In reading Luke’s narratives about the birth announcements to Zechariah and Mary, have you ever wondered why Zechariah gets chastised by the angel for his questioning of the notion that a couple their age can conceive, and Mary, who asks a very similar question, does not?
After Gabriel appears and announces the news to Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a child, he responds:
“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
For this he is scolded and struck dumb. Mary responds to the news that she will give birth in much the same way:
“How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
For this she receives the explanation that her pregnancy will be the work of the Holy Spirit.
Zechariah was a priest and “…righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (vs. 6). But asking how he would “know” reflected doubt, and comes across as a demand for evidence. But he had no reason to doubt; he would have recalled that God made the same promise to Abraham and can make barren women conceive. Gabriel charged, “you did not believe my words”.
Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” does not imply disbelief, but a lack of understanding. The question also implies that she had taken a vow of virginity, in which case it is a very good question. Our information on Mary’s vow of virginity comes from early apocryphal literature and so it may be legendary. But since Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time of the Annunciation, her question for Gabriel would otherwise not have made sense. If no vow was taken, her forthcoming marriage to Joseph would soon be consummated and produce the promised son.
Moreover, she may not have received the answer she was expecting, which might have been that God would release her from her vow. Instead, she receives an explanation of how she as virgin can conceive and remain a virgin; it will be made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit and the child would be the Son of God.
There is a message in these passages about the nature of God and our relationship to Him. Through scripture and the Church He has made many promises to us. If we find ourselves in difficult circumstances in life and relying on those promises is hard to do, humbly asking for help in understanding how they would be fulfilled is the right thing to do. Asking how we would “know” that they would be fulfilled is asking for evidence.
“An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4).