When we approach Christmas time we naturally have to turn to the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke that tells us the familiar Christmas story that we remember at this time of the year. The Gospel of Mark begins its story with John the Baptist. The Gospel of John talks about creation and the Word and “the Word made flesh.” The Gospel of Matthew tells us a story that centers on Joseph. It is Luke alone that tell us the nativity story upon which the church Christmas pageants and celebrations are based.
So the Revised Common Lectionary — which tries to assign only one of the Synoptic Gospels to a particular year — nonetheless has to draw from the Gospel of Luke as Christmas rolls around again. So, recommended for this coming Sunday, is the story of the angel’s announcement to Mary of the birth of the savior.
Εν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ᾗ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ 27 πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυὶδ καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ. καὶ εἰσελθὼν πρὸς αὐτὴν εἶπεν· χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ. ἡ δὲ ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ διεταράχθη καὶ διελογίζετο ποταπὸς εἴη ὁ ἀσπασμὸς οὗτος.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (NRSV.)
The way the story is told, it is pure grace. We are told nothing of Mary. In some other passages in Luke, we are given background information about the person who receives God’s message. For example, in Luke 2:25 we are told of Simeon that he “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” In Luke 1:6 we are told of Zechariah and Elizabeth that they “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” But, of Mary we are told nothing. We know nothing of her background and character. All we know is that the messenger of God came to her, and declared her “highly favored.” Mary is chosen, Mary is highly favored — for reasons we do not know.
Undoubtedly, Mary is a teenager at this point. We have no direct evidence. But, women were betrothed at a young age in ancient Israel — it could even happen as early as age 12. In the ancient world the social spheres of men and women were pretty rigidly separated. Men often spoke disparagingly of women. Lightfoot cites a passage from the the teachings of the ancient rabbis where the rabbi says: “do not salute a woman at all.” Yet, here the angel Gabriel — the angel who came to the prophet Daniel to interpret his visions (Daniel 8:15–26, 9:21–27) — comes to a teenage girl to announce the coming of salvation for all people. And, he salutes her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Mary herself is perplexed by all of this.
Here we encounter a major theme that runs through the Gospel of Luke: the Gospel of hope comes first and foremost to the people society had written off. Luke makes it a point to show us that the Gospel of Christ came to the women and the poor and the children and various groups that would be considered disadvantaged or outcast. It is clear from the Scriptures that God really doesn’t care about who society figures is important or powerful or influential. The angel Gabriel came to an unknown Jewish girl in an oppressed and occupied nation — to announce salvation for the world.
Adam Clarke quotes the following passage from Pasquier Quesnel:
At length the moment is come which is to give a son to a virgin, a savior to the world, a pattern to mankind, a sacrifice to sinners, a temple to the Divinity, and a new principle to the new world. This angel is sent from God, not to the palaces of the great, but to a poor maid, the wife of a carpenter. The Son of God comes to humble the proud, and to honor poverty, weakness, and contempt. He chooses an obscure place for the mystery which is most glorious to his humanity, its union with the Divinity, and for that which is most degrading (his sufferings and death) he will choose the greatest city! How far are men from such a conduct as this!
Καὶ εἶπεν ὁ ἄγγελος αὐτῇ·
μὴ φοβοῦ, Μαριάμ, εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ.
καὶ ἰδοὺ συλλήμψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ καὶ τέξῃ υἱὸν
καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.
οὗτος ἔσται μέγας καὶ υἱὸς ὑψίστου κληθήσεται
καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ κύριος ὁ θεὸς τὸν θρόνον Δαυὶδ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ,
καὶ βασιλεύσει ἐπὶ τὸν οἶκον Ἰακὼβ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας
καὶ τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος.
The angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you will name him Jesus.
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.
He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (NRSV.)
The language of the angel Gabriel mirrors the language of 2 Samuel 7:11–16. (So, it is only natural that the Lectionary readings recommended for December 21, 2014 also includes that passage.) The ancient promise of the Messiah is going to be fulfilled. I think 2 Samuel 7:11-16 is best understood along side the Royal Psalms (like Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, 144) — that depict and praise an idealized King of the nation. None to the kings of Israel or Judah ever truly fulfilled that ideal. So, the hope was for the ideal King to yet arise — the Messiah (anointed one) or “Christ”. It is the coming of this king that Gabriel is announcing. It is this king that Mary will bear.
