The assigned text for this Sunday begins what can be considered the “infancy narrative” of Jesus, which concludes on NL319 or NL320, both about Jesus in the Temple.
As noted at the very beginning of the Gospel, Luke takes great pains to provide a clear chronology and geography of the Holy Family’s various journeys prior to and after Jesus’ birth on Christmas.
This pericope is comprised of two scenes and a song (if including the bracketed canticle). Even if the preacher opts not to include the canticle in the reading of the gospel, worship planners should find a way to include it in the liturgy, preferably sometime around the reading of the gospel—centuries of composers have adapted the Magnificat, and most hymnals contain a handful of singable versions.
First Scene: The Annunciation (26-38)
Luke sets up the first scene by breaking with the previous story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would be the parents of John the Baptizer. The scene begins with the specifics of time and location: it is the sixth month, and the event takes place in Nazareth. Noting when and where are key, not to test the validity of these events but because they connect to the real history of salvation that is playing out in time and space. The location, Nazareth, will feature greatly in Jesus’ earthly ministry as it unfolds in the Gospel.
God sends Gabriel to Mary to deliver a message. Readers of the Gospel have already met Gabriel, who delivered a similarly strange message to Zechariah in the previous section of Luke. Gabriel’s greeting that the Lord is with her is a familiar one throughout Scripture, as it denotes that God’s promises are ones to be trusted (see Genesis 26:24 to Isaac, Exodus 3:13 to Moses, Acts 18:9-10 to Paul)—Matthew’s Gospel goes further to call Jesus Emmanuel, literally meaning “God is with us.”
Mary’s shock at Gabriel’s appearance and news should not be surprising: angels would be a shock to anyone, especially someone familiar with the Hebrew Bible and how God reveals God’s self through these heavenly messengers. Mary has another concern though: she is betrothed and has not known a man sexually. Such scandal could ruin a family-to-be and becomes the source of Joseph’s nightmares in Matthew’s Gospel. Yet, scandal would not be foreign to the Holy Family, as the ultimate scandal will come with the cross on Good Friday.
Gabriel calms Mary’s anxiety by noting that “nothing will be impossible with God,” using language like what the Lord said to Sarah after promising her children. Mary places her trust in Gabriel’s words and thus in God’s “with-ness” in her life and into the future (note the future tense of Gabriel’s assurance).
The importance of this scene led to it having a specific festival on March 25 in the seventh century, dating nine months before Christmas to connect conception to birth.
Second Scene: The Visitation (39-45)
The second scene starts out similarly to the first, with Luke noting that Mary’s visit takes place at a particular time and location. In fact, the two scenes are somewhat parallel, with Elizabeth taking the place of Gabriel as the one who reveals God’s promises. Another important character here is the Holy Spirit, who in the first scene is the very connection between God and Mary, and in the second scene inspires Elizabeth’s loud acclamation. Even though Jesus’ birth is one that is exceptional, it is one in which all people share through baptism, because it is of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the language shifts to being more familial—Mary calls herself the “servant of the Lord,” while Elizabeth calls Mary the “mother of my Lord.” And John, not to be omitted from the family reunion, jumps for joy.
Elizabeth uses the word “blessed” multiple times in this scene. The first is by proclaiming Mary herself blessed. This attribute of Mary will be familiar to anyone accustomed to praying the Rosary. It is not until the end of the scene that the reader knows why—Mary believed what Gabriel said, that God will do what God has promised. The second is by proclaiming Jesus as blessed, a theme that will continue throughout the rest of the infancy narrative.
By the fourteenth century, the Visitation became a specific festival on the liturgical calendar, first on July 2 and later May 31.
Mary’s Song: The Magnificat (46-56)
Overcome by Elizabeth’s greetings, Mary could not help but sing praises about God’s promises. This canticle, which has parallels to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (NL306), is not the only one in Luke’s gospel, as Zechariah will also sing of God’s blessedness and power after the birth of John the Baptizer.
Mary’s song would eventually be associated with Evening Prayer in the sixth century because it speaks of the fulfillment of God’s promises. It is a series of couplets, some that are meant to augment the previous line and others as describing how God’s reign corrects for injustice. While Mary speaks of God’s power in the future tense in the first scene, here she sings of what God has already completed (they are indicative aorist active verbs in the Greek), which means they are now part of reality.
In her song, Mary now claims the title of being “blessed,” one that had been given to her by both Gabriel and Elizabeth. In her proclamation of God’s deeds, she begins by describing how God has acted in her own life (verses 47-49) and then branches out to how God has acted in the world (verses 50-55).
The two scenes and the song together are about God’s working in the world, even before Jesus’ birth. God promises “with-ness” to Mary and by extension to all creatures of the cosmos.1
See also RCL Fourth Sunday of Advent, combination of assigned gospels for years B and C, with the Magnificat as an option in place of the psalm.
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