20). According to St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, "Gabriel was sent to contract espousals between heaven and earth." Hence the title of Pronubus which the ancients sometimes assign to the Angel Gabriel.

Joseph was of the house of David. According to many ancient writers Joseph and Joachim, the father of Mary, were brothers; this would make Joseph the uncle of Mary. It may be that, since Mary had no brothers and hence was heiress by privilege of the paternal house, she was obliged by the Mosaic Law to become the wife of one of her relatives. Yet we must beware of representing Joseph - after the manner of the apocryphal gospels - as a decrepit old man.

It was in the plan of Providence that Joseph by his work should support the Holy Family, surround it with his protection, and prevent calumny or suspicion of the most chaste of spouses.

Mary also belonged to the family of David. She was probably a "sister-in-law" of the wife of Cleophas (John 19:25). The meaning of the name of Mary, so dear to Catholic hearts, is unfortunately doubtful. Some explain "Maria" to mean Domina ("Sovereign") or Stella maris ("Star of the Sea"), or Excelsa ("The Sublime One") or Myrrha ("Myrrh"). If the name is of Hebrew origin, the most obvious explanation would be "the rebellious one" or "the bitter one"; but it does not seem probable that Jewish parents would give such a name to their daughters.

Another explanation is that the word is derived from the verb "to be fat," "to be well nourished," and hence means "the beautiful one," "the perfect one;" this explanation is adopted by the German scholar Bardenhewer. The first Mary that we find mentioned in Scripture is the sister of Moses and Aaron in Egypt (Exodus, 15:20); it is possible that the name Mary is of Egyptian origin, and in that case means, "the beloved one," "the beloved of Jahve."

The angel salutes Mary as "full of grace." Protestants render this phrase as "highly favored," and consider it the proclamation of a mere extrinsic good-will which God bore toward Mary. A close examination of the original Greek text, however, makes it clear that the phrase refers to an inward supernatural reality in the soul making it acceptable to God and raising it to a close union with Him. Mary was "full of grace" in many ways:

1. In the first moment of her conception she was endowed with sanctifying grace, with all the virtues, and with all the gifts of the Holy Ghost; in other words, she was conceived immaculate.

2. By a special privilege of God she was during her whole lifetime immune from all actual sins, even the slightest ones.

3. She experienced no movements of inordinate concupiscence; just as her reason was perfectly subject to God, so her lower nature was perfectly subject to reason.

4. By constant virtuous and meritorious actions, by close association with the Incarnate Word - both before and after His birth - and by an intimate participation in Christ's Passion, she increased her store of sanctifying grace in an immense degree.

5. She was "full of grace" not only intensively but also extensively; not only at the end but already at the beginning of her life Mary - the predestined Mother of God - was holier than any creature, holier than all creatures and angels taken together.

Since Mary was chosen for the greatest of works, that of the maternity of God, she enjoyed in a special degree God's protecting care and the influx of His Providence: "the Lord is with thee." As Mother of God, Mary is blessed in the superlative degree: "Blessed art thou among women." Mary, a humble Jewish maiden of a low social position, is naturally perturbed to hear herself saluted by an angel and in terms that betoken that she is a great personage with God.

The angel at once dispels her fears, and then makes known the main import of his message: "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found grace (favor) with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus" (Luke 1:30-31).

When Mary heard these words, she did not doubt, as Zachary did, but asked for guidance and the necessary knowledge to cooperate adequately with the designs of the Almighty: "And Mary said unto the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man" (Lk. 1:34)? On the ground of these words of Mary, theologians have always argued that Mary had a vow of perpetual virginity. For at this time Mary was betrothed to a man, and that betrothal rendered lawful the conjugal right. Yet she, a betrothed virgin, alleges in effect that even to fulfill the angel's message she cannot know man.

The angel's response to Mary absolutely excludes the operation of man in Christ's conception and attributes to the power of the Holy Ghost the fecundation of Mary: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). All the actions of God exercised upon objects outside of the Divine Essence are common to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. But certain of these works are appropriated to the different Persons, on account of some analogy which the work bears to the property of that Person. The Incarnation, being a work of God's love toward us, is attributed to Him Who in the bosom of the Blessed Trinity proceeds by love - the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost, then, will quicken with life the thrice holy germ lying dormant in the Virgin's womb and fashion out of it the Chief of the new humanity. Christ's conception will take place without the cooperation of a human father; its sole cause will be the creative act of the Holy Ghost.

When God's design had fully entered Mary's soul, and when she uttered those tremendous words, "Be it done to me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38), at that very instant the Word became man in Mary's womb.

Discussion Aids
Set I

1. Who was ruler of the Holy Land at the time of the
a) apparition to Zachary;
b) birth of Our Lord;
c) return of the Holy Family from Egypt;
d) Crucifixion;
e) death of the Apostle James?
2. Explain the origin of the twenty-four courses of Jewish priests. To which course or order did Zachary belong?
3. To what family did Zachary and Elizabeth belong?
4. How was the temple of Jerusalem divided?
5. When did the apparition to Zachary take place? Where?
6. What was Zachary's reaction to the angelic message?
7. Where was the home of Zachary and Elizabeth?

Set II
1. Where did the Annunciation to Mary take place? What mystery of the Rosary commemorates this event?
2. Who was Joseph?
3. What is the meaning of the word "Mary"?
4. What is the meaning of the words, "full of Grace"?
5. What is the meaning of the words: "The Lord is with thee "blessed are thou among women"?
6. Did Mary have a vow of perpetual virginity?
7. By what power was the conception of Our Lord in Mary's womb to take place?
8. When did the Incarnation take place?
9. What is meant by the phrase, "Angelic Salutation"?
10. How many ideas from today's lesson are contained in the prayer, "Angelus"? Why is the prayer so called?
11. What is meant by the Christmas cycle of the Liturgy? When does it begin and when does it end? What great feasts does it embrace?

Religious Practices
1. Unlike Zachary, I will accept God's word with a prompt and unhesitating faith.
2. I will recite the words of the "Hail Mary" with the same reverence and devotion as St. Gabriel and St. Elizabeth who first spoke the principal parts of this prayer.
3. In fulfilling the Will of God, made known to me through the commandments of God and of the Church, I will imitate Mary's perfect and complete obedience to God's Will made known to her by the message of an angel.