Today’s reading: Luke 1:26-56
Today we read about the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is SO MUCH in these verses that it is hard to get it all into one post. It also requires that I just sort of address the facts and skip the nuance.
First, notice how the section begins:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. Luke 1:26-27
We are given Mary’s pedigree. Her husband is Joseph, of the house of David, thus he is in the kingly line of succession. She is a virgin. One thing that should be noted her is the meaning of Jewish betrothal. This is not the same as our engagement. Mary and Joseph were already legally married. Betrothal was the period of time between the marriage and when the husband would establish a house to bring his wife to live with him. The fact that Joseph and Mary are already married will be confirmed later when Joseph considers “divorcing Mary quietly” when he finds out about the pregnancy.
Next, comes what I like to refer to as “the most quoted line in scripture”.
And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. Luke 1:28-29
Verse 28 is the first line of the “Hail Mary” prayer. This prayer and therefore this verse is prayed by millions of Catholics daily often multiple times.
First, when we see “Hail” in the bible, it is usually followed by a name or title. Thus, “full of grace” is a new name or title given to Mary. Second, the word for “full of grace” used in the original Greek is a very unusual word. It is “kekeratomene”. It is a perfect future tense. It is the equivalent of saying “full of grace now and always”. Thus, the Angel Gabriel is calling Mary by this title from the moment he greats her – before the incarnation. Thus, being “full of grace” is a state Mary is already in, before the incarnation. A word on the relationship of grace and sin is warranted here. Sin drives out grace. You and I may have grace in us but we are not necessarily “full of grace” (although we can be at times). To be full of grace implies that sin is not present. Hence, when the angel uses this unusual word to give Mary the title of “full of grace” he is saying she exists in this state at all times. Hence, the Catholic teaching that Mary is without sin.
Notice, Mary is “greatly troubled” but NOT at the presence of the Angel! She is “greatly troubled at the saying” and “tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be”. This confirms the unusual nature of the greeting.
Mary’s response to the Angel is unusual.
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Mary is a young woman who is betrothed to a man. She grew up in a rural culture, undoubtedly well aware of where baby farm animals came from. She has most likely seen other girls of the village get married and have babies nine months later. Mary is therefore not asking a question about biology. If Mary’s marriage was going to be a “regular” marriage her response to the Angel Gabriel would be something akin to “So after my wedding night with Joseph, I’m going to get pregnant”. However, she doesn’t say this. That means she was expecting something different other than a regular wedding night and her reference in her question is to her virginity. In other translations she says, “…since I know not man”. What then did she expect?
The only answer that makes sense is that Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity. Vows are virginity were not common in ancient Israel (since having kids was considered a great blessing) but they did happen, most particularly with a subset of girls. Some girls went to work at the Temple when they were young. They were responsible for mending the garments, sweeping, fetching water, etc. However, when they got older and became ready to have kids they became sacramentally “unclean” and could no longer work in the temple. Many returned to their normal lives but a few took vows of virginity. However, in ancient Israel, a woman was legally entitled to nothing without a husband. These girls were therefore married to men who were older and had been widowed. These men were not looking for new wives per se but were looking for girls to run their households, teach their kids, etc. These virgins from the temple were excellent step-mothers. More educated than average girls they would be fastidious in running a house, teaching the kids, keeping the religious schedule and even running a business. It is likely that this was the relationship expected between Mary and Joseph. Thus explains Mary’s question, “how shall this be since I know not man”. It also explains why Zechariah is punished for his question to the Angel Gabriel when Mary was not. Zechariah doubted Gods ability, Mary just doesn’t understand how she is going to keep her vow yet end up pregnant.
One quick analogy that I have found helps to demonstrate the style of Mary’s answer to the Angel Gabriel. If I said to you, “do you want a cigarette”? You could answer, “No, thanks” or “I don’t smoke”. Mary’s answer is akin to “I don’t smoke”, it applies a permanent state. No analogy is perfect but you can see the comparison.
The Angel Gabriel answers as follows:
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
First, notice that the Holy Spirit comes upon her and the power of God “overshadows” her. This is how creation is described in the book of Genesis with God’s power overshadowing the waters of the earth and giving them life. Thus, Mary holds within her the new creation.
