We are studying Luke 1:26-31 and also Luke 2:22-35 for Sunday, December 23, along with everyone else using the Uniform Series texts. Luke 1:26-31 is embedded in the longer narrative that runs through verse 38, the Annunciation to Mary. Luke 2:21-35 is most of the account of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem. Just for the sake of length, notes on Luke 2:22-35 will appear in a second post. Here are my notes on Luke 1:26-38:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Both of this week’s passages are in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke is one of the three synoptic gospels, with its own distinctive point of view on the well-known events of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Luke speaks as one learned and literate Greek to another. He’s typically noted for: his solicitude to women and his inclusion of stories featuring women – of which this story is a prime example! His emphasis on the Holy Spirit – of which this story is a prime example, too! His inclusion of Gentiles and “others” – of which this story is not so much an example, because the angel Gabriel talks about Jesus as the Jewish messiah, not as the savior of the whole world. [So, the “light to the nations” doesn’t become apparent until later – compare Isaiah 49:5-6.]
Luke 1:26-31, the episode of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary of her impending pregnancy and the birth of Jesus, follows the introductory story of an angel’s announcement of the birth of John to Zechariah’s elderly wife, Elizabeth, and of her pregnancy. After this, Mary will immediately visit Elizabeth (“the visitation”), and will deliver her famous “Magnificat” on that occasion. John will be born, and then Jesus will be born, with all the angelic fanfare we’re familiar with, and then will be the object of the appropriate Jewish ceremonies of circumcision and redemption (Luke 2:21-40), and then everything else. So, from a literary point of view, our text is a key episode of an elaborate opening movement in Luke’s “orderly account” (Luke 1:3).
One effect of Luke’s opening sequence is to let the reader know that elaborate preparations have been made for Jesus’ birth, and that he comes into a situation in which he has a ready-made and long-anticipated role.
From a solar year standpoint, we could notice this: John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ births have traditionally anchored the poles of the solar year, with John the Baptist’s birthday on Midsummer Day, the summer solstice, and Jesus’ birthday roughly at the winter solstice. That places the annunciation – sixth months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy, nine months before Jesus’ own nativity – roughly on the spring equinox, that is, the solar-year landmark associated with the earth’s gathering signs of rebirth, the beginning of the season of day’s triumph over night, and liturgically, usually, a precursor to the big Christian celebration of the equinox, Easter. Laugh if you will, but the solar year is a big deal for humans – which I’m especially aware of recently, as the sun keeps sleeping in later and later and leaving us in pitch darkness longer and longer.
From a liturgical standpoint, Luke 1:26-38 is a regular text in the Revised Common Lectionary, showing up as the Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent in Year B, and annually for the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. This means it’s one many churchgoers will be familiar with from church.
CLOSER READING: All the motion belongs to the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel is “sent” (v26), “came” (v28), and after a long exchange of conversation, “departed” (v38). Most of the text is this conversation between Gabriel and Mary, in Greek, Mariam. Mary speaks, and thinks (v29), but doesn’t move.
There are A LOT of names in this text, both proper names and epithets. In the first three verses, the names of Nazareth in Galilee, Joseph, and Mary are underlined by being pointed out as their names, while the specific angel who speaks to Mary, Gabriel, is already named. This naming seems to prepare us to hear the angel instruct Mary that “you will name him Jesus” (v31), and then point out that Jesus will have several other names: “Son of the Most High,” “holy,” and “Son of God” (v32, v35). The important names of David (v27, v32) and Jacob (v33) are pointedly mentioned. Naming Mary’s cousin Elizabeth – whose name was “barren,” a name that has now become obsolete – clinches the truth of the angel’s announcement (v36).
Because “nothing” – literally, no word – will be impossible with God. This “word” is the same Greek word Mary immediately repeats when she says “let it be with me according to your word” (v38). It means something like “saying” or “that which you just said” or “statement.” So, something like “whatever God says, God can do that” and “OK, what you just said, that’s how it will be.”
The emphasis on names and naming might simply be an affirmation that the author of the gospel is recording facts about real people and places. Or it might go deeper: a literary suggestion that God calls people by name, is the giver and keeper of identity, and the maker of reality through divine speech – maybe a distant echo of Genesis 1, which would be appropriate, since this event is the beginning of the re-make of that creation.
David (v27, 32) is the “Great King” of Israel, who was promised a continuing dynasty on the condition that the subsequent kings obeyed God. By Jesus’ time, this has evolved into the anticipation of a messiah who will restore that Davidic kingdom. Jacob (v33) is the Jacob of Genesis, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, nicknamed Israel, father of the “children of Israel,” who are sometimes (as here) collectively or nationally referred to as “Jacob.”
“Son of the Most High” and “Son of God” here are royal titles, what people would call whoever is the king, especially in psalms. Gabriel’s whole speech in verses 32-35 presents Jesus as a royal figure, a coming king, who will also be “holy” thanks to the agency of the Holy Spirit (v35).
Is it noteworthy that Mary doesn’t seem to question the prediction that the child will be the royal messiah, but focuses on the question of how she’s supposed to be pregnant? (v34)
Mary’s perplexity and pondering (v29) after Gabriel’s greeting, when he calls her “favored,” was explained to us this way in seminary: exactly two Hebrew Biblical characters are told they’ll be called favored or “blessed among women:” Jael, who kills Sisera (see Judges 5:24), and Judith, who kills Holofernes (see Judith 15:8-10). So, Gabriel might as well have said to Mary, “Hi, Killer!” Aside from the fact that he’s a scary angel, this would make any reasonable mild-mannered virgin who had read her Bible worry about the assignment she’s about to get. Becoming a mother may come as something of a relief after that.
It’s hard not to see western art in our mind’s eye in this text, whatever famous picture of the Annunciation we have there. So it surprises me to notice that, aside from establishing the name of Mary’s town, there’s no description of the scene at all – we don’t even know from the text whether it’s indoors or outdoors, what Mary is doing, etc.
[I also always notice that having met the Angel Gabriel is one of the things Mary has in common with the Prophet Muhammad. This might be a little less frivolous than it sounds at first – since Jesus and the Qur’an are the ultimate divine revelation in their respective religions.]