Formations 12.01.2019: A Frightening Call

Luke 1:26-38

Some things haven’t changed since biblical times. For a couple (especially a Christian couple) who is in a relationship but not yet married, the potential for pregnancy can be frightening and even shameful. If they choose to have sex, even with precautions a baby is still a possibility. If they want to save sex for marriage but aren’t able to keep that commitment, a surprise baby can be an embarrassment and a clear sign that they gave in to temptation. Throughout the centuries and into today, there are circumstances when a baby brings not joy but shame. I’m not here to debate the morality of that fact—just to state that it is true.

But what if you are in a committed relationship, decide to save sex for marriage, maintain your sexual purity, and still get pregnant?

I’ve always tried to consider Mary’s feelings as the angel Gabriel delivered such astounding news to her. We don’t know much about Mary at this point in the biblical narrative, but we can probably count on a few things: She was young, possibly in her teens. She was a woman in a time when women had no recognized rights apart from the men in their lives. She was a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, waiting to consummate the relationship after they were legally married. She seemed to do what was expected of her, going through her days with quiet honor.

And then a mysterious visitor came and upended her entire life forever. God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she would conceive without Joseph and bear a son named Jesus—the “Son of the Most High.” Gabriel said strange things about Mary’s son that probably made little sense to her at the time.

It can be a helpful exercise to read between the lines here and use our imaginations. I believe Mary was more than perplexed and afraid. I believe there was more to her simple question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Think of the fear. Think of the shame. Think of the grief and confusion that must have come over her. Surely this encounter with Gabriel lasted longer than a few verses of Scripture. And surely the repercussions of his news were more complex than Mary’s saintly response, “let it be with me according to your word,” would indicate.

As a human being living in a complex world and interacting with complicated people, I appreciate the struggle behind the story. I need to think about it and imagine it, at least for a while.

But then I need to come back to the main point of this text. Luke’s point is that God revealed part of the grand plan to Mary. Mary asked for a little clarification, and then she committed wholeheartedly to what God asked her to do. How committed are we to God’s plan?

Discussion

• When have you seen shame connected to a situation that would have been joyful in different circumstances? What happened? How did the people involved handle it?

• How can it be helpful to “read between the lines” of Bible stories? How could it be misleading to do so? What precautions should we be aware of when we do this?

• Close your eyes and imagine being Mary in this moment. What are your thoughts, feelings, and reactions? What will you do when Gabriel leaves you?

• What is the most important message Luke is trying to get across in his version of this story?

• How does Mary’s attitude in this frightening moment inspire you? What can she teach you about your own response to God’s call?

Reference Shelf

Luke gives us a few clues on how he imagines things [that is, the annunciation to Mary]. This scene, as commentators frequently note, is based on the episode just finished, the annunciation to Zechariah. But whereas Zechariah and Elizabeth are typical characters in a stock plot—the aging righteous childless couple longing for a baby—Mary is not. There are no biblical examples of young unmarried women who get the happy news that they will have a baby through God’s direct intervention. So Luke composes this second annunciation on the model of the first one, letting us first see the similarities between the two situations, all the better to feel their differences.

First, notice the parallels between the two scenes:

Zechariah

He is “terrified”
“Do not be afraid”
“Elizabeth will bear you a son”
“You will name him John”
“He will be great”
“How will I know that this is so?”

Mary

She is “troubled”
“Do not be afraid”
“You will bear a son”
“You will name him Jesus”
“He will be great”
“How can this be, since I have no husband?”

But there are also many differences between the two scenes. Zechariah is old, a priest, on duty in the temple when the vision comes. Mary’s age is not given, but since she is called “virgin” twice without any sort of qualifying phrase, we assume that Luke thinks of her as young. We do not know her precise age. The figure of twelve years that often appears in commentaries is based on a Mishnah passage that says a girl’s vows are valid in her twelfth year. Actual evidence of Jewish practice from the first century is scarce, but what there is demonstrates that the ages of brides ranged from thirteen to early twenties. The most we can say for sure is that certainly by contrast with Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary is a more normal age for having her first baby; the obstacle that requires suspension of disbelief in her case is that she is single.

Mary is also in no place as significant as the temple. She is in a small village in the north. And until the end of the episode, when we learn she is related to Elizabeth, we have no idea of her family. Even then, we assume she is also a descendant of Aaron, but we do not know her clan, as we do for Zechariah. We also do not know her social or economic status. Commentaries frequently presume that she is poor, but we actually have no information about her status at this point. (When Mary and Joseph make an offering at the temple, they offer two doves, meaning that they are not wealthy [2:24]; but had they been truly destitute, they could have offered meal instead.) The point is that Luke wants us to take Mary as an unknown quantity: we know her name, her marital status, and the name of the village where she lives, so that God’s choice of her comes as something of a surprise to the reader as well as to Mary herself.

The two greatest contrasts with Zechariah are the nature of the promise to Mary and the nature of her response. Gabriel promised Mary that she would have a son, just as he promised Zechariah that Elizabeth would, too. But whereas John will be great before the Lord, Jesus will be great and will be called “Son of the Most High.” John will turn the people back to the Lord, but Jesus will be granted David’s throne and will “rule over the house of Jacob forever.” This is the beginning of the motif of kingship in Luke, and for Luke’s readers past and present it creates many questions. Nowhere in Luke does Jesus claim the title “King” or “Messiah” (in 23:3 he gets the chance to do so, but passes it up), but others proclaim him king (19:38), accuse him of saying he is king (23:2), and crucify him under that title (23:38). This commentary will argue that Luke is aware of how some of Jesus’ followers know him as Messiah and understand him to have been Israel’s rejected King, but that Luke undercuts the title, preferring instead to present Jesus as a prophet. In many ways, as we will see later, Luke treats the whole notion of kingship as something to be ridiculed.

