Today’s Gospel reading about the Annunciation to Mary of Jesus’ birth comes to us out of the Jewish tradition, which is our heritage, and that is how it is meant to be read. For it contains strong parallels to the Annunciation of John’s birth to Zechariah; we are meant to see them together as coming out of a common heritage. (Luke 1:5-25) And yet they are not the same; they are meant to compliment one another. For though there are similarities, there are differences as well. The first story is set in Jerusalem’s Temple; the second in rustic Nazareth. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are old and together; Mary is young and alone. Zechariah and Elizabeth have all the proper credentials; Mary has none. Zechariah and Elizabeth are well connected and financially secure; Mary has neither. Zechariah is a priest; Mary is unmarried woman. Zechariah and Elizabeth are likened to Abraham and Sarah; Mary to the outcast and vulnerable Hagar. Zechariah’s response is based on human possibilities — he and Elizabeth are too old, past the time when children are possible, and so he doubts the promise; Mary responds on the basis of divine possibilities — she hears the heavenly promise and asks how can it be, but accepts that ‘nothing is impossible to God.’ Maybe these two stories are just trying to say what Jesus was later to put into words: “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28) Maybe we who hear today’s Gospel story are simply meant to ‘treasure it in our hearts,’ as we ponder: “What will this child turn out to be?” (C.f.: Luke 1:66; 2:19)

So what are we told of this child? “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) He will be Mary’s son and she will call him a name given him by the Lord (C.f.: Luke 1:13), a common name which means: ‘YHWH saves.’ (C.f.: Matthew 1:21) “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:32) Between this Jesus and God will exist a Father-Son relationship. But something more than adoption is implied here. For later, when Mary asks, “How can this be?” we are told: “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) So, the child is to be conceived without human agency, but through the agency of the Holy Spirit/through God’s power. But this is not meant to be a euphemism for sexual intercourse; nothing is said here of Divine begetting. ‘To come upon’ is used in the Pentecost event to speak of the disciples’ empowerment through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), and ‘to cover/overshadow’ is used in the story of the Transfiguration to speak of God’s presence. (Luke 9:34; Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5. C.f.: Exodus 40:35) God’s powerful presence will rest upon Mary so that she will bear a child who will be Son of God. Nothing is said here of how it will happen. Like Mary, we are called to accept that God can do what is otherwise impossible. (Luke 1:38) In John’s annunciation we are meant to see a close parallel with the birth of Isaac, but here Jesus’ birth is likened to the creation of Adam — and so we find St Luke’s genealogy of Jesus tracing him back to Adam. (Luke 3:38) Here we have new creation. From earliest times, the Church has likened Mary to a second Eve whose obedience as the ‘Lord’s servant’ (Luke 1:38) reverses Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 3), with her son being the new Adam made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:26)

‘Therefore this child will be holy and called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35), but this is meant to be more than just someone dedicated to God. (C.f.: Luke 1:32; 1 Samuel 1:28) In Jesus’ confrontation with the man possessed by an unclean demon, the demon cries out in recognition, “I know who you are — the Holy One of God.” (Luke 4:34. C.f.: Mark 1:24; John 6:69; Acts 3:14; 4:27, 30; 1 John 2:20) We are meant to understand that this child is divine, truly the Son of God; this is what makes him ‘great.’ (Luke 1:32)

“And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33) At the beginning of this story mention was made of ‘Joseph, of the House of David.’ (Luke 1:27) Jesus will be a son of David through Joseph, his legal father. So, this promise of giving him David’s throne in an eternal kingdom is a way of saying that he will be Israel’s long awaited Messiah. But Divine Sonship is mentioned before Davidic Messiahship. The latter is to be understood as grounded in the former; he is the Messiah because he is God’s Son; in him the Lord will save his people again.

What all this is saying is that this Jesus, this Son of Mary, is God’s Son and so the promised Messiah, but not just as a political messiah, but one who is truly a new Adam who can refashion the whole human race, ‘saving us all from our sins.’ (Matthew 1:21)

As it is put, we are meant to see all this as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) And so here, we must recognise that this story is trying to convey the ineffable in human terms, to speak of Jesus who is shrouded in the Mystery that is God, and so inevitably human language breaks down in the attempt. St Luke, then, has done what he can using the language of symbolism to tell us who Jesus is: Son of Mary; Son of God; and, the promised Messiah who will save us from our sins. This is what we are meant to take away from this story. This we have to hold together as best we can by doing as Mary did: by wholeheartedly ‘believing in the promise made us by the Lord’ to save us from our sins (C.f.: Romans 7:24), though we may not fully understand how this can be (Luke 1:45. C.f.: Romans 4:20), and then by ‘treasuring all these things and pondering them in our hearts.’ (Luke 2:19)

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO