Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 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. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26–38 – NRSV)
This passage is unique to Luke. He links Jesus with John: Jesus is conceived “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – see 1:36 – and it is the same heavenly messenger – Gabriel – who announces the birth of both children – see 1:19 and 1:26.
Whereas, Luke focuses on Mary in his infancy narrative, Matthew focuses on Joseph. However, the following details are shared by both:
- Jesus’ birth is related to the reign of Herod (Luke 1:5; Matt 2:1)
- Mary, his mother to be, is a virgin engaged to Joseph, but they have not yet come to live together (Luke 1:27, 34; 2:5; Matt 1:18)
- Joseph is of the house of David (Luke 1:27; 2:4; Matt 1:16, 20).
- An angel from heaven announces the coming birth of Jesus (Luke 1:28–30; Matt 1:20–21)
- Jesus is recognized himself to be a son of David (Luke 1:32; Matt 1:1)
- His conception is to take place through the holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20)
- Joseph is not involved in the conception (Luke 1:34; Matt 1:18–25)
- The name “Jesus” is imposed by heaven prior to his birth (Luke 1:31; Matt 1:21)
- The angel identifies Jesus as “Savior” (Luke 2:11; Matt 1:21)
- Jesus is born after Mary and Joseph come to live together (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 1:24–25)
- Jesus is born at Bethlehem (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 2:1)
- Jesus settles, with Mary and Joseph, in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39, 51; Matt 2:22–23 (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 307.)
The differences between Luke’s account and Matthew’s account, present us with some unanswerable questions. Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “If this sort of imitative historiography is at work in assimilating the account of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to that of Ishmael, Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, it may raise a question about the historical value of the account itself. This is not an easy question to answer. It should be recalled that Matthew—independently of Luke—knows of a tradition about a heavenly announcement of the birth of Jesus, prior to the living together of Mary and Joseph, and about a virginal conception involving the holy Spirit. There are significant differences between the stories, however, that have to be considered: in Matthew the announcement comes to Joseph, presumably in Bethlehem (in that infancy narrative we learn about Nazareth only in 2:23); in Luke it comes to Mary, in Nazareth. Matthew has little of the stereotyped OT pattern of birth-announcement; Luke has made use of it. That means that both evangelists, having picked up elements of the tradition, have freely cast them in their own molds—one in terms of dreams, the other in an OT birth-announcement pattern. What really happened? We shall never know. Writers like J.-P. Audet (RB 63  355) and J. McHugh (Mother of Jesus, 128) have toyed with the idea that the announcement to Mary may be Luke’s way of presenting an account of an interior, spiritual experience, to which no bystander could have been witness. That is possible. In this matter the important thing is to attend to the message about the child that is made known, whether one can establish the historicity of the details of the account or not. Just as the angelic message of a wondrous birth made known the character and special role of John to his father Zechariah, so too does the announcement of the even more wondrous birth of Jesus to Mary reveal his identity and role. This is the purpose of the episodes and the reason for the Lucan parallelism.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 335-336.)
virgin: There are three other words Luke could have used to describe Mary – pais, meaning “girl” (used by Luke in 8:51), paidiskē, meaning “little girl, maid” (used by Luke in 12:45), or korasion, “maiden”. Instead he uses parthenos, “the normal understanding of which is ‘virgin’” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 343.). This in turn matches Mary’s words reported in 1:34: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Literally: “How can this be, since I have no husband?”)
engaged to a man: Joseph Fitzmyer explains: “In Palestine of the time the marriage of a young girl took place in two acts: (a) the engagement (Hebrew ʾērûsîn = Latin sponsalia) or formal exchange of agreement to marry in the presence of witnesses (cf. Mal 2:14) and the paying of the mōhar, ‘bride price’; (b) the marriage proper (Hebrew niśśûʾîn) or the ‘taking’ of the girl to the man’s home (see Matt 1:18; 25:1–13). The engagement gave the groom legal rights over the girl, who could already be called his ‘wife’ (gynē, see Matt 1:20, 24). It could only be broken by his divorcing her, and any violation of his marital rights by her was regarded as adultery. After the engagement the girl usually continued to live in her family home for about a year before being taken to her husband’s home.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 343-344).
“Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you.”: The more normal greeting would have been Shalom, “peace”. Luke, in using the Greek word, chaire, is probably making reference to the messianic prophecy in Zephaniah 3:14 where it is used in the Septuagint version. There, the NRSV translates: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
“The Lord is with you”: The Greek word Kyrios – translated as “Lord” – is an obvious reference to Yahweh. The promise of Yahweh to be with His people, is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “The Lord is with you! This is a frequently used OT phrase, but it occurs as a greeting only in two places in the OT, Ruth 2:4 and Judg 6:12. In both cases it lacks a verb, as here in Luke. The phrase in Ruth 2:4 has been understood as a wish, ‘May the Lord be with you!’ (so RSV, NAB, NEB), whereas in Judg 6:12 it is rather a declaration (so RSV, NAB, NEB). The appearance of the angel of the Lord to Gideon in the latter passage and the similarity of greeting there to what one finds in Luke suggests that the phrase be understood here too as a declaration. Moreover, it supplies a better explanation for Mary’s perplexity in the following verse. In the OT the phrase often expresses Yahweh’s help and assistance and carries a military connotation. Obviously, kyrios here is to be understood of Yahweh.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 346)
In today’s Gospel – Luke 1:26-38 – we are told the simple, most wonderful, truth of all: “The angel said to Mary, ‘You will conceive in your womb and bear a son….’”. Through Mary of Nazareth, God acquired a being in the flesh. Mary’s son Jesus is truly God and truly human. This is cause for rejoicing! It is also cause for some honest thinking. What do we in fact celebrate in the Incarnation?
It is impossible to adequately understand the Incarnation – the enfleshing of God, the Infinite becoming finite. It is faith that prompts us to bow before that mystery. Our faith then, summons us on a journey. The journey into the mystery of the Incarnation – ultimately a matter of grace – is necessarily an encounter with our own experience of being in the flesh. And this raises some issues. Think for a moment about what it means to be a bodily being and you will understand why that journey has some both opportunities and dangers. The body can be a source of delight and pain, intimacy and violence, unity and loneliness, ecstasy and fragility, love and hate. And, in the end, it is the bearer of our mortality.
As well as the attractions of being in the flesh, it is to be expected that we will also find deep resistances to our being in the flesh. Both the attractions and the resistances need to be honestly faced and wisely discerned for they both carry special opportunities and dangers. Culture and society offer us – seduce us? – with many different escape routes which can get in the way of the honest facing and the wise discerning. Excarnation may replace incarnation. And so we may pretend and play games, seek approval and recognition, gather possessions and engage in any number of ploys to avoid simply being who we are – this being in the flesh. The fear of not belonging – being rejected – and the anxiety of losing control, might be major influences here? Might this have something to do with the stresses and strains that often attend the celebration of the Incarnation at this time of the year?
If excessive pre-occupation is a sign that something is a source of anxiety for us, we would have to say that the body is a source of anxiety for modern Westerners. We are obsessive about the body. For all our apparent freedom in exposing – even flaunting – our bodies, it is a sign I believe, not that we have been liberated but that we have been captivated.
We must expect these and other factors to come into play when we endeavour to reflect on the enfleshing of God. Our journey into the mystery of the Incarnation begins in the mystery of our own incarnation! A good question to ask from time to time is, “What is happening?” What is really happening … with me … between me and you … with us? Listen! Do not try to analyse. The truth will set you free! Let the truth shape your life.