Gabriel’s reassurance “Do not be afraid” is a direct response to Mary’s perplexity mentioned in verse 29. The word used in verse 29 (διεταράχθη) can mean “to be greatly troubled.”
Gabriel announces what will happen — in language that bears some similarity to Isaiah 7:14 — “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.” The name “Jesus” (Ἰησοῦν) was a common name at the time — the name was actually יְשׁוּעָה (Yeshua) from the older name name יְהוֹשֻׁעַ or “Joshua.” So, essentially, Mary was to name her son Josh. It was a common name — but it had significance. It meant “Yahweh saves” and it was a form of the name of the great leader of Israel who led the people into the promised land.
Luke 2:34, 35
εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον· πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο, ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω; καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῇ·
πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἐπελεύσεται ἐπὶ σὲ
καὶ δύναμις ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι·
διὸ καὶ τὸ γεννώμενον ἅγιον κληθήσεται υἱὸς θεοῦ.
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 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.” (NRSV.)
It is the Gospel of Luke that most emphasizes the virgin birth — and explicitly connects this with the fact that Jesus “will be called Son of God.” Still, I think there is a danger in reading too much into this — as if Jesus was born into the world as a sort of spiritual superman. I like Frédéric Louis Godet‘s comment below, because Godet clearly sees the problem with assigning too much significance to Jesus miraculous birth:
What is the connection between this miraculous birth of Jesus and His perfect holiness? The latter does not necessarily result from the former. For holiness is a fact of volition, not of nature. How could we assign any serious meaning to the moral struggles in the history of Jesus, — the temptation, for example, — if His perfect holiness was the necessary consequence of His miraculous birth? But it is not so. The miraculous birth was only the negative condition of the spotless holiness of Jesus. Entering into human life in this way, He was placed in the normal condition of man before his fall, and put in a position to fulfill the career originally set before man, in which he was to advance from innocence to holiness. He was simply freed from the obstacle which, owing to the way in which we are born, hinders us from accomplishing this task. But in order to change this possibility into a reality, Jesus had to exert every instant His own free will, and to devote Himself continually to the service of good and the fulfillment of the task assigned Him, namely, “the keeping of His Father’s commandment.” His miraculous birth, therefore, in no way prevented this conflict from being real. It gave Him liberty not to sin, but did not take away from Him the liberty of sinning.
In this view (which is really a bit speculative), Jesus was the new Adam, living out the perfect obedience that the first Adam did not. But, even Godet may be seeing too much significance in this. Yes, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke affirm (drawing, at this point, on independent sources) that Jesus’ birth was miraculous. Yes, the Gospel of Luke emphasizes this. But, it is important not to allow this teaching to undermine the significance of the full humanity of Jesus. Because Jesus has been “tempted in every way, just as we are” there is significance in the fact that he “yet did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). His holiness — like ours — was a matter of volition, not nature.
Those interested in this topic might find N. T. Wright’s thoughts on the Virgin Birth interesting: Suspending scepticism: History and the Virgin Birth. Wright remarks: “The birth narratives have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus’ public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross.”
Luke 2:36, 37
καὶ ἰδοὺ Ἐλισάβετ ἡ συγγενίς σου καὶ αὐτὴ συνείληφεν υἱὸν ἐν γήρει αὐτῆς καὶ οὗτος μὴν ἕκτος ἐστὶν αὐτῇ τῇ καλουμένῃ στείρᾳ· ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα. εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ· ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου· γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. Καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿ αὐτῆς ὁ ἄγγελος.
And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” (NRSV.)
And, here is the greatness of Mary — her commitment to the purposes of God for her life: “let it be with me according to your word.” She could not possibly fully have fully understood. The years to come would give her many reasons to “ponder things in her heart.” But, she said: if this is God’s purpose for me, then let it be.
Mary committed herself to a purpose larger than herself. And, that’s what changed the world: Mary’s courageous servanthood.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
— Denise Levertov, “Annunciation” The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, New York: New Directions, 2013, pp. 836-837.