Second, notice that Mary is related to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Recall that Zechariah her husband was a priest. This implies, (but doesn’t conclusively prove) that both Elizabeth and Mary are also Levites. That would make Jesus from both the kingly and priestly lines.
Third, line 38 is probably one of the most important in the Bible. Mary surrenders her will to God and says, “let it be done unto me according to your word”. This is referred to as the “Fiat” or “the great Yes”. It is this yes that undoes the “No” of our first mother, Eve. This makes Mary, the new Eve and our new mother. Further, since all fulfillment in the New Testament must be greater than their Old Testament counterparts and since Eve was without sin (until the original sin) this implies that Mary at the time of the Fiat was without sin. It represents a second line of evidence supporting the sinless nature of Mary.
Next, we see Mary travel to see Elizabeth.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…
Two quick things here. First, this is the fulfillment of the prophecy from the beginning of Luke that John the Baptist, “will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” Luke 1:15. Catholic tradition is that it is at this meeting that John the Baptist is baptized in the Holy Spirit (although technically this is not a formal teaching). Second, this passage parallels Old Testament passages where the Ark of the Covenant is returned to King David. The Ark travels through the hill country of Israel and when it arrives to King David he leaps and dances. Mary travels thought the hill country to see Elizabeth and the Baptist leaps when Jesus arrives. This implies that Mary is the new Ark of the New Covenant.
Next is the second most quoted line of scripture, the second line of the Hail Mary prayer:
… and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Elizabeth’s response is further evidence of Mary as the new Ark. When the Ark was returned to King David, he said, “Who am I that the Ark of my Lord should come to me?” Now the Ark was the holiest thing is all the Old Covenant. To touch the Ark meant certain death because it was so pure and holy that it should not be defiled by the touch of a sinful person. Remember the story of poor Uzzah who died instantly when he tried to stop the Ark from falling off a cart? Well, what if the Ark became a person? Well, that person would have to be purer and more holy then the Old Testament Ark and (again) would have to be without sin. She would have to remain without sin and she couldn’t be defiled by the touch of another. Again these lines of evidence suggest Mary’s sinlessness and perpetual virginity.
Next, we read Mary’s great prayer, referred to in tradition as “The Magnificat”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
Two more things warrant mention here. First, Mary specifically refers to God as her “savior”. Nothing, I have written thus far takes away from the fact that Jesus is Mary’s savior. How can this be? If she was sinless, why did she even need a savior? The best way to answer this question is an ancient example. This analogy is sometimes estimated to be up to 1800 years old.
Let’s say you are walking along a trail in the woods. There is a hole ahead of you that is filled with mud deeper than your height. It is covered with sticks and leaves. You step on it and fall in. You are drowning. You can’t get a grip and will certainly die. A hand reaches down and pulls you up. You are saved. The trail is life, the hole and mud are sin and the person who saves you is Jesus. Easy to understand.
Now Mary is walking down that same trail. She reaches the same hole. As her foot is about to touch the sticks and leave that cover the hole a hand reaches out and saves her, preventing her from falling in. Mary is saved by Jesus, just as much as you or I are but just at a point sooner in her creation. This allows her to be sinless and a fitting mother for the Lord but still entirely human and saved by her Son.
Finally, notice that Mary says, “every generation will call me Blessed”. We see from the above that Mary is our new mother. Just as Eve is our mother in the old creation, Mary is our mother in the new creation. We are adopted sons and daughters of God because we are brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus again, Mary is our mother. The commandments tell us, “honor your father and mother”. On the cross, with his dying breaths, Jesus tells us, “behold your Mother”. We have seen from St. Paul last week that our sufferings in life are joined to Christ’s on the cross. Who in history suffered more than the sinless Blessed Virgin Mary who saw her holy son crucified for our sins? No one. Her suffering was the most valuable of all human suffering. Mary is our mother and she contributes greatly to our salvation and therefore every generation should call her blessed. Saying a few nice words about the young Jewish girl who was Jesus’ mother on Christmas is not enough! She said “Yes” to the Angel Gabriel. What if she had said No? Her “Yes” freed us just as much as Eve’s condemned us. She was with the Lord at the Cross and added her suffering to his for us. Every generation will call her blessed. The Catholic Church honors this prophecy for the last 2,000 years.
Tomorrow: Luke 1:57-80