The Nativity of Jesus Is Announced
Luke 1: 26 — 38
On this fourth Sunday in Advent we finally come to the Christmas theme. The account opens as the angel Gabriel (Hebrew, gebher el, meaning Strength of God), with heavenly wisdom, tact and adroitness, enters into dialogue with Mary. He delivers a great message in the form of a decree of the Most High God, "something ordained in the eternal decree of the incarnation, predicted centuries before by the prophets, and announced now to her as an event of imminent occurrence depending on her consent." (See Beyond Space, by Pascal Parente, Tan Books 1973). The moment Mary gives her consent the angel departs.
This early section of St Luke's Gospel has come under much critical analysis in modern times and is seen as more devotional than historical. At the risk of being rated unworthy to make comment on the modernist devastation of this beautiful passage, we offer a traditional presentation drawing from Catholic and Reformed sources.
The material in the section below comes from two sources long out of print, which we trust will therefore not breach copyright. Both refer to the King James Version of the Holy Bible. The material is substantial but well worth the effort of reading and reflection.
Some Notes On The Text
Commentary On St Luke by M. F. Sadler (George Bell & Sons, 1898)
And in the sixth month.
i.e. the sixth after the appearance of the angel to Zacharias. This, as I noticed, is the starting-point of the chain of events culminating in Redemption.
The angel Gabriel.
In the account of his former appearance to Zacharias, the angel mentions his own name only on the occasion of the unbelief of Zacharias. Now an event in the highest heavens is revealed, "The angel Gabriel was sent from God."
Unto a city of Galilee named Nazareth.
Unto the most despised of the cities of Israel, a place of which even good men scornfully asked, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth" And yet God brought about that the greatest event which has ever happened in the universe, even the union of the Godhood and Manhood in the Person of Jesus, should take place in this despised city.
To a virgin espoused.
Because of the prophecy, "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel'
To a virgin.
Because it was fitting that the all-holy One should come amongst us in the way of the most perfect purity conceivable.
To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph.
Scripture has rightly mentioned that she was espoused as well as a virgin; 'a virgin,' that she might appear free from all connection with man; 'espoused,' that she might not be branded with the disgrace of sullied virginity (Ambrose).
Of the house of David.
His lineage is given in Matthew . Inasmuch as our Lord was for many years known only among the Jews as the son of Joseph, it is clear that if He was to be held to be the descendant of David, His lineage must be traceable to David himself. It is as certain, as will soon appear, that Mary was a descendant of the same king.
And the virgin's name was Mary.
Mary or Miriam (in the New Testament always Miriam) being the name of the great sister of Moses was one of the most common, if not the most common, of Jewish female names. There were two, if not three, Mary's at the cross. There was Mary the sister of Martha, and Mary the mother of John Mark. Miriam was the most remarkable woman in Jewish history: she seems to have been both leader and prophetess. As prophetess she gave utterance to the sublime ode in which the women of Israel celebrated their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, and their safe passage through the sea. It was through her that Moses was spared to be the future deliverer of Israel, and in the wilderness she seems to have been honoured as a sort of co-leader with her two brothers.
And the angel came in unto her.
That is most probably into her chamber, where she was in prayer. That the angel thus came in seems to imply that the visit took place, not in the field, or by a well, or in the midst of friends.
(translated in Syriac shalom, the usual Eastern salutation), thou that art highly favoured.
The reader can scarcely be ignorant of the fact, that in all those Churches which use the Latin Vulgate, these words of what is called the "Ave Maria," are translated "full of grace." "Hail thou who art full of grace," richly endowed with grace. Our translation of the Greek word looks rather to the favour with which God regarded her, and is somewhat external in its meaning. God might, for instance, see fit to grant some great favour to a person not of exalted goodness and holiness.
