On this, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, we see his father Zacharias punished for asking a question of Gabriel that sounds very similar to the question the Virgin Mary asks the Archangel when he visits her to announce that she will give birth to the Christ.
Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 1:18)
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 )
Yet, Mary is told she is full of grace, while St.John’s father is made mute. It is helpful to look at Zacharias’ question in Greek:
Κατὰ τί γνώσομαι τοῦτο;
A more literal translation would be:
According to what will I know this? or By what will I know this?
Zacharias is testing God by asking for a sign, despite the fact that the Archangel Gabriel is standing before him inside the Temple. Note Gabriel’s reaction:
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:19-20)
Mary, on the other hand, does not ask for a proof or a sign, rather she accepts the reality of what God will do. Her question is a clarification. She knows that all of the other miraculous births throughout Scripture (Sarah in Gn 16:1, Rebekah in Gn 25:21, Rachel in Gn 29:31 and Hannah in 1Sam/1Ki 1:2) and even her own birth came about from barren women who had relationships with their husbands. She is a virgin. Note Gabriel’s response:
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
His answer is one of clarification — the Holy Spirit is the mechanism by which this miracle will happen. Mary never once questions whether or not that miracle can or will happen, as does Zacharias.
Thus, in our own lives, when we ask things of God we should strive to be like Mary and not like Zacharias. We should not test God by asking for proofs and signs. We should have Mary’s faith that God will do exactly what is needed for our salvation, knowing that God is willing to even overturn the laws of nature in order to save us:
You were known to be a Mother passing nature, O Theotokos, and still remained a Virgin in a way passing speech and thought. And no language is capable of explaining the wonder of your childbirth. O pure Maid, your conception was paradoxical, hence the manner of your pregnancy is also incomprehensible. For whenever God so wills, nature’s order is overridden. Therefore, acknowledging you as the Mother of God, to you we all intently pray: Intercede for the salvation of our souls. — Doxastikon in Grave Mode from Saturday night Vespers