Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

The first two chapters of Luke include some of the most beautiful poetry in scripture, expressing the presence of God in the lives of the faithful of Israel.

December 21, 2008

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Commentary on Luke 1:26-38

The first two chapters of Luke include some of the most beautiful poetry in scripture, expressing the presence of God in the lives of the faithful of Israel.

Following our text for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the Canticles of praise to God:

  • The Magnificat of Mary (1:46-55)
  • The Benedictus of Zechariah (1:67-79)
  • The Gloria of the Angels  (2:14)
  • The Nunc Dimittus of Simeon (2:29-32)

These texts follow our study for today and bring to conclusion the nativity story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke.

The interweaving of the stories of the John’s birth to Elizabeth and Zechariah provide an entry into the story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. Luke is the only gospel that links the lives of John and Jesus in such an intimate way, identifying Elizabeth and Mary as relatives (1:36). Elizabeth gives birth to John in her old age; Mary gives birth to Jesus in her youth. Elizabeth gives birth to John six months before the birth of Jesus to Mary.

The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah, a priest in the temple, to announce the news that their prayers have been answered and Elizabeth will bear a son who will be one like the prophet Elijah: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (l:16). Until the birth of John, Zechariah will be mute because of his unbelief in such an announcement (1:20). Because of her age and embarrassment about her pregnancy, Elizabeth remains in seclusion for five months (1:24-25).

Now, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel is sent by God “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (1:26-27). Mary receives Gabriel’s words in wonderment: “‘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” (1:28-29).

What Mary was about to hear has changed the aeons of time forever. To a young maiden engaged to Joseph come the words of comfort and promise: “‘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 call him Jesus” (1:30-31).

The name “Jesus” would have special meaning for her and all Israelites, because it is derived from a Hebrew word that means “savior” and signifies the promise of one who saves God’s people. Not only will Mary conceive a child in a way never heard of before, but the child will play a special role in the salvation of all God’s people. Hear the message of the angels: “To you is born in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11).

The proclamation of who Jesus is has to be one of the most exalted in all scripture: “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” (1:32-33).

In Jesus, the fulfillment of the ages has come. The Messiah, so longed for in the history of God’s people, brings together the reign of David and the promise of life to the family of Jacob/Israel. Thus it is no wonder that Mary responds: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34).

The wonderful exchange between Mary and the angel Gabriel continues to express God’s pure and simple gift to Mary: “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” (1:35). Within this single verse, we have the basis why the Christian faith is centered in the triune God. All three persons are present in the God we confess as “the Most High,” in Jesus Christ “the Son of God,” and the overshadowing presence of “the Holy Spirit.”

The connection back to the verses that preceded our text (1:5-25) now draws this story to a conclusion, once again linking John and Jesus in a familial relationship: “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”(1:36).

The older and once barren mother is visited by the young mother-to-be in the verses that follow our text (1:39-45). The text records one of the most touching experiences of a mother, once barren: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry” (1:41-42a). Her words of praise follow in verses 1:42b-45.

The interpretive key to the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke is present in the message of the angel: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37). This is the story of Elizabeth, Mary and the faith in which the evangelist has authored this gospel. This theme continues throughout the entire gospel to the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ−nothing is impossible.

The final response of Mary in our text for today expresses the faith of the young mother and chosen one of God: “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her” (1:38).

When the aged Simeon meets Mary and Joseph with their son in the temple for the Jewish rite of circumcision, Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms with these words: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed−and a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (2:34-35). Eight days following the birth of her child, Mary hears the prophetic words of Simeon that will bring her to the time of the crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God.

This Sunday’s text is the Advent of salvation that brings together the past, present, and future under God’s salvation purpose.