The lectionary gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent is Luke 1.26–38; though this year’s gospel is Mark, there is (of course) no annunciation in Mark, so we plunder part of Luke’s narrative to fill the gap. I have previously posted on the annunciation in more general terms, noting that the account is rooted in Scripture, focuses on God, and leads to response, but more detailed consideration of the text fleshes out these themes in interesting ways.
In relation to the narrative shape and context, there are four different sets of parallels that we need to note with this passage.
The first is the set of very strong parallels with the immediately preceding episode, the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist—indeed, the beginning of our passage explicitly links the two, since the ‘sixth month’ in which Gabriel appears to Mary is the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. This suggests that the two episodes are actually two halves of a single, unified, narrative.
But there are also a series of striking parallels between the two, including at points identical wording, which Joel Green lists (on p 83 of his NICNT commentary):
In terms of ancient literature, the two parallel accounts form a synkrisis, a comparison, which invites us to compare the two. And when we do, we find not only these close parallels, but also some striking differences:
- Zechariah is to become John’s father, by the natural human method of sexual intercourse, but Mary is to become mother by miraculous intervention.
- John is born to aged parents, as the answer to their own prayer in the light of their need. Jesus is born to a young virgin, out of the need of Israel, not Mary herself, who is taken by surprise.
- John will prepare the way for the coming one, as ‘prophet of the Most High’, but Jesus will be called ‘Son of the Most High’ and ‘will reign over the house of Jacob forever’.
Thus John and his birth are both parallel to Jesus and his birth, but subordinate to it in every way. The striking invitation to comparison leads to us see the superiority of Jesus, and this is reinforced as Luke’s narrative unfolds.
The second set of parallels is with preceding figures the biblical narrative of the OT. The situation of Elizabeth has clear antecedents in the figures of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, who all longed for a child when it seemed impossible, but in various ways God answered their prayers. But Mary also has antecedents, in being chosen for a surprising and unexpected vocation, in the figures of Abraham, Moses and Gideon. In fact, Gabriel’s address to Mary in Luke 1.28 ‘The Lord is with you!’ has its only exact parallel (in the LXX, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT) in the words of the angel of the Lord to Gideon in Judges 6.12. It seems that Luke, in way that he is recounting these events, is wanting us to see and hear the parallels with the wider history of Israel. Though he is clearly, at many points, wanting to make his gospel accessible to those who are beyond the bounds of ethnic Israel, he is still rooting this in the story of Israel.
And the third set of parallels takes us to the heart of this. Though there are echoes of other parts of Israel’s narrative, they cluster around one story, that of Abraham and Sarah—Joel Green lists three pages of parallels with the Elizabeth/Zechariah—Mary/Joseph story! These include Sarah and Elizabeth’s barrenness, the language of blessing by God and Melchizedek with Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary, the theme of promise and fulfilment, the inclusion of geo-political markers in both stories, reference to the Most High God, ‘do not fear’, the central role of righteousness, the appearance of angels, walking blamelessly before God, circumcision, naming commanded by God, Abraham and Mary presenting themselves as servants to God, God doing the impossible, laughter and rejoicing at what God has done, and the children growing and becoming strong.
What is interesting here is that, despite the enormous number of parallel themes, they are distributed across both halves of the narrative, so that some relate to Elizabeth and Zechariah, whilst others belong to Mary and Joseph, thus again suggesting that this is one narrative in two halves. And there is no simple series of parallels in which the earlier figure becomes a ‘type’ of the later one: the common focus of the parallels is not that we have similar people so much as we have the same God, who is making and fulfilling the same kinds of promises (to bring life where there is no life), and once more visiting his people to bring his deliverance.
The final set of parallels is one that looks forwards to the later narrative. There is a curious parallel between Mary and her virginal conception and the Pentecost experience of the disciples. Luke uses a very similar phrase in each case, at Luke 1.35 (for Mary), Luke 24.49 (Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to wait) and Acts 1.8 (the second account of Jesus’ words). On both occasions, it is predicted that the Holy Spirit will ‘come on you’ and ‘you will be clothed with power from on high/power of the Most High’. So here, the association is between power and new birth—for Mary, the actual birth of the Messiah, and for the disciples, the birth of the new community of faith in Jesus and his resurrection. And this parallel is extended into Paul’s writing, where his most bizarre and startling metaphor in Gal 4.19 also uses this image of birth: ‘My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…’ Although the metaphor of us being born is the more common one for spiritual life, the metaphor of Jesus being born in us is also present in the NT, and justifies the use of the image in that Christmas favourite, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’:
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
Let us turn, now, to the detail of the text. The noun angelos can refer to human messengers (as in Luke 7.24, 9.52) but here it is clear that this is a heavenly being from the name. ‘Gabriel’ means ‘God is my strength’ and this figure has previously appeared only in Daniel 8.16 and 9.21, and in the previous narrative appearing to Zechariah (Luke 1.19). In Jewish tradition, Gabriel was one of the seven archangels, and is often understood to be the guardian of Israel alongside Michael. Here is a figure closely associated with the protection and redemption of the Israel of God.
In Matthew’s account, Galilee is noted from the OT tradition as ‘of the Gentiles’, providing a hint in that most Jewish of gospels of the eventually opening out to the Gentile mission. But Luke does not note this, and there is some evidence that Nazareth was a centre of Jewish piety. It was settled in the Hellenistic period by Jews returning from exile; its name might well be derived from the promise of a messianic ‘branch’ (netzer) sprouting up from the felled stump of Israel in Is 11.1; and it was the home of one of the 24 priestly divisions who did duty in the temple (as was Cana). Thus in Luke’s narrative, the contrast is not between piety and shame or the centre and the periphery, but between two different geographical centres of piety and obedience.
