Over the Sundays of Advent we hear and read from each of the gospels which became authorised for Christians in the first few centuries of the Christian era. We hear and read from all four because they each of them make two points of central importance in different ways. The first point is that Jesus of Nazareth had and has an exceptional indeed unique relationship to God whose world it is despite many appearances to the contrary. And the second is that Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God was to begin with closely associated with that of a kinsman, son of a priestly household, whose name was John, by whom Jesus himself was baptised. Each gospel writer attempts to make sense of what Christian communities are to make of all this as they form and live under Roman rule and occupation as illegal groups of worshippers, possibly troublesome to the authorities and certainly with internal difficulties to negotiate as converts from quite different backgrounds join these communities. So, suppose that somewhere in the Roman East a member of one of these communities ,- a writer of exceptional gifts, Greek speaking, thoroughly familiar with Jewish scripture in Greek – the common speech of the day, suppose this writer- call him Luke according to tradition, either discovers or has sent to him a copy of a most valuable text – the gospel of Mark. There he finds that in just a few short sharp sentences Mark identifies Jesus of Nazareth not simply as an anointed one – a Messiah – but as Son of God-the language of royalty, of kingship. And Mark goes straight to the proclamation of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus who turns up for baptism by him.What is Luke to make of all this in his turn? Is there not more to be said, to be explored and explained on both counts – Jesus’ relation to God and Jesus’ relation to John? So, with incomparable skill, Luke writes his own narrative, beginning with John, the slightly older of the two men.
John, as he makes unambiguously clear, is son of parents both of whom are from families committed to the worship of the re-built magnificent temple in Jerusalem, both of them devout, but childless, and getting past the age when a much-longed for male child might be born to them. Zacharias has the special privilege of taking his turn at burning incense in the sanctuary of the temple, where he has a distinctly unnerving experience. God of course, as Zacaharias knows, may manifest himself in different ways, depending on circumstances. In our first reading from 1 Samuel, the manifestation of God is mediated through a prophet, Nathan, commissioned by God to instruct king David that his line will continue for ever, indeed that God will be father to David’s son and his descendents. And David’s son will replace the tabernacle David has built to house God’s throne –replace it with a temple. The Davidic line and the worship conducted in that temple are most carefully related to one another. David of course is anything but a moral exemplar, any more than others of his line – that is not the point. The point is that he is portrayed as utterly and passionately devoted to God and trusting in the divine promise. So fast forward to Zacharias, for through and well beyond utter disaster, David’s city of Jerusalem has been re-established and a new temple has been built within it.There Zacharias is to be found by Gabriel, not a prophet like Nathan, but this time God in angelic presence.
Gabriel has been met with before in the experience of the visionary Daniel at the time of evening prayer in a time and place of utter desolation and exile, when Gabriel comes to instruct Daniel – addressed as ‘greatly beloved’ (Gabriel always devastatingly courteous! ) who reminds him of that promise to David about the divine reign and the worship of the temple – eventually rebuilt as we have recalled, Zacharias as it were takes Gabriel on – how is he to believe in the divine gift of a son – how is Zacharias to know this and to believe the promises of his son’s role in relation to the divine reign? The result of that question is that he is struck dumb – so at the completion of his responsibility for the burning of incense on that occasion all he can do is gesture rather than actually pronounce blessing to the assembled worshippers. But Gabriel is indeed to be trusted, for Elizabeth’s child is conceived and safely born and named by his father.
