On the fourth Sunday of Advent, the great passage of the annunciation is read to us before Christmas is celebrated. It’s a passage that is so familiar to most of us, we could almost repeat the words without having the text before us. It has been a scene written about, painted and sung about through the ages. So familiar are we about it that it is easy for us to pass over it and not think too much about it.
Here are a few things about the passage.
The angel is named by St Luke in the story. Normally angels are not named in the bible. Although we have come to imagine them in a certain way, all that the scriptures infact tells us is that they are divine messengers. They often tell what God’s purpose or will or desire is. So it is with this angel. But often the angel appears in the Gospel or he bible as a device. In the same way when people go up mountains in the bible we know something is going to happen, so it is in the bible when angels appear, something important is going to happen, God is going to do something.
The woman at the centre of the story of the annunciation is of course Mary. Her actual name in Hebrew is Miriam. Often in the bible names have another significance, giving some indication of the role that they are to play. Miriam is the Hebrew word meaning, rebellious. An interesting contrast to what we make Mary out to be – compliant, quiet, reserved. Her name indicates instead she has a rebellious spirit and plays a rebellious role– we can see that in the words of the Magnificat – she speaks about kings and kingdoms being overturned and the poor being raised up.
Little is mentioned of Joseph here, only to say that he is betrothed to Mary. Luke does tells us, however, he is from the House of David. Something that does not mean much to us but to the Jewish audience it would have meant a lot and perhaps to the Romans too. A claim to sovereignty from an old royal house, a threat perhaps to their power, the nightmare of the ascent of a pretender to an claim an old throne appearing. To the Jewish people, mention of the House of David, would have meant that promise mentioned in the Old Testment reading today of the House of David standing forever and of a dynasty that will last forever is what they would have read from the words. It would have been very resonant of this and very important.
We are not sure what it means when the angel says that Mary is full of grace. Many others in the OT are referred to in this way, graced too. It is no weak blessing, no weak salutation – but it is a salutation which the ages have wondered and pondered over. Who among us is full of grace?
Mary response to the greeting – the Greek word used is somewhere between agitation or puzzlement. She seems to be confounded by what she is hearing. She obviously has no prior knowledge and no sense of what is to come.
The angel reassures her saying that she has won favour with God. It leads us to wonder why she has found favour, what is there in her life that is so meritorious? It makes us realise that this is not a random act or choice but that she is the favoured or the graced one, with all that means.
The ancient manuscripts, the oldest of the pieces of scripture that are in our possession, put in capital letters the words SON of the MOST HIGH. Even in the scriptures of the new Testament there was a fear of writing down the Holy name as there was in the Old Testament.
At the end of the passage there is mention made of Elizabeth, her cousin. Like Mary, Elizabeth is also with child. Her child bearing is in the great traditions of the Old Testament, like Sarah, Abraham’s wife, Hannah the mother of Samuel and others it seemed that they could not have children. These then are impossible pregnancies, pregnancies that should never have happened. Elizabeth’s role in the story seems to be to remind Mary that she also stands in the line of these impossible pregnancies, things that should never have happened, things that can never be explained .
In every play there is the prologue which sets the scene. We are given the background. Here are things to watch out for and remember.
In the annunciation we are provided with the background of what is to come. There is to be a birth, a child born, the son of the Most High. Mary will be the mother of this child, she is the favoured one and the one full of grace. This an impossible pregnancy that should never and could never happen and yet does, like many of those strange pregnancies beginning from Abraham’s wife, Sarah. It is God work and it is for his purpose. God has come to visit his people.