But it may be understood as meaning "endowed with internal sanctifying grace," and this being the deeper meaning, is undoubtedly the one to be preferred; for though it was a favour transcending all thought that she should be the mother of the Lord, yet there must have been in her mind and heart moral and spiritual fitness for such a gift, which fitness she could only receive by the grace of the Holy Spirit: and we have abundant proof that there was. Elisabeth said of her, "Blessed is she that believed." She herself praised God in a psalm of the most exalted devotion. It is said of her, "Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." And again it is said of her, "Mary kept all these sayings in her heart." And surely if ever woman required the help of the Spirit, it was she to whom was committed the guardianship and earliest training of the Divine Son. Undoubtedly, then, this word should be translated "full of grace," in the sense of endowed by God with the best graces of His Spirit.
And yet, though holding to this deeper and higher meaning, we must not forget that for God to make use of any holy soul is to confer an infinite favour on that soul. We cannot say for a moment that Mary merited to be the instrument by which God became man, but we must acknowledge for the honour of God, Who always chooses the most fitting instruments, that of all human beings she was the most worthy to be the channel of such grace to man.
The Lord is with thee.
This also must be taken in the highest possible sense. If the Lord was with the earthly heroes of the Jews, so that fleshly men like Gideon should deliver Israel, in an infinitely higher sense must He have been with this meek and humble saint, that in her the Word should be made flesh.
Blessed art thou among women.
This form of speaking is the Hebrew superlative. There are multitudes of similar forms. "If thou know not, O thou fairest among women," literally "O thou the fair among women." And in fact, measured by the greatness of him Whom she conceived, and to Whom she gave birth, and to Whom for years she acted the part of a mother, her blessedness as a mother is beyond thought. In her the original curse was reversed. Through the childbearing of Eve we partake of sin and death; through the childbearing of Mary there came into the world that second Adam through Whom we receive deliverance from sin and eternal life.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, &c.
Thus the greatness of the blessings which he saw before him is said to make even Israel fear. "Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee" (Isaiah 60: 5), and those who heard that the Lord was risen were possessed by fear as well as great joy. Notice also that she was troubled at the saying.
Cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
From the three notices of the way in which she regarded the dispensations of God, it is clear that she must have been one of the most reflective of women. "Casting in her mind," "pondering in her heart," "keeping in her heart," the sayings of her Divine Son.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found, &c.
As if be said, "Fear not that the blessing seems overwhelming. Whatever be in store for thee, thou hast no cause of fear, for thou hast found favour with God, thou hast pleased God: God thy Maker hath seen in thee that which makes thee the fit instrument of His most gracious purpose."
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
The honour of giving to the Holy Child the most Holy Name, the Name that is above every name, is in St. Matthew given to Joseph. It is here given to Mary.
The name Jesus, which is a shortened form of Joshua, signifies "The Lord our Saviour." And the reason we find in St. Matthew, "He shall save his people from their sins."
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.
The same angel said. of John to Zacharias, "he shall be great in the sight of the Lord." But were the two greatnesses the same? So far from this, St. John the Baptist himself confesses the greatness of the Lord as infinitely above his, in the words, "He it is who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose." (John 1: 27.)
Shall be called the Son of the Highest.
We, who have the Gospel of St. John and the Epistles of St. Paul to guide us to the full doctrine of the Person of the Lord, can give but one meaning to these words. To us they mean, "the only-begotten Son of God." But how did St. Mary understand them? We can hardly think that she understood them in the sense of the creeds of the Catholic* Church any adequate sense of such nearness of the Divine Nature would have simply overwhelmed her; and yet it is impossible to suppose that she understood them as merely meaning that her Son would be a child of God as all other children of Abraham were. God said (Ps. 82: 6 — 7), of all the children of Israel, "I have said, Ye are gods; and ye are all the children of the most Highest; but ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes." But the words of an angel would not be needed to announce such a well-known truth as this. The words must have been understood by her in some high and unique sense, very probably an indefinite sense at their greatness and mystery pervaded her mind; just as it was with St. Peter, when he said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." He knew not the full meaning of his own language. It was the utterance of one who was yet spiritually a child, but he desired to express by them the highest relationship to God which men could then know or conceive.
Verse 32 and 33
And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign, &c.