In the meantime, as it were, Gabriel’s turns his attention elsewhere, out of Jerusalem, out of that center of devotion, up north to Galilee, to a woman betrothed to a man called Joseph, himself briefly identified as of the Davidic line – Joseph is of course given attention in Matthew’s gospel. The angel greets Mary in words which recall the ‘greatly beloved’ greeting to Daniel. The Greek means something like ‘Good day to you, God’s good to you’, or ‘God indeed favours you’. Some texts add in at this point ‘Blessed are you among women’- the words found on the lips of Elizabeth when Mary visits her and so to speak transferred to Gabriel’s greeting to reinforce the meaning of his greeting. I’ll come back to those words in a moment. Mary, like Daniel, like Zacharias, unsurprisingly does not initially know what to make of this greeting ‘ God’s good to you’ – she might well be much troubled by it, but Gabriel explains that divine goodness, divine favour, means a son for her who will be ‘Son of the Highest’, who will inherit those promises made to David. Mary also takes Gabriel on, we might say, in making the obvious comment – she is indeed betrothed but she does not yet cohabit with Joseph as we might say. And of course, she has a point, for as in the case of other women in scripture who are the predecessors of Elizabeth and Mary, the divine promise of a child does not exclude human fatherhood. But it’s clear to Luke at any rate, that in this instance a male progenitor is not involved – so the words ‘I will be his father and he shall be my son’ of the divine promise to David now take on a new meaning, however crucial Joseph is to be in the life of Mary’s son. Mary accepts the knowledge and significance of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – nothing is impossible to God, and affirms her own status as ‘slave’ of God ( a ‘doulos’ to her ‘Kurios’, her Lord) – ‘handmaiden’ and ‘servant’ softens it – with all the consequences that may follow that admission – and she cannot possibly know what that may entail.
So: she is clearly separated from Joseph for a time, for she heads off to visits Elizabeth in her home near Jerusalem, and Elizabeth too becomes a prophet in her turn, and acknowledges Mary as ‘Blessed among women’. We miss the significance of these words unless we recall that two other women have been so addressed. One of them, Jael, destroys the fugitive Philistine commander, Sisera to whom she has given shelter and hospitality, (Judges4-5) and in a different narrative, Judith has destroys Holofernes (Judith 13/16). The point is that they were called ‘blessed’ because they destroyed those thwarting the divine reign as enemies of God’s people. It is not that Mary may be required to fulfil an equally terrible task, but that like them, she’s a woman of courage – something at least one poet, Denise Levertov, spotted in her reflections on this episode – a point usually missed by commentators focussed on Mary’s consent/ obedience/submission as a ‘slave’ of God. Her confession does not make her a nonentity – anything but. And Luke at this juncture as it were re-writes the song of praise of Hannah, the mother of Samuel(1 Sam.2) in voicing Mary’s prophetic confidence and courage in the praise of God familiar to us as the ‘Magnificat’ – ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’.
Thus, Luke has addressed himself to the conviction that Jesus has a special relationship to God, and that he has kith and kin in the priestly family into which John is born. He also tells us that Jesus’ parents take their child to the Passover feast each year in Jerusalem- surely visiting their kin there, because when the twelve year old Jesus goes missing they know where to start looking for him, – among their kin and acquaintances, and eventually locate him in the temple learning from the teachers there and quizzing them about what they have to say. The implication surely is that he learns a great deal from John and his family. And John, as we see, turns his back on the temple, and chooses the life of a prophet relocated on the river Jordan, with baptism, not worship in the temple, as the sign of renewal and repentance needed in respect of the divine reign. There too was Jesus initially to be found, closely identified with John’s teaching and practice, and Luke tells us that Jesus heads back to Galilee only when John is arrested and of course killed – Jesus finding his own extraordinary place in relation to God’s reign, whilst also returning to the great feasts in Jerusalem and its temple – with which he remains both engaged and yet critically engaged, as his later accusers well knew.
What, finally, of Mary in Luke’s gospel, given her courage in accepting Gabriel’s message of divine goodness and favour, whatever that might entail. Luke has something to offer about Mary beyond that initial annunciation, for in his gospel she becomes one of those – with others of Jesus’ kin, who listen to him, believe him and act on his words, and crucially in Luke’s second book on the acts of the apostles – (those who respond to all that happens) – give us a brief but very important glimpse of Mary which we easily overlook. For he places her explicitly named, with her kin and Jesus’ disciples, in Jerusalem, at the heart of the worship of God. As a consequence, familiar though we are with paintings and poetry of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, we should recall that all the earliest representations of Pentecost – the Spirit given to that early community of believers, – all have Mary at the centre of the picture- Spirit endowed at annunciation, and Spirit- endowed at Pentecost- as she so still appears in the ikons of the Orthodox churches. Luke believes of course, that God’s resurrection of his Son means that the promises made to David are now made as it were open to all, with God’s Son now the one who himself bestows his Spirit on believers. So in effect there is not just one annunciation, but two as Luke would have his community believe : and Mary is central to both.
24 December 2017