Rejoice, highly favoured!
A reflection on the gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Dries van den Akker SJ
Luke 1: 26-28
1. The Composition of Luke
(thanks to the late Frans Breukelman, lector Exegesis; Univ A’dam)
The first two chapters of Saint Luke’s Gospel are dedicated to Jesus’ childhood. All together these stories show the structure of a triptych. The central panel is Luke 2:1-20, the history of Jesus’ birth. The left panel is the ‘history preceding Jesus’ birth’ (Luke 1:05-80). The right panel is the history that comes after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:21-40)
So, the Announcement of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary is to be found in the left panel. For its part, the left panel is in itself a triptych. The central panel of this triptych is the Announcement of Gabriel to Mary plus Mary’s hymn ‘Magnificat’ (1:26-56). The left panel (1:5-25) and the right panel tell us about the announcement and the birth of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the framing of the central panel about the announcement of Jesus’ birth.
So, we find the story of the Annunication of Jesus’ birth by Gabriel to Mary in the central panel of this triptych.
Comparison between both announcements
The story of Luke begins in an understandable way. God sends an angel to the earth. If so, then it is logical that the angel goes to the capital of the country where the people live, Jerusalem. And of course, the angel heads for the liturgical centre itself, the temple. And what else should we expect: he is talking to the priest in charge, Zechariah (1:5-11).
How surprising is what follows! The angel goes to the north of the country, well known as the Galilee of the heathens. An angel is not supposed to go there. To a little village nobody heard of before, Nazareth. Not to an important man, but to an unimportant, unmarried girl... (1:26-27)! The contrast between both stories is striking. On purpose.
The top of the icon the painter grants us a view of heaven. We see how Father God is sending his archangel Gabriel to earth. Above the head of the angel in the centre we see how the angel found Mary while she was on her way home. On the left side, the angel is on his way. In the middle and on the right side, the angel is announcing the Good News to Mary.
2. Infancy Narratives
Gabriel was sent first to Zacharia, the priest in charge of the temple of Jerusalem. Next he was sent to Mary, a virgin in a house in Nazareth, Galilee. The word is going from the centre to the periphery. That’s what Luke will tell us in the rest of his Gospel. He looks forward to what will happen later with the adult Jesus. Jesus has not been sent to the people in the centre but to the people at the edge, and even over the edge. That’s what he will announce himself when he preaches in Nazareth at the beginning of his public life (4:16-30).
Generally speaking, that is the meaning of the infancy narratives in the Bible. They tell about the adult person, but they are – so to speak – projecting backwards decisive events of an adult person’s childhood. Let us take the example of Moses. The adult man Moses will guide his people through the waters of the Red Sea safe and sound. So, it is told of the child Moses that he is miraculously saved from the water of the Nile. It has been told of the adult David that he beat powerful enemies. So, it has been told of the young David that he already beat a giant enemy, Goliath. It has been told of the adult prophet Samuel that he heard the word of God in times when hardly anybody did. So it is told of the young Samuel that he already heard the voice of the Lord
, when he slept in the sanctuary of Eli. It is told of the adult John the Baptist that he pointed at Jesus as the Messiah. So it is told of the baby John that he – already in the womb of his mother – jumped up for joy hearing the voice of Mary, only just pregnant of the Messiah Jesus. It is a challenge to find out what events in the life of the adult Jesus are foretold in the stories of his childhood...
Gabriel and the seventy weeks
The Bible reader knows the name of Gabriel. He has already met him in the Book of Daniel. There he is connected with the future time of the definite redemption. In 9:21-24 we read: ‘Still speaking, still at prayer, when Gabriel, the being I had originally seen in vision (8,16), swooped on me in full flight at the hour of the evening sacrifice. He came, he spoke, he said to me, 'Now, Daniel; I have come down to teach you how to understand. When your pleading began, a word was uttered, and I have come to tell you. You are a man specially chosen. Grasp the meaning of the word, understand the vision: 'Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city, for putting an end to transgression, for placing the seal on sin, for expiating crime, for introducing everlasting uprightness for setting the seal on vision and on prophecy, for anointing the holy of holies.’
‘Seventy weeks before redemption and anointing the holy of holies....’ So, on this number of seventy weeks, Saint Luke bases the beginning of his gospel. Let us count with Luke. First, Gabriel appears to Zacharia in the temple. After six month (= 180 days), he appears to Mary. Nine months later (= 270 days) Jesus is born. After forty days He is presented to God in the temple (Luke 2:22). All these days together -180 + 270 + 40 - make 490 days. Is seventy weeks. Exactly the number of which Gabriel said in the book Daniel that after that time the anointed should appear..
