< December 24, 2017 >

Commentary on Luke 1:26-38

 

This Advent season, the Gospel of Luke’s version of the birth story is our focus.

Because of the busy and image-rich Christmas holidays full of nativity plays and orations -- many of which combine Matthew’s wise men with Luke’s shepherds -- it is easy to miss Luke’s distinctive theological voice and contribution to the season of Advent. Harmonizing the stories into a single, easily digestible account bespeaks a long interpretative tradition in Christianity.

An early Christian apologist, Tatian, created a Gospel harmony, known as the Diatessaron (around 150-160 C.E.), in which he harmonized the four gospels using the Gospel of John as the primary narrative framework. Centuries later, Augustine, a 4th and 5th century Latin Church Father and Bishop in Roman North Africa (around 354-430 C.E.), also created a Gospel Harmony called the Harmony of the Gospels (De consensus evangelistarum, around 400 C.E.), which used Matthew as the primary narrative reference. A version of the story about Mary’s angelic visitation is preserved in both accounts along with the stories about Zechariah and Elizabeth as well as Gabriel.

Interestingly, while Luke functions as a significant source of gospel material in these harmonies, Luke’s gospel never rises to the level of chief reference point. This is unfortunate because there is much the Gospel of Luke can offer to considerations about the theological, religious, and ethical significance and messages of Advent for the church today. Interpreters often pay attention to Mary’s commission to carry the Son of God (Luke 1:35) or to the prophecy of Jesus’ birth and the expectation that ensues, especially when Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The story rings with anticipation, leaving its readers primed for the big event -- Jesus’ birth and subsequent ministry in the world and beyond.

Perhaps, one helpful way of giving Luke’s storied message a fresh hearing is by paying attention to an often-overlooked detail in the account. According to verses 26-27, Gabriel, the messenger or angel of God, was sent to give Mary a message. This is different from Matthew’s version where the unnamed angel of the Lord is sent to Joseph, not Mary (Matthew 1:20).

The message Gabriel provides Mary makes several points. First, he tells Mary twice that she is favored by the Lord (Luke 1:28, 30) and declares the Lord is with her (Luke 1:28). Moreover, Gabriel tells her the news we often spend most of December rehearsing in our churches and our Sunday morning creeds -- namely, that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God (Luke 1:35) who will reign as the divine King and ancestor of David (Luke 1:32-33). Language of Jesus’ kingship and kingdom proclamation (4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 11:2; 23:42) as well as his Davidic ancestry (Luke 1:69; 2:4; 3:31, 18:38; 20:41) persists throughout the Gospel. All these details are staples of Advent conversations.

In addition to Mary’s story, Gabriel, the angelic messenger of God, appears elsewhere in the biblical record. In Daniel 8:16-17 and 9:21-23, Gabriel is mentioned as a messenger of God who helps Daniel to understand his visions and the situation of Israel within the larger unfolding drama of human history, governance, and God’s acts of deliverance. He is a figure at the site of a theophany or divine encounter intended to disrupt not only the everyday dealings of an individual, but to alter the circumstances of God’s broader people.

Consequently, the angelic figure, Gabriel, is no stranger in the bible or even in the gospel of Luke. Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary” (Luke 1:30). His appearance to Mary is his second appearance in the Gospel following his appearance to Zechariah in the temple earlier in Luke 1:13, where he says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” The double saying, in which Gabriel assures both Zechariah and Mary in the same manner and with the same words links these two characters together. This is a common convention of Luke’s literary style. The Gospel of Luke has different forms of gendered pairs, in which male and female figures share similar stories and experiences that exhibit elements of distinction between them.

In addition to linking Mary and Zechariah together, Gabriel’s statement -- “Do not be afraid” -- reverberates throughout the rest of Luke’s story. It foreshadows the words offered by the unnamed angel of the Lord to the shepherds in 2:10 when he says, “Do not be afraid.” Each word of assurance offered by the angel is not without cause. Indeed, each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel (Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:32).

It is interesting to find that at the moment of God’s divine interventions, assurance is offered before a message of celebration. The simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 24-25); miracles to those not looking for miracles, as in the case of Mary (Luke 1:26-27); and even disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds (Luke 2:8),

Moreover, such assurance cuts across social status and function. Zechariah is one who is of the priestly class, serving in the temple and overseeing the ritual life of the entire Jewish people (Luke 1:5, 8-10). He represents one with resources, access to power and influence, and one positioned around local and national authorities.

In contrast, Mary is a young woman who lacks all of the power, positioning, and prestige associated with Zechariah’s position. As a virgin (the Greek word is parthenos), Mary is not only a young woman of puberty age (ages 12-14 years old), the Gospel story makes clear she is one who lacks prior sexual activity (Luke 1:31, 34) and is in the period of betrothal (Luke 1:27). Whereas Zechariah is an elder, head of household, and powerful, Mary is one who is young, inexperienced, in between households, and vulnerable.

Furthermore, the shepherds are a group of worker class who “rank low on the scale of power and privilege” when compared to Temple priests and the Roman emperor.1 From Zechariah, the older man who is part of the establishment, to Mary the vulnerable young woman with hopes for a secure future, to the shepherds working the fields and overseeing livestock -- assurance is offered at the very moment readers expect celebration.

In the New Testament, words of assurance have purpose. They offer comfort when the status quo is about to be altered and the rhythms of the everyday about to be disrupted. Moreover, words of assurance offer comfort when a community is under duress and suffering attack and persecution presently (1 Peter 1:6-7; 3:14) or in the near future (Revelation 2:10). Words of assurance in the New Testament also create the space for courageous action to take place, as is the case for Paul in the second volume of Luke’s work (Acts 18:9, 27:24).

What happens to the story of Mary during this season of Advent if we see the word of assurance as functioning as more than a simple courtesy or greeting? It can serve as a different sort of interpretative invitation -- one that we do not often entertain during Advent, but perhaps we should. In Luke’s account of the virginal conception, a word of assurance and comfort functions as an invitation for Mary to do the unusual and the bold for the sake of the entire world because “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

What does Advent look like if instead of starting with words of celebration, thanksgiving, and even commemoration, preachers begin with words that remind God’s people that we can stand boldly and not be afraid? Perhaps, herein, lies one of the gems Mary treasured in her heart as she watched the gift of God grow and manifest in the world (Luke 2:19, 51).

Notes

  1. Joel B. Green, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 1855, n. 2:8-20.