21 December 2014

Luke 1:26-38

“Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said 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 holy; he will be called Son of God.’” (vv. 34-35)

Psalm: Psalm 89


Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, when traditionally our thoughts turn to Mary, and her part in the coming of the Messiah.

This passage shows off Luke's skills as a storyteller, with beautiful narrative, wonderful characterisation, and a spectacular introduction to the main plot. But throughout the Gospel, the purpose is simple: to share the story and truth of Christ. So this story, on the surface about Mary and her encounter with an angel, is more fundamentally about Jesus and his identity as the Messiah.

Much is made in this passage of Mary's identity as a virgin. It is mentioned twice at the point at which she is introduced, and her own instinctive objection is, literally, that "I do not know a man" (translated by the NRSV as "I am a virgin"). The verse which has given rise to this expectation of virgin birth is Isaiah 7:14: "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." The word for 'young woman' can also be translated 'virgin', and by the time of Luke's Gospel, this is a strong tradition of interpretation, followed by the Greek translation of Jewish scripture. Thus, it became one aspect of popular expectation about the Messiah, that he would be born to a virgin.

Similarly important is Joseph's lineage. If he is to be eligible for the role of father (biological or adoptive) of the Messiah, he must in some sense stand in the line of David. There were many understandings of what, or who, the Messiah would be, but they all looked to David as prototype or ancestor. This point is reinforced in verse 32, where Mary's son is to be given the throne of David.

And in case all of this doesn't emphasise strongly enough Jesus' identity, there are the names which he is given. He is referred to as "Son of the Most High" (v. 32) and "Son of God" (v. 35). He is connected by lineage to David and to Joseph, but more crucially still, he has a very direct connection to God.

To Ponder

  • The main character in this story is Mary, but the focus is not on her but on her unborn son. Her importance lies in her purity (verse 27), her obedience (verse 38) and her identity as a mother. And yet she is one of the few women to be named, and important, through the Gospel story and throughout Church history. She is critical to the central event in God's interaction with creation. How has this affected the place of women in the Church and in theology? To what extent has it had a positive effect, or a negative?
  • Mary gives her consent, but for a moment, God's plan for salvation seems to stand in the balance, and the world holds its breath, waiting for her response. Could she have said 'no'?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.