Commentary on Luke 1:26-38
Imagine an angel showing up at someone’s home or workplace entirely unexpectedly and making a life-altering announcement. Luke tells two such stories in a short span and juxtaposes them. Since the story of angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Jesus comes on the heels of the account of Gabriel’s encounter with Zechariah, it is hard not to compare the two.
Mary and Zechariah respond to angel Gabriel’s announcement in vastly different ways. Unlike Zechariah, Mary’s final response to Gabriel’s announcement was one of complete affirmation.
Luke Timothy Johnson noted that Mary’s response (let it happen to me as you have said) is similar to Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives before his death (Luke 22:42).1 It is a declaration of trust in God even as Mary, and later Jesus, was going into the unknown.
Initially, however, Mary’s response was very different when angel Gabriel showed up at her door and announced that she was highly favored and that the Lord was with her. Luke tells us that she was greatly troubled by the unanticipated visitor and the announcement that seemed to come out of nowhere.
In describing Zechariah’s reaction to Gabriel, Luke says that fear fell upon him, and he was troubled. Luke employs the Greek verb etaraxthey to describe his troubled state of mind. But Luke uses dietaraxthey, a stronger form of taraxthey, to describe Mary’s state of mind when she heard Gabriel’s initial announcement. Etaraxthey simply means “troubled,” but dietaraxthey means “greatly troubled.”
Mary had every reason to be utterly troubled by a stranger showing up at her door and making a grand but vague announcement. She was certainly in a much more delicate situation than Zechariah. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes, she was among the most powerless: young in a setting that valued age, female, and poor. The stakes were indeed very high for Mary. One wrong move could ruin her personal and family reputation and jeopardize her entire life.
In the end, Mary’s story stands out for the impressive transformation from her initial response of being afraid and greatly troubled, to a query about how this might be possible, to a final affirmation of the announcement. The story also stands out for what really brought about this transformation in Mary’s response to the angel and helped her embrace the announcement.
When Mary seemed greatly troubled, the angel sought to reassure her and convince her to join the mission. Gabriel went about offering many grand pronouncements: “You are highly favored. The Lord is with you. You will give birth to a son. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Gabriel’s suggestion that God will give him the throne of David is a reference to 2 Samuel 7:12–13 where the Lord declares to David that a house, a royal line, will be established for him. The angel—by extension, Luke—highlights that Jesus would be in the Davidic line of royals. The angel also uses the title “the Son of God,” which was a multilayered title within that context. “Son of God” was a theological term that called attention to Jesus’ relationship with God as the beloved son, one that will be formally announced later at the baptism by the voice from heaven. But the term “son of God” was also a political title. It was a term used by the Roman Empire to refer to Augustus Caesar, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar.
The angel made seven major pronouncements to Mary in a matter of minutes. There was a long history in those titles, and those grand pronouncements should have made anyone absolutely joyful. But, interestingly, none of those seven grand pronouncements or the strong final assurance really reassured her or helped her get over her anxiety. She still had questions about it.
“How will this be?” Mary asks. In language similar to the transfiguration story, angel Gabriel responds saying, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). It is a strong assurance along with the promise that her offspring will be called Son of God. But apparently, that doesn’t do it for Mary either.
In the end, it was the news that Elizabeth had also conceived in a miraculous manner that convinced Mary to accept the announcement. She asked no additional questions after that. The Greek root of the phrase “even Elizabeth” certainly calls attention to the improbability of conception at her advanced age. But in the context of Mary’s reservations, the phrase assured her that Elizabeth, her relative, would have a similar experience. It was the assurance that another woman, someone she knew well, would walk with her during this uncertain journey that convinced Mary. Elizabeth likely understood Mary’s predicament more than anyone else, and it was the prospect of a shared experience that mattered to Mary more than any of those grand promises from Gabriel.
For people at the margins facing difficult situations, what matters most is someone who will share in their experience, stand with them, and walk with them. That’s also the story of incarnation in this reading. Not simple assurances that God cares for us but the fact that God will share in the human experience and journey with us in our everyday lived contexts.
Zechariah, a priest and a person of privilege, loses his ability to speak because of his unwillingness to believe an angelic proclamation about John’s birth. On the contrary, Mary, a person of lowly social and economic status, is celebrated and exalted based on her positive response to Gabriel’s announcement. Mary ponders, asks thoughtful questions, and responds in a mature manner. Mary was not a leader like Zechariah but emerges as one during the course of this story. While Zechariah is silenced because of his response, Mary gets to sing about the mission of Jesus. The reversals announced in the Magnificat have already begun to occur!
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2006), 39.