All the expectations of the Jews respecting the Messiah as their deliverer and king spring from the promises which God had made to David. Such are,"The Lord hath made a faithful oath unto David, and he shall not shrink from it; of the fruit of thy body will I set upon thy seat" (Ps. 132: 11 — 12); again, in 2 Sam. 7: 12, "I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son."
Now this promise had never been fulfilled. There was never an approach to a fulfilment of it worthy of the greatness of the terms in which God had promised it in any of the kings of the house of David. They wrought no permanent deliverance. After a few years, sometimes a very few, as in the case of Josiah, they passed away. The one whose youth gave the fairest promise fell under the dominion of degrading sin, and brought upon his descendants the division of the kingdom. The greatest heroes of Jewish history, the Maccabees, were "not of the house and lineage of David."
But the true people of God, those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem, knew that God's promise would not fail, and that the more unlikely the advent of the true deliverance, the greater it would be. And now at last it had come.
The Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign, &c.
How would the Virgin understand this? At first, and till the sword had pierced her own soul, and the descent of the Spirit had enlightened her as to the true meaning of the kingdom of God, she would understand it as any maiden of the royal house would have understood it, — as the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. But in the light of the Catholic faith, we interpret it as meaning, "He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, "Whose kingdom shall have no end."
And yet some of us believe that the greater and wider will not prevent the smaller and the narrower fulfilment, and that He who is King of kings, and Lord. of lords, will always retain, in a peculiar sense, the title which He bore upon the Cross, "King of the Jews;" that men will never cease to invoke Him as the Son of David; that the promises to the national Israel will not be totally lost and absorbed in the promises to the Catholic Church, but that "of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom" (Isaiah 9: 7).
Then said Mary unto the angel,
How shall this be, seeing, &c. This is not the question of unbelief as that of Zacharias, who asked, "Whereby shall I know this?" i.e., the truth of your word- but of faith. Believing that it would come to pass, and knowing that she was a pure maiden, and understanding that the child to be born of her was to be hers and hers only, perhaps remembering the ancient prophecy, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son," she naturally asked how it could come to pass.
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, &c.
This is the most explicit declaration of the mystery of the Incarnation, on its human side, which we have in Scripture, whilst the words of St. John, "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," are the most explicit declaration of the same mystery on its Divine side. In St. Luke it is the preparation on the part of the Holy Ghost of an undefiled human nature in the womb of the Virgin, so that it should be assumed by the Son of God, and the union of the Son of God with that nature, also by the operation of the Holy Spirit.
In St. John it is the Word being made flesh, no notice being taken of the operation of the Spirit in the womb of the Virgin.
The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee, &c.
The angel here speaks in a Hebrew parallelism, the Holy Ghost being the power of the Highest. The Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Father, and of the Son, is that Person of the Godhead by Whom the Father and the Son put forth or exert their power. Thus the Lord says to the Apostles, "Tarry ye in Jerusalem till ye be endued with power from on high" (Luke 24: 49). Again, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power" (Acts 10: 38). Again, St. Paul's word was "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2: 4, 5). "Christ's humanity itself is thus formed by the power of the Holy Ghost," and again, "His hand [i.e., His Spirit] had carefully selected the choicest specimen of our nature from the Virgin's substance, and separating it from all defilement, His personal indwelling hallowed it and gave it power." (J. H. Newman).
Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
We are not for a moment to understand this as if "the holy thing," i.e., the undefiled human nature, was of itself the Son of God; but we are to understand that when the Holy Ghost formed this Holy Thing in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, the Eternal Son began to dwell in it from the first, and this by the operation of the Holy Ghost, and so that which was born of her was the Son of God. Here then are the two natures, but the One Person. The Human nature being formed in the womb of the Virgin, the Divine nature, as St. John tells us, assumes it; but the one Being Who is born is One Person. "That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."
That holy thing.
"To distinguish His holiness from ours Jesus is stated in an especial manner to be born Holy, for we, although indeed made holy, are not born so, for we are constrained by the very condition of our corruptible nature to cry out with the Prophet, 'Behold, I was conceived in iniquity.'
