FOR THE Fourth Sunday of Advent, our lesson comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Within the reading comes a challenge, for we are far removed from the text as modern persons living in a scientific age. The news delivered to Mary seems beyond our present, everyday reality. We often hesitate to believe the message… just as it may have been difficult to hear even for some in ancient times. To understand, therefore, we must carefully read and pray in the Spirit concerning the Annunciation…
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”
And 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 called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
We need realize that no matter whether he was a circumcised Jew or a Gentile, Luke recorded a wondrous church history. The result from his effort should be rightly interpreted in light of the early church struggles. Most learned scholars note that the events recorded happened some five decades before the writer’s quill was laid to scroll. Examination reveals that in preparation for writing this work, Luke gathered the earlier writing of Mark’s community and blended with that source… a witness that was also used by Matthew. Additionally, many biblical experts see certain evidence of oral traditions and earlier writings interwoven in this gospel. Each of these sources, however, recognize that we have received particular Lukan perspective as the writing of this account occurred. Even today, with modern biblical criticism… we see that all history is proven as interpretive to some degree.
In this vein, we note that the introductory sentence of this text for today reads that the setting for this scene began in the “sixth month”. In examination, we see that the reference relates to the previous Lukan text. In reading that earlier account, we know that the angel Gabriel had first revealed the pregnancy of Elizabeth. She was the wife of a very devout priest by the name of Zechariah. Elizabeth was in her elder years… and was already in the sixth month of her pregnancy.
We note the introductory purpose of this earlier scene. Being elderly, she had for some time lived far beyond the years of being able to conceive a child. Yet God provided her with such a miracle. Therefore, this occasion recalled to the Jews within Luke’s early church, the benevolence that Abraham and Sarah had experienced from God. What becomes evident for us, therefore, is that by including this discourse our author knowingly has set the stage for what comes next… the miraculous Annunciation. The angel’s first appearance clearly expresses a truth, “God does not abide solely within the physical limitations counted upon by finite human beings.”
You see, the name of Gabriel linked solidly within tradition for those first hearers. They could recall prophetic Hebrew history. Gabriel was an angelic witness whom God provided to Daniel some three hundred years earlier. We read…
When I, Daniel, had seen the vision, I sought to understand it; and behold, there stood before me one having the appearance of a man. And I heard a man’s voice between the banks of the Ulai, and it called, “Gabriel, make this man understand the vision.” So he came near where I stood; and when he came, I was frightened and fell upon my face. But he said to me, “Understand, O son of man, that the vision is for the time of the end.” (Daniel 8:15-18)
Thus Gabriel’s very name was defined as a “man of El”… as “a man of God. Without plumbing the depths of the existence and various roles of angels or messengers in the ancient world, nor the meanings of their speaking, we note that the events of their appearances had major import. In the ancient world they were a matter of divine interaction. For example, if a boulder rolled down a hill… an angel may have been claimed as having pushed it, Causal explanation was thus not necessarily in the pre-scientific mindset. If the falling boulder killed a farmer…. the angel was considered as an evil messenger sent by a malicious god; whereas, if a beautiful lake was formed as a water course was stopped… the angel sent was a good messenger. For the latter, the event came from a friendly god.
Using this as measure, therefore, the angel Gabriel is certainly viewed here as a “good” and “truthful” messenger. Gabriel was said to have explained unfolding events to Daniel. Hence within Luke’s gospel, the same “good” Gabriel… still standing in the procession as the ancient man of God, voiced good news to both Elizabeth and Mary. The angel said…
“I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. (Luke 1:19)
Take no thought here that I wish to demean the person of Gabriel or dispel away ancient mythology. To say that Gabriel was simply a man… or force of nature, is not to do justice to the witness. I do not wish to portray him lightly. Neither so did Luke. This scripture was written to portray a very mystical and special event. But be aware! The pregnancy of Elizabeth was only the beginning of the wondrous, unfolding supernatural story. A planned, historical salvation pattern was being established by Luke.
Elizabeth was described as pregnant though in her elder years. But representing we hearers of this story, the father of the child… the human priest named Zechariah… even had trouble believing the report. The story thus mystically and miraculously rolls out the truth to us. We are included in that we also realize God may work through unlikely circumstance. Through the unlikely and forgotten… or undisturbed, impossible wombs of both elder Elizabeth and the younger, virginal Mary… God had predetermined that these children would be born.
Of unlikely circumstance then, Luke described Mary as a woman promised to a man of Davidic heritage. She was a descendant of a priestly family. To her, and to Luke’s readers after her… Gabriel revealed the will of God. With her marriage having been promised, in keeping with Jewish tradition, she was yet a virgin. Thus the impossible was put forth. Mary was said by Gabriel to soon be with child. “How can this be?” she queried.
Instantly we who hear these words feel the impact. Prophetically, Luke answers our profound questioning. The author counted on the long Hebrew tradition that reminds every one of us that God is closely involved in all things. Thus I refer you to the prophetic writing of Isaiah. . .
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
Surely much ink has since spilled over the fact that through ancient word study this Hebrew text described a “young woman”. Consequently, prophetic fulfillment does not appear to necessarily demand that a “virgin” conceive. Thus some pundits scoff toward the idea of virgin birth. Additionally, other biblical historians argue that Luke lived in a world that had assigned miraculous virgin birth legends to various god-men, and so it shows up here in this gospel. I contend that our author firmly answered all of these contentions, by briefly stating to his readers that nothing is impossible with God. I tend to agree with his thought.
Jesus’ physical parental origin was not the issue for Luke. There is also no contrast developed between physical and spiritual paternity. He is not described as a Greek or Roman “theos aner”… a god-man mirage who simply descended to the human realm to play and then retreated back into heaven. Rather, the focus of this writing rested on Jesus being born both as the Son of God and the rightful human descendant of David. Jesus, the Son of God was announced to be born a human being. In the following pages of the gospel, therefore, Luke records that our Savior came born into this world as the Son of God and the Son of Man to exercise the kingship of God in and through his servant Israel. Consequently, this impossibility of virginal birth fulfilled takes us back in memory to Abraham and Sarah. The story of Sarah becomes even more pivotal to us, for as the unlikely chosen mother of the man who would be named “Israel”… she laughingly had asked, “Is anything impossible with God?” (Gen. 18:14)
Modernity or Eternity?
Given this, we can hear clearly the Annunciation and the resultant response wherein Mary said, “Your will be done!” We readers today are thus made witness to the greatest of great deeds. We dare not impose our modern viewpoints into the reading, but simply receive good news out of the witness. Luke described to his readers that our infinite God had heard the lament of his waiting people. The prayers of those who had been declared by God as righteous were answered. Such prayers were indeed spoken by persons like Zechariah and Simeon. God mercifully answered and intervened dramatically in human history. God gave us both this sign and the deliverance prepared from the beginning of time through the birth, ministry and crucifixion of Jesus.
You see, through the life and death of Christ our Lord… and the Resurrection… we come to realize faith and hope in our lives. Just as with the ancient churches of Luke’s day, our author reveals to us that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we who are baptized into the church become saved by God’s grace. We are granted faith as such to hear the angel. Thus it is we may rightly believe the announcement song that God has sent into the world.
Take heart! This is the message of Luke to the church. His writing stands before us as historical faith witness. This is the message that echoes again and again to the church across the centuries… and endures in spite of whether we consider ourselves modernized beyond such things or not. Remember the angel’s introductory words to Mary… “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” So the good news is yet given through the Holy Spirit to us. Let us be pregnant with holy expectations. Thanks be to God.