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4th Sunday of Advent

15 December 2023

24 December, 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16; the Magnificat or Psalm 89.1-4, 19-26 [or 89.1-8]; Romans 16.25-end; Luke 1.26-38

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THIS Gospel is not easy to write about. It may originally have entered the deposit of Christian faith as a simple story, but it has morphed over the centuries into a springboard for all kinds of speculation, both physical and metaphysical. It is now both a focal point for meditation and a subject of theological debate.

To make sense of Luke’s account of the annunciation to Mary, we first need to remember what he has told us just before the lection: how John the Baptist also had a miraculous conception, and a wonder-full revelation, and went on to a remarkable ministry. The similarities are prominent.

Then we put the two stories side by side, and see that Jesus’s birth-story outstrips John’s, not just in quantity (by taking more verses to tell), but also in quality. The miracle of John’s conception is what we might call an “ordinary” miracle, like Sarah’s, or Hannah’s. We meet his elderly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and see the encounter between Zechariah and the angel Gabriel. Zechariah responds with a question which sounds similar to Mary’s: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years”; “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

The question “How?” in both highlights the human desire for understanding. The reason behind the question is likewise similar; and we could paraphrase it thus: “I/we do not fulfil the natural conditions for conception to take place.” The only difference is in the phrasing of the question: Zechariah asks how he will know, while Mary asks how this can be.

That detail of phrasing has to carry a great interpretative weight. Zechariah is rendered unable to speak as a result of his question, whereas Mary not only receives no reprimand, but also hears Gabriel go on to reveal what God’s providence is setting in motion. What, we may well wonder, is so wrong about asking for knowledge?

When we listen carefully to Zechariah’s question, we realise that he is really expressing doubt about the delivery of this promise. He sounds like a modern sceptic demanding proof and reluctant to take God’s message at face value.

Mary shows us the more excellent way. Of course she does. She is the highly favoured one whom God has specially graced with the honour of bearing his incarnate Son. She does not ask for knowledge or proof. Her question takes it for granted that normal methods for conception will not apply.

It matters to Luke that, when we hear his Gospel, we grasp just how remarkable the birth of Jesus is. The juxtaposition with John achieves this perfectly. Plenty of pagan divinities and demi-gods include stories about an extraordinary conception or birth. This is not like one of those.

Jesus’s conception in the womb of Mary is extraordinary because — in the old phrase — she “knew not a man”. But it is also ordinary: the same ordinary miracle experienced by Elizabeth, and countless other women, time out of mind. This paradox is the incarnation in a nutshell: Jesus Christ truly divine and truly human. Luke has even provided a clue from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, an allusion in the person of the angel Gabriel. In Daniel, it was Gabriel who announced the coming of an “anointed one, a prince” (9.25).

It comes as no surprise that commentators who are cautious about giving credence to miracles play with the idea that Mary’s encounter with Gabriel is really an internal spiritual experience recast in story form. It goes without saying that, all these centuries later, we can have no idea how precise Luke’s narrative is. But we can still be reasonably sure that he did not invent it, and that he was using his skill as a storyteller (by putting the two conception stories side by side) to show us what he thought was the message in the miracles.

Once we have remembered that Matthew also knew the story as a miraculous conception by a virgin, it becomes clear that he and Luke have chosen different strategies for presenting that fact to their hearers. For Matthew, this corroboration takes the form of a reference to prophecy (Isaiah 7.14). Luke, the apostle to the Gentiles, chooses a different explanatory strategy. He lets the parallel lives of John and Jesus witness to the incarnation instead.

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