Luke 1: 26 – 38 The birth of Jesus foretold
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.
* * *
You may think this is odd, but I have much less difficulty with this angelic appearance than I do with that which foretold the birth of John the Baptist. I think this is because I can see the need for it.
Jesus was the Son of God, but he was also perfectly human. Our understanding and appreciation of him as a historical figure is greatly strengthened by knowing that he was born in Bethlehem, that his mother was Mary and his step-father was Joseph. It helps us to know a little of his early biography.
But turn around that first sentence. Jesus was perfectly human, but he was also the Son of God. It helps my personal faith that there is a record of an angel telling Mary what was going to happen. In my twenty-first century life, I expect to hear God speak quietly. I find I have to be cautious in seeking to understand prophecy, and I tend to find it through the results of action taken in response to the prophecy.
Would that have been enough? No, I don’t think so. If you know the mother, you need to know the father too. You need to understand why the child is special. And you need the birth narrative to be credible, which means asking how Mary escaped disgrace as a woman who conceived a child out of wedlock. You need something extraordinary – like an angel visiting.
The aspect of this passage that moves me deeply is Mary’s obedience. She had so much to lose, not least her husband and her reputation, and yet she didn’t hesitate.
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’
Some years ago, I wrote a story that tried to fill in some of the background to the annunciation. I’ve added it below. It’s fiction, but I’ve tried to stick to the biblical story where we know it. You might like to read it as though it were the story that Mary told Luke.
I could have said “No”
Although I was only fifteen years old, I knew enough to realise that I was expecting a baby. As I helped Susannah, the Rabbi’s wife, prepare the family meal, I was queasily aware of my belly. I hoped that my father and brother would soon have finished their conversation with the elders, and we could go home together.
“Don’t worry, girl,” Susannah chided. “Things happen. You’ll be fine. My Reuben will see that everything is managed discreetly.”
I wanted to weep. Everybody would know. I would be disgraced. Look! Susannah had guessed already, and I wasn’t six weeks gone.
“There now, child, of course I know. There’s only one reason why a girl would come here with her father to speak to the Rabbi and the elders.”
“It happens most years, Mary. A girl will be betrothed and then have to marry a little sooner than planned. The baby comes early. Everybody can count the months, but nobody says anything. You’ll still be a respectable married woman with a fine child.” I stayed silent.
“It’s not Joseph’s child, is it?” Susannah spoke casually, almost without interest you might think. I shook my head.
“Well, that’s not so good, but Joseph, he’s generous and he wants a wife. At his age that’s not always easy”. Her eyes were far away as she thought about how things could be worked out. “Tell me about it, girl. Maybe I can help.”
I started slowly. “It was six weeks ago – the first hot day of the year. Everybody was laughing and joking as we got on with spring-cleaning. Dad and Jesse were in the lower part of the house, mending the animal stall, and I had just come down from the upper room with an armful of bedding to wash.
Then I saw the stranger. He was standing right beside the door, and he seemed to shine. He was tall and straight. His face was like a king’s, very handsome and stern.”
I looked doubtfully at Susannah. She nodded, slowly and thoughtfully. “Go on,” she encouraged me.
“Dad noticed him too, and stepped towards him with Jesse following. ‘Shalom’ said Dad. The stranger held up his hand and they stopped. I thought Dad was trying to say something, but no sound was coming out.
‘Hail, Mary,’ said the stranger. ‘You have found favour with Yahweh.’
‘Don’t be afraid.’ His voice was beautiful. It was gentle and yet, had he shouted, rocks would have tumbled from the mountains and the sea risen in tumult. ‘Yahweh is pleased with you,’ he said. ‘Listen!’
’You are going to become pregnant, and give birth to a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High. Yahweh will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over the House of Jacob and his reign will have no end.’
What would you have thought, Susannah? All I could think was how on earth could I be pregnant? I’d never done anything that would get me pregnant. So I just said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I how that can be? I’m not married yet, and I’m a virgin.’
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and so the child will be holy, and will be called the Son of God.
And, Mary, your kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son, and is now in her sixth month. Everybody said that she was barren, but nothing is impossible to God.’
He stopped speaking then, Susannah, and stood looking at me. It was the strangest thing. Somehow I knew that I had to choose. There was the life I had always dreamed of as a wife and mother, loved by my family and respected by my neighbours – or there was the promise of the….angel.”
“What did you answer?” Susannah’s voice was hoarse.
“I said ‘Let Yahweh’s will be done.’”
Susannah sighed. “You did well. It will be hard for you, though. It’s lucky that your father and brother witnessed the angel. Is that what they’re telling the elders?”
“Even so, you’ll have to go away. Go and see your relative Elizabeth. Have the baby somewhere else. The townsfolk would accept an illegitimate child if you were discreet, but some people might call your story blasphemy.”
She was right, of course, and Joseph, that good, dear, trusting man took me to Elizabeth, and then to Bethlehem. And since then, what a life it’s been! We fled from Herod’s soldiers into exile in Egypt. My son grew up, worked miracles, healed the sick, even raised the dead. And then that terrible day; I can’t talk about it; it was a day no mother should ever have to see. My soul was pierced with the agony.
I know it was Yahweh’s will. I believe that through it great good will come. My son’s closest disciples told me that they’d met him again after that day, talked with him, eaten with him. But he never appeared to me. Perhaps that was best. He who died was flesh of my flesh; He who rose – who was he? My son died; it was Yahweh’s son who rose.
And so I wait. I’m old, my braided hair is snow white and my face is furrowed. Yahweh’s will has been done, as it had to be. And yet I wonder greatly.
You see, I could have said “No”.