Luke’s first readers may have wrestled with how to square Gabriel’s prophecy with their reality: when has Jesus ruled over the Jews, the descendants of Jacob? By the time Luke wrote, the temple lay in ruins and Christianity had developed branches that no longer believed that Jewish piety—keeping Sabbath, obeying the dietary laws—was necessary or helpful for Christians. Some believed Christians had replaced Jews as the chosen people of God; for such readers, what meaning did Gabriel’s promise hold? For modern Christians, faced with the church’s consistently anti-Jewish behavior since the time of Constantine, the question becomes whether proclaiming Jesus as the future ruler of Jacob’s descendants is not one more act of virulent triumphalism. Why would they want to be ruled by the founder of another religion? And if we Christians believe that the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still valid—if we do not, then we will have problems understanding Jesus and Paul—then we need to consider carefully how we can proclaim the coming kingship of Jesus without sounding like we are condemning the house of Jacob to the outer darkness.

The last part of v. 35 can be translated “the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God,” or “the one to be born, the holy one, will be called the Son of God.” In either case, Jesus is set apart for God (holy) and is God’s Son by the action of God’s Spirit descending on Mary. The emphasis is on God’s action, and nothing is said about Mary’s status as a virgin contributing or being necessary to Jesus’ status as holy Son of God. Gabriel emphasizes God’s action throughout his oracle: the Lord is with you; you have found favor with God; God will give him the throne; the Holy Spirit will come upon you; the power of the Most High will overshadow you; nothing shall be impossible with God. To keep us focused on “the Lord God” who is doing all this through Mary, Luke suppresses Gabriel’s name; he never says it, Mary never asks it, and after mentioning it once, the narrator drops it for “the angel.” On the other hand, Luke does not make Mary passive: “you will conceive in your womb,” “you will bear a son,” “you will call his name Jesus.” A young girl from no place special, she has been chosen by God to do a very important task, and everything hinges on whether she will accept it.

Mary’s response “How can this be?” does not sound so terribly different from Zechariah’s “How will I know that this is so?”; yet Mary is not struck mute, so we surmise that Luke considered it significantly different. Zechariah’s question is a request for proof, which colors him absurdly recalcitrant: if a priest is not going to believe an angel, then what would he believe? Besides, he is quoting Abraham; does he not remember the story? Mary’s question is more of a question of method: does Gabriel mean that she will marry Joseph, and their baby will be heir to David’s throne through Joseph? Or perhaps it’s more general still: “I’m not now sexually active; how will this happen?” Her question has struck some commentators as odd, for that very cause: why would a young woman about to be married need to ask an angel how she would become pregnant? But Gabriel has said nothing about Joseph, and has only spoken about what God has done or will do for her or for her son, and just as the “hail, graced one, the Lord is with you” puzzled her, so must the rest of Gabriel’s speech. Mary is not looking for proof, but for clarity.

The simplest explanation for “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son” would have been that Mary and Joseph would have a baby, and some commentators have argued that Luke understood it that way. …While this is possible, it seems unlikely; Mary is pregnant in the very next episode, when she meets Elizabeth, and Luke is still calling her Joseph’s betrothed in 2:5.

Luke’s readers will have been familiar with many different stories of how male gods had children by women. Plutarch, for example, narrates several versions of the divine origin of Alexander the Great, including one in which his mother was impregnated by a lightning bolt from Zeus on the eve before her marriage to Philip of Macedon. Zeus/Jupiter’s sexual dalliances with women were the stuff of both serious myth and bawdy comedy. The Roman comic playwright Plautus’s Amphitryon has Jupiter impersonate a general from Thebes in order to spend one night in bed with his wife; time stands still while the god takes his pleasure, and the wife gives birth to the god’s child the very next day. Luke is careful not to use language that will at all sound sexual but that nonetheless emphasizes Jesus’ divine origin.

Luke uses two images for how Mary conceived, images that recur in his narrative. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” has parallels in Acts 1:8, where it predicts the Pentecost event. There the Spirit descended upon each believer in visible form as flames resting on each of them. One is also reminded of Jesus’ baptism where the Spirit descended visibly upon Jesus. The second metaphor is overshadowing, which is described quite literally in Acts 5:15—when Peter’s shadow fell on the sick, they were healed. There is likewise a literal, physical overshadowing in Luke’s transfiguration story, when the cloud of God’s presence surrounded Peter, James, and John. One suspects, then, that Luke imagined (although he does not narrate it, so we cannot be certain) that the descent of the Spirit on Mary felt as real to her as the transfiguration cloud did to Peter. Commentators often point to how the Greek word for “overshadow” appears in Exodus 40:35, when God’s Spirit fills the tabernacle in the desert. It would appear, however, that Luke was thinking more about the experience of Jesus and the early church, as they were filled and empowered by God’s Spirit; Mary’s conception was a prototype for the way God would be manifest in all believers.

Mary’s second response heightens the sense that Luke is composing her as a model believer: “Behold the Lord’s servant; may it happen to me just as you said.” In Greek, the believing acceptance is amplified by the wordplay: Gabriel says, “No event [lit., rema, “word,” but here it means “thing” or “event”] will be impossible with God,” and she says, “May it happen to me according to your rema.” That was Zechariah’s line, or it should have been; what is a priest but the servant of the Lord, whose very life is dedicated to doing what God’s word commands? Mary’s fiat is echoed in Luke by other exemplary characters: Simeon, who waited at God’s command to see the Messiah and called himself God’s servant; the centurion who knew that Jesus’ word would be enough to heal his servant, because he, too, had masters to whom he submitted; and Jesus himself, who set God’s will above his own.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2008) 35–40.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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