In his announcement the angel Gabriel makes five declarations to Mary. First is that Jesus will be “great.” (Luke 1:32) This contrasts with the greatness spoken of John in Gabriel’s pronouncement to Zechariah: “He will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:15) The greatness of Jesus is unqualified: “He will be great.” (Luke 1:32) Greatness without a qualifier is an attribute of God alone. (C.f.: Psalm 48:2; 86:10; 135:5; 145:3) This ‘greatness’ Gabriel attributes to Jesus. Second is that Jesus will be called “Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:32) Again, ‘Most High’ is a very early title applied to God (Genesis 14:8; Hebrews 7:1), and in the Old Testament and in later Judaism it is the exclusive name for the one true God, emphasising his majesty and supremacy over all. This, too, is applied to Jesus. Third, “The Lord will give him the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:32) Thus Jesus, this ‘Son of the Most High,’ is to be the fulfilment of the covenant made with David as set out in the prophet Nathan’s oracle in 2 Samuel 7. (2 Samuel 7:9, 13, 14, 16. C.f: Isaiah 9:6) Fourth, this Son’s reign “will last forever.” (Luke 1:33) The prophet Micah speaks of God’s reign over Mount Zion as being forever. (Micah 4:7) Gabriel now applies the eternal reign of God to Mary’s son. And lastly, that this messianic king will establish a kingdom that will never end. (Luke 1:34) In the Old Testament, only God’s kingdom is eternal. With this coming of Mary’s son, this Kingdom is come. (Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 7:14; Psalm 145:13. C.f.: Hebrews 7:24) These five declarations, four of which characterise God alone, are here expressly ascribed to Jesus.
The timing of today’s feast is curiously wonderful, for this next Sunday is Passion Sunday. As we follow along with the crowd to Calvary and his crucifixion, we can share in some of Mary’s perplexity at what she was being told. For this great one of such promise about whom we have just been hearing, is the same one they are to nail to the cross: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34) Or as two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus at the end of this Gospel dejectedly put it: “We thought he was the one.” (Luke 24:21) Mary’s response is driven by her understanding of our human reality; she knows full well that children can’t be conceived apart from sexual intercourse, and she understands, too, that this is exactly what the angel is proposing to her. The disciples’ response is similar to Zechariah’s response to Gabriel’s announcement of his son’s forthcoming birth; he, too, knew that children are not born to barren women past childbearing years, and so he doubted Gabriel’s good news. Faced with Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples doubt he is the Messiah, and this in the face of reports that he is risen. (Luke 24:22. C.f.: Mark 16:14; 1 Corinthians 1:23)
Addressing Mary’s perplexity, Gabriel says to 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” (Luke 1:35), and to which Mary replies, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) ‘Servant’ kind of sanitises what Mary said, for she really calls herself the ‘Lord’s slave;’ this more accurately portrays her response to God. For ‘slave’ signifies a position of total belonging and submission. Despite her perplexity, which remains unresolved, Mary chooses to comply fully and unreservedly with the grace spoken of as bestowed on her at the beginning of the angel’s message; she is indeed the Lord’s slave. (Luke 1:28, 31) In effect what Mary says is: “Let God’s will be done” – a prayer that will be taken up by her Son later in this Gospel. (Luke 22:42) In her response is held up to us the best definition of faith in the Bible. For no one in Israel had ever responded to God as Mary did: she demands no proof, no signs; she just receives God’s word in abandonment and trust, embracing the troubling word as the only thing she can rely on. We have a crucified Messiah preached to us, which humanly speaking is improbable; it, too, is a troubling word. (1 Corinthians 1:23) The only evidence proffered is an empty tomb (Luke 24:12), something about as convincing as informing an unmarried and ineligible (and thus virginal) young woman in an insignificant village that she will bear the Saviour of God’s People. (Luke 1:31f)
And like Mary, we, too, have been promised the gift of God’s Holy Spirit ‘who will show the world how wrong it was’ about the crucified one. (John 16:7-8) Mary’s example is here held up as the model response, a response that is mirrored for us by the Beloved Disciple after it was reported by some women that the tomb was empty and that ‘they had seen a vision of angels who declared that he was alive.’ (Luke 24:22) We are told that he and Peter ran to the empty tomb (John 20:3-4) and that Peter went in and found everything ‘exactly as the women had said’ but ‘saw nothing’ of him. (Luke 24:24) The other disciple, whom Jesus loved, then also went in – of him it is said: ‘he saw and he believed.’ (John 20:8) We, too, are called to simply put our trust in God as Mary did, embrace a crucified Messiah, and wait until the Holy Spirit should come upon us to explain the Scriptures to us, about how the Christ was to suffer and so enter his glory, and so come to truly know him risen, as one whose power to save is certain. (Luke 24:26- 27, 31. C.f.: Luke 24:7; 9:35; John 14:26; 16:13; Hebrews 5:8-9; 7:25) The example of her faith is what Mary offers us on this feast, for it to accompany us as we listen to Lord’s Passion this Sunday, and more generally, on our journey in life with all it challenges to a belief in Christ as our Saviour (Luke 23:32-37); let it not be said of us as it was to the two on the road to Emmaus: “You foolish men! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets!” (Luke 24:25)