[Cf. Thierry MAERTENS & Jean FRISQUE 'Kommentar zu den neuen Lesungen der Messe; 1: Erster Adventsonntag bis Sonntag nach Erscheinung' Freiburg/Basel/Wien, Herder, 1969 pp.153-154]
Upper row: 1 Prophets; 2. Announcement (Luke 1:26-38); 3. Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7). Second row: 4. Jesus’ Circumcision (Luke 2:21); 5. Magi (Matthew 2:01-12); 6. Jesus’ Presentation (Luke 2:22-40) Third row: 7. Flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15); 8. Massacre of the Innocents Bethlehem (Mathew 2:16-18); 9. Jesus among the doctors of the Law (Luke 2:41-50).
All these infancy narratives are overtures, preluding themes in the life and death of the adult Jesus.
3. New Beginning
The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to conceive a son. She asks, ‘How can this come about, since I am a virgin?’ The angel answers, ‘The Holy Spirit will come uponyou...’
These words must have been very well-known to Mary. Assuming that she was familiar with the Holy Scriptures. She was, I suppose. Then, she heard the angel cite a verse from the beginning of the Bible. There it is told how the world has been created, ‘Now the earth was darkness over the deep, with divine wind (‘spirit’!) over the waters...’ Where the translation offers ‘divine wind’ the Hebrew text reads ‘spirit of God’.
The creation of the world begins with ‘deep darkness’ where is nothing but emptiness. Only when God’s spirit goes over it, a new world will come up. That is exactly what will happen with the birth of Jesus. The spirit of God will come over the ‘deep darkness’ of Mary’s empty womb, where there is nothing, and then a new human being will be born. Never heard of before. In the Old Testament there are several stories to be found which tell us that a woman who is unfertile, can still conceive a child. We think of Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, the mother of Samuel, the mother of Gideon... and recently Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist. But that a child should be born without the contribution of a man? And the angel confirms, ‘For nothing is impossible to God.’ God in heaven sends his announcement to Mary on earth along two different ways. He dominates the angel who is literally subordinate to Him. On the level of a majestic Mary he brings God’s message in an indirect way.
But there is a direct way as well. When we follow the imaginary diagonal from God’s hand to below, it passes right over Mary’s hands and womb. God’s gesture says that He is giving away something very precious. A heavenly gift...
Early Christian spirituality?
Jesus as a new beginning. If my intuition is right, this belonged to early Christian spirituality Saint Matthew opens his Gospel
, writing, ‘Roll of the genealogy Jesus Christ...’ So, he too, points to the first story in the Bible (genesis and genealogy being related). Then he enumerates how Jesus’ ancestors are ‘generated’ (or 'fathered'). Jesus was generated in a different way, ‘But this is how Jesus came to be born’ (1,18). Saint John points to the Genesis story as well. He opens his Gospel with the same words, ‘In the beginning...’
Perhaps he got the idea from Mark. He too opens his Gospel with the word ‘Beginning’, ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the son of God.’ Perhaps, there we overlook the reference But some verses later, Mark reminds the Genesis story again. When Jesus rises up out of the water after his baptism, God’s spirit descends from heaven upon him. ‘God’s spirit over the waters...’ Where did we hear that earlier?
The mystery of Jesus’ person has been announced to us, not as a human being, but as a becoming out of nothing; as a gift which cannot be explained in a human, material way. So He must come from God. Jesus is a heavenly gift.
In the same time – or perhaps even earlier – Saint Paul is suggesting the same thing. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes (15:5), ‘So, the first man, Adam, became a living soul; and the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit...’ See also his letter to the Romans (5:15,17).
Mary’s last words in this story were according to the English translation, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord'. But in the Greek text Mary says, ‘Look, the Lord’s slave woman.’ She uses the word ‘slave’.
In our western history this word has got a cynical meaning because of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th century; and because of the way slaves were treated in the Americas. But in the classical world, 95 percent of the people were slaves. They belonged to the household of rich families, and they did the work that is done by the electric domestic appliances in our times. We maintain these appliances with care because then they are the most useful. So, in in ancient times, slaves were regularly maintained with the same care, for then they were the most useful as well.
A slave had to do what the master ordered. So says the centurion, ‘I say to my slave “Do this” and he does so’ (Luke 7:8) That’s what a slave was. Doing the will of the master. Seeing the behaviour of the slave you could conclude what kind of master he had. That’s what Mary will sing in her song ‘Magnificat’, ‘The Lord has looked upon the humiliation of his servant. For look, from now on, all generations will call me blessed, because the Powerful One has done great things to me...’ (Luke 1,48-49). There it is. Slave Mary does only what Master God is ordering. And everybody will congratulate Mary. But it is the Lord who prescribes her behaviour. And as a good slave-woman, she does what he says.
In the beginning of most of his letters, Saint Paul presents himself as Christ’s slave. All that he does has been ordered by his master Christ. Saint Peter does so too in his second letter (2 Peter 1:1) and Saint Jude in his first verse, ‘Slave of Jesus Christ.’