The implication of the term ‘virgin’ (parthenos) is both that Mary is young and that she has not had intercourse. Socially, these things were closely related; Jewish practice was similar to that of wider Roman culture, in that girls were given in marriage soon after they turned 12 and before the onset of puberty, which was to the advantage of both the father (who could thereby guarantee his daughter’s purity) and the husband (who would have her service for a longer period). Contemporary language of Mary as a ‘teenage mother’ obscures the fact that this situation would not have been at all unusual in the first-century world.
It is striking that, whilst Matthew makes mention of the motif of shame in Matt 1.19 (though this appears to be kept strictly private), the theme features nowhere at all in Luke’s narrative, and does not appear to have affected either the attitudes or actions of any of the characters involved. In fact, Joseph is mentioned first and described as ‘of the house of David’, putting the family’s pious lineage as their primary descriptor. Both Joseph and Mary were very common names; there are numerous other Josephs in the New Testament, and it has been estimated (from epigraphic evidence) that perhaps 20% of all girls in Israel were named Mary (Miriam).
The language here, with a double emphasis on Mary being a ‘virgin’, the prophetic word brought from God, and the mention of kingship, reminds us of the promise that ‘a virgin/young woman will conceive and bear a son’ in Is 7.14, but Luke doesn’t present this as being fulfilled in Mary’s own situation.
The conjunction of so many points of correspondence between the Gabriel-Mary encounter and Is 7.10–17 cannot help but produce an echo effect…Rather [than being seen as fulfilment], these reverberations establish an interpretive link emphasising how God is again intervening in history to bring his purpose to fruition (Green, NICNT p 85).
The traditional rendering of Gabriel’s greeting (which I recited daily as a Catholic and so still remember well!), ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’ is mistaken in two important respects. First, the precedents of this pattern, of greeting + address + reference to divine action or attitude, found in Zeph 3.14–15, Zech 9.9 and Joel 2.21 demonstrate that we should interpret kaire not as ‘Greetings!’ (which it can mean in first century Greek) but rather as ‘Rejoice’, which fits with the wider theme of joy and laughter in Luke’s gospel. Secondly, the ‘grace’ referred to is not a quality that Mary possesses inherently, but something that has been bestowed by God. Although Luke does emphasise both piety and obedience, the focus here is God’s surprising favour bestowed on someone who is otherwise unremarkable. The movement here is not from someone virtuous to God’s reward, but from the gracious initiative of God to the response of rejoicing and obedience.
The repeated announcement of God’s grace or favour in verses 28 and 30 forms an inclusio that contains Mary’s private feelings of disturbance and puzzlement in verse 29.
God has given his favour to one who had no claim to worthy status, raised her up from a position of lowliness, and has chosen her to have a central role in salvation history (Green, NICNT p 87).
Once again, Matthew does something different from Luke, drawing out the meaning of the (also very common) name Jesus as ‘God saves’ (Matt 1.19), but here the focus is simply on the fact that God has chosen the name, as with OT precedents. The abruptness and grandeur of the five-fold prediction of the child she will bear (great, Son of the Most High, throne, reign forever, kingdom will not end) seem almost comic in their bizarre contrast with this otherwise ordinary domestic scene.
On a superficial level, Mary’s question in Luke 1.34 looks parallel to that of Zechariah in Luke 1.18, but it is quite different in its content, consequences, and narrative place. John’s birth will be by natural means, and Zechariah’s question is about his own confidence ‘How can I know…?’ suggesting his lack of trust. But Mary’s question is concern with how this can come about, since as a betrothed virgin she has not yet ‘come together’ with Joseph.
The differences between John and Jesus now become clear. Whilst the Spirit will come upon John even in the womb (remarkable enough in itself), Jesus’ conception itself it the result of the Spirit’s work.
Though Luke is not working with Johannine or later trinitarian categories, he is nonetheless moving towards more ontological (and not only functional) understanding of Jesus’ sonship. Like John, Jesus is set apart (ie ‘holy’) from birth; unlike John—indeed, uniquely in salvation history—Jesus’ sonship extends backward to the prevenient work of God in his creation as a human being (Green, NICNT, p 91).
As is typical of Luke elsewhere, vital information is delayed to late in the narrative episode; it is only now that we learn that Mary is related to Elizabeth, offering a further connection with the previous section of narrative that was linked at the beginning by the reference to ‘the sixth month’. Mary’s response is exemplary, in offering herself as ‘servant of the Lord’—someone not only under the authority of the other, but also an agent for the accomplishment of the master’s intentions and will. This also further relatives her familial connection with Joseph; in ancient culture, the servant belonged to the household of the master, and in defining her own status and identity in her obedience to God, and participation in his salvific will, she anticipates Jesus’ own teaching about loyalty to God and family.
The characters at the centre stage in Luke 1.5–2.52 are for the most part exemplars of the piety of Israel in the period of Second Temple Judaism. As the character references given Zechariah and Elizabeth…and especially the presentation of Jesus in the temple underscore, Luke is concerned to show the importance of faithful obedience. This obedience is to the Law…and is also extended to the words of the angel, who speaks on God’s behalf…In this world, we are breathing the air of first-century Palestinian Jewish piety (Green, NICNT, p 61).
This story has little room for sentimental musings about the first Christmas; rather, it demands that its hearers, then and now, discern at their own commission, and despite whatever obvious shortcomings, commit themselves to its completion. (Parsons, Paideia, p 40).