But He alone is in truth Holy, Who was not conceived by the cementing of a fleshly union, nor, as the heretics rave, one person in His Human Nature, another in His Divine: not conceived and brought forth a mere man, and afterwards by his merits obtaining that He should be God. But the angel announcing and the Spirit coming, first the Word in the womb, afterwards within the womb the Word made Flesh." (Gregory.)
And yet, though thus above us in holiness, yet not separate from us.
"For we confess that which then was taken up from Mary to be of the nature of man and a most real body, the very same also according to nature with our own body. For Mary is our sister, seeing that we have all descended from Adam." (Athanasius in Catena Aurea.)
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age, &c.
This was undoubtedly the first intimation which Mary had received of the miracle wrought in Elisabeth, who had hid herself to this time, by which must be meant that she had kept her state concealed.
This revelation by the mouth of the angel, not by common report. was for the confirmation of Mary's faith. Mary believed, but every degree of human belief is capable of increase; and joy, and strength, and consolation, and hope accrues from such increase.
Thy cousin Elisabeth.
Not necessarily "cousin," but "kinswoman." There is no word in Hebrew, or Aramaic, or Greek to signify strictly "cousin."
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
The words remind us of the word of the angel, or rather of the Lord in angelic form who asked, when Sarah laughed at the thought that she should conceive miraculously. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Gen.18: 14).
Their teaching goes far beyond the conception by a virgin, or any other miracle in the world of time and sense. They mean that it is not impossible for the Creator to become a creature-it is not impossible for the high and lofty One, Who inhabiteth eternity, to be born in time-it is not impossible that the Divine and the human should be so united as that God and man should be one Christ-it is not impossible that Man should ascend above all heavens and sit on the right hand of God. It is within the power of God to bring about these things.
The sense is precisely the same if we translate thing [no-thing] by "word," as in the Hebrew. If God's Word contains a prophecy or a promise, that prophecy or promise will surely come to pass in its season.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me, &c.
It only remained for Mary to consent to the consequences of the Divine offer. She gives this consent in a word at once simple and sublime, which involved the most extraordinary act of faith that a woman ever consented to accomplish." Mary accepts the sacrifice of that which is dearer to a young maiden than her very life, "and thereby becomes pre-eminently the heroine, the ideal daughter of Zion, the perfect type of human receptivity in regard to the Divine work." (Godet, a Swiss Ultra Protestant writer.)
Notice how in this, the greatest of all God's dispensations, He requires the free consent of the instrument He uses. It was the part of Mary to submit herself unreservedly to the will of God, no matter what the consequences to herself or to her reputation. It must have at once occurred to her that she would lose the respect and affection of her betrothed, and what a depth of shame and misery was involved in that. She could not then know that her innocence was to be vindicated to him by an angelic messenger, but she left all to God, relying on the promise, "Commit thy way unto the Lord, and put thy trust in him, and he shall bring it to pass; he shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light, and thy just dealing as the noonday." .....
Immediately upon this, her act of submission, the Incarnation took place, "The Word was made flesh." "he who was in the form of God, and thought it not robbery to be equal with God, emptied himself, and was made in the likeness of men:" "The only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds… for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
A Commentary On the Holy Bible, Edited by J. Dummelow, (Macmillian & Co 1946)
(Note: The writer often compares the KJV text with the R V text, i.e. Revised Version)
Verse 26 — 38
The Annunciation (see on Mt 1).
Wonder and awe and adoring praise are the emotions with which Christians have ever regarded the unspeakable condescension of Him who, 'when He took upon Him human nature to deliver it, did not abhor the Virgin's womb.' That Mary fully understood who her child was to be, cannot be supposed. The thought of such a condescension of the Author of nature as is implied in the words of the Creed conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,' is overwhelming even to us; to Mary it would have been so appalling that she could not possibly have performed the duties of a mother.
