The announcement of new births is usually exciting in most settings in human history.
It reminds us of the significance of newness, new hopes, and new dreams, and even the possibility of making a difference in the world. Birth also signifies change. It alters the make-up of families. Commitments must be re-conceived. Many make sacrifices to insure the well-being of the newborn. Siblings have to learn to share. On the other hand, unpleasant things can happen at birth settings as well. In the industrial world, we think less about the adversities due to the high rate of successful births. Infertility is also not stigmatized as it once was, but there are circles in which this creates deep sadness.
The announcement of Jesus’ birth is the beginning of a new age. Luke situates the story between the pronouncement of John the Baptist’s birth (see also 1:5-25) and the description of John’s birth (see also 1:57-80). As central as John and Jesus are to Luke’s narrative, their parents are the subjects of this opening chapter. Gabriel, God’s angel, appears first to Zechariah to announce John’s birth, then to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth.
Luke expects readers to interpret these accounts together, one birth narrative “birthing” the other, in some ways; it is a kind of birth of “twin” narratives. In narrative time, despite calendar time difference (for example Luke 1:36, 56), readers encounter these births as if they occur at the same moment seconds apart. To hear that John and Jesus are relatives (1:36) is no surprise, since they are, at least, narrative siblings.
The angel, Gabriel, is the link between the births as well; he appears to Zechariah (not Elizabeth) and to Mary. He even names both children — John and Jesus (see also Luke 1:13, 31). The parents are not granted this age-old privilege. Unlike Zechariah, Mary’s “confusion” was over the angel’s words, not the angel itself (1:29-30). Compare Zechariah’s “fearful” reaction (1:12). Like Zechariah, Mary, too, raised a practical concern about the nature of pregnancy (1:34; see also 1:18). But, apparently, Mary expressed a strong belief after her initial query (1:38; see also 1:20).
But John’s birth was not equal to Jesus’ own and Elizabeth recognized the difference: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43). Though John will be “filled with the spirit” before birth (1:15), Jesus will be born of the Holy Spirit and called God’s son (1:35). When Elizabeth hears Mary’s initial greeting, she was “filled with the Spirit” as the baby leaped in her womb (1:41); and, she prophesied and praised Mary for her willingness to believe in what was spoken (1:45). Later in the chapter, Zechariah who “spoke prophetically” (1:67) will also be filled. The link between prophetic speech and spirit-filling will continue in the book of Acts (Acts 2:4).
The barren motif is a dominant “biblical” theme that runs throughout the history of ancient Israel. Think of Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and so many others. What the ancients also know is that every one of these stories ends in God’s blessing! One troubling aspect of this Israelite motif that lingers on in Luke’s account was to blame the female specifically for infertility. Zechariah is not named (Luke 1:7). Yet, in these biblical accounts, none of these women are left in the shameful condition of barrenness (1:25). [How many untold stories ended in cultural shame?] Elizabeth’s story of cultural unfruitfulness fits in with this biblical history and readers expect God’s intervention.
What breaks the pattern of these accounts is Mary’s story. As the voice and messenger of God, the angel Gabriel visits Mary as he did Zechariah (not Elizabeth). While God chose Elizabeth to birth John, God chose one of lesser rank (not connected to the priesthood!) to birth God’s son, Jesus. Childlessness is not crucial to Mary’s story but shame is since Mary has not had sexual intercourse prior to her engagement. But the shame is only implied in Luke’s Gospel. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph thought the honorable act was to divorce Mary privately for whatever infidelity she had committed (see also Matthew 1:18-19). Luke’s account downplayed the potential disgrace a spirit-led birth would generate among Mary’s peers.
“Joseph” is a minor character in Luke’s Gospel (see also Luke 1:27; 2:4, 16; 4:22). He is the subject of a verb only at 2:4-5, initiating the couple’s trip to Bethlehem to be registered for the census. At 2:16-17, when the shepherds addressed him along with Mary, only Mary’s reaction was recorded (2:19). At 2:33, both parents were amazed at Simeon’s announcement about their son, but Simeon only spoke to Mary with additional words of consolation (2:34-35). We know very little, according to Luke, about Joseph’s thoughts surrounding these events.
This passage may also allow us an opportunity to hear some of the theological conversations among Christians in different communities in first-century Christianity. Is Luke’s story a reaction to the “shaming” account exposed in Matthew’s story and, apparently, common in some Jewish-Christian circles? Or, perhaps, more significantly was there a “debate” about when Jesus became God’s son? Did it occur at baptism, as in the earliest Gospel account (see also Mark 1:9-11)? Or, at Jesus’ birth, as Luke claims (Luke 1:32, 35)? This difference expresses some of the vibrancy of the early Christian community as they attempted to figure out theologically all of the particulars of their newfound confession.
Finally, the virgin birth is central to Luke’s story. Although details are minimal about the process of Mary’s miraculous pregnancy, God’s “overshadowing” power was a clue (Luke 1:35). “Overshadowing” language—Greek episkiadzo—would return during the transfiguration scene. At that event, a cloud “overshadowed” Peter, James, and John, a cloud out of which God spoke words of affirmation—not an angel—about Jesus’ identity: “This is my Son” (Luke 9:35). Without an angelic intermediary, God would directly intervene to bring about Mary’s miraculous birth. This was Luke’s claim, obviously shared by many early Christians.
During this season of expectations, may we remember the strangeness of the story, which may, in turn, allow us to counter our reactions to what we may find “strange” today. In giving us this gift, may God grant to us the wisdom to spread God’s grace upon others whose circumstances may mirror Mary’s own more than our own! May we have the courage, as Luke did, to relay our stories that push pass the potential shame and claim other people as our own!
Father God, There is no miracle as grand as birth. As we prepare for the coming of your son, Jesus, create in us new life. Transform us so that we may reflect the light of your son, and become beacons of goodness, kindness, compassion, generosity, honesty, patience, and peace, for the sake of the one whose name brings deliverance and life to all the world, Jesus Christ, infant king. Amen.
My soul proclaims your greatness ELW 251 My soul gives glory to my God UMH 1983, NCH 119 Joy to the world ELW 267, H82 100, UMH 246 Signs and wonders ELW 672
Thou shalt know him when he comes, Mark Sirette