In his letter to the Romans Saint Paul explains what a slave is meant to be (6:16). There he explains that – seeing someone’s behaviour – you can conclude to whom he is obeying. If someone is living in sinfulness in any way, then he is listening to the desires which sinfulness inspires him. So, sinfulness is the one who governs and leads his life. He is a slave of sinfulness. But if somebody is doing good, then he listens to... he obeys to the desires which goodness inspires him to do. That goodness is God himself. When you do good, you’re a slave of God.
So Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (6:24), ‘Nobody can be a slave of two masters.’ Either you obey to the good or to the evil. But to obey to the good and to the evil at the same time: that is impossible.
And even of Jesus himself it is said that he has taken ‘a slave’s form’ (Philippians 2:07). That means: all that he does and says is ordered to Him by his Master, God. When slave Jesus does good and shows charity and tenderness..., when he cures sick and disabled people: so, then you cannot but realize that it is his Father who ordered him to do so. And seeing that, you will conclude that God is a merciful and tender Father, and not someone who is controlling of judging you.
So, I conclude that this slave-theology belonged to the spirituality of the first Christian generation. [Biblical Translations: Nicholas King SJ]
Mary’s word ‘Look, I am the slave of the Lord’, represented by doing humble household work. Background: ‘A new scion has arisen from the rod of Jesse.'
There is a lot of grace in this short episode. In the beginning of the story we hear this word three times. First, in the salutation of the angel: ‘Grace’ (Greek: ‘Chaire’), the normal greeting in the Greek language. But it hides in it the word ‘charis’, grace. And it is repeated in the following word: ‘You who have received grace’ (ke-charis-toomenè). When the angel explains his greeting, he uses the word ‘grace’ again: ‘You have found grace (charis) to the Lord.’ Grace has to do with joy and happiness. So, the usual translation is; ‘Rejoice’.
When the Lord comes through into my life, and my spontaneous reaction should be fear, we hear him say ‘Don’t fear’(1:30), God’s usual way to reassure people. As a student I heard a pastor say in his homily, that God’s word ‘Don’t fear’ occurs 365 times in the Bible. I never checked it, fearing that it would not be true. I love the idea: every day of the year God is greeting me: ‘Grace, don’t fear!’
At the end of Luke’s childhood stories he uses the word ‘grace’ again. There it is said about the little child Jesus: that ‘God’s grace was with him’ (2:40). And a little bit further he repeats: ‘And Jesus increased in grace to God and to the people.’
So, in the book of Saint Luke Jesus’ childhood is framed by God’s grace. At the same time he announces that his book about Jesus will be a history of grace.
Advent Sunday readings
Last week we heard Saint John speaking about Jesus: ‘He was grace upon grace; grace instead of grace.’ So, the Advent time grows to its climax. At Christmas God’s grace will be visible in an innocent, little baby.
Let us view the four Sunday readings of the Advent time. The first Sunday we were evoked to stay awake. The second we were invited to think differently... without knowing – at that very moment - what that difference could mean. But the last two Sundays we are announced that God’s history is not a history of fear, but a history of grace. ‘Rejoice...!’ From far we hear already the sound of the Christmas carols.
We see a very original representation of the Annunciation in a mosaic from the 5th century in the Roman Church Santa Maria Maggiore. This representation is not an illustration of Saint Luke’s story. It is inspired by a so called apocryphal gospel, the Pseudo-Matthew (4th? century).
‘When Mary was preparing the purple with her fingers, a young man of indescribable beauty entered. Seeing him Mary was wincing with fear. He said to her, ‘Rejoice, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. You are the blessed among the women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’ Hearing these words Mary trembled for fear. Then the angel added: ‘Don’t fear, Mary. For you have found grace to God. See, you’ll receive in your womb and you will give birth to a king, who will not only fulfill the earth, but heaven also; and he will reign for ever and ever.’
We see Mary, clothed with grace in a golden, imperial garment. She is seated on a throne, with a pillow. A footstool under her feet. A real sovereign. Later she will sing: ‘Everybody will call me blessed because the Almighty has gone great things for me.’ On her right side (as you look at the painting on the left) there is a basket, filled with gold wire. According to legend she was chosen to weave the curtain in the temple. That is nice symbolism. As the curtain in the temple hides God’s presence from the eyes of the people, so her womb will do with the divine child in a similar way. This symbolism is emphasized by the house at the back of Mary. It looks like a temple. The doors are closed: pointing to her virginal womb? Mary is surrounded by four angels, to be recognized by their wings and their fiery coloured hair. A fifth angel comes down from heaven to announce the birth of the divine child to her. His words are illustrated by the dove on the left side, symbol of God’s spirit, which is descending upon her from heaven.
On the right, we see Saint Joseph. He is chosen to take Mary with him. He will be the chosen man to save the lives of mother and child... But that story is not told by Saint Luke, but by Saint Matthew. We will hear it at Epiphany