Hence the angel was only permitted to reveal to her, that her son would be the Messiah, and the 'Son of God' in some specially exalted yet human sense. The whole narrative moves within the circle of Jewish OT. ideas, and this is a proof of its truth, for an invented story would certainly show marks of a Christian origin. The grace, modest reticence, and inimitable simplicity of the narrative, are in marked contrast to the vulgar details of the Apocryphal Gospels. The festival of the Annunciation (the day on which our Lord became man) is kept on March 25th.
The sixth month i.e. from the conception of John 5: 24. Nazareth
Local tradition states that Gabriel appeared to her as she was drawing water at the fountain of the Virgin outside Nazareth, where the Church of the Annunciation now stands. But, as the angel' came in' to her, she must have been in the house, perhaps engaged in prayer, as painters are fond of representing her. Two well-known devotions have been founded on this incident :
Highly favoured or, rather, 'endued with grace……
The angel recognised in Mary a holiness of an entirely special and, which God had given her to fit her to be the mother of the Holy One…..
His father David
This seems to imply the Davidic descent of Mary: cp. v. 27, which is ambiguous, and v. 69.
How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
The traditional view of this passage, which sees in it a proof of the perpetual virginity of our Lord's mother, is perhaps correct. Unless Mary had resolved to remain a virgin after her marriage with Joseph, and had obtained her husband's consent to do so, she would not, as a betrothed woman, regard it as impossible that she should have a child: see on Mt 1: 25; 12: 50.
The Holy Ghost, etc.
Mary would doubtless understand 'the Holy Ghost' impersonally, as the creative power of God, but St. Luke's readers would understand it personally, as frequently in the Acts. The Holy Ghost,
Overshadow like the Shekinah in the Temple, or the cloud of glory at the transfiguration, which symbolised the divine presence. We have here 'a new, immediate and divine act of creation, and thus the transmission of sinfulness from the sinful race to him is excluded.' That holy thing, etc. RV 'that which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God.' Mary would probably understand from this that her Child was to be sinless, but not that He would be divine, because the Son of God was an accepted title of the Messiah.
Unasked, the angel gives Mary a sign. He who has caused Elisabeth to conceive contrary to nature can make good His word to Mary also. Thy cousin RV 'thy kinswoman.' It does not follow from this that Mary belonged, like Elisabeth, to the tribe of Levi. Male descent alone determined the tribe, and Mary may have been related to Elisabeth on her mother's side.
Behold the handmaid (lit. 'the slave" of the Lord] In these words of humble submission Mary accepts her great destiny. She does so freely, with full understanding of the difficulty of her position. The future she leaves in God's hand. Be it unto me according to thy word This sacred moment, which marks the beginning of our Lord's incarnate life, should be contrasted with Gen 3: 6. There the disobedience of a woman brought sin and death into the world. Here the obedience of a woman brought salvation, reversing the effect of the Fall.
If you have read and pondered these notes you will, no doubt, agree that in this Gospel text we have a very great treasure. It is for that reason we have reproduced in detail the commentaries from highly esteemed scholarship to help your meditation for Christmas.
We close with a modern Catholic scholar who offers a contemporary perspective which should also help us to meditate more profoundly on the awesome event of our Lord's incarnation.
As the readers identify with Mary. her story becomes their story. With her, they are greeted, learn of God's abiding presence with them, become aware of their dignity and are called to bear a son through the power of the Spirit of the Most High, a son who is truly the Son of God. Be they married or physically virginal, there is no way that they could conceive and bring forth divine life through their own human creativity or agency. Their conception of God's Son springs from God's own creative act, and they recognize that in relation to divine life they are indeed virginal. In her womanhood, Mary is a symbol for all Christians, whether men or women, and all are challenged to be servants of the Lord, accepting that he be conceived in them according to the heavenly word (1: 38). The annunciation of Jesus' birth is thus a statement concerning the relationship between the human life of the Church and the divine life which she is called to bear.
From "Luke" by Eugene LaVerdiere (Michael Glazier Inc, 1980)
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