Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Priest, an angel, and a virgin

Read: Luke 1: 1-4

Luke doesn't pretend that he's the first to pen a comprehensive account of the days of Christ.  In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy Luke is because he tells his audience that many have undertaken to set down on papyrus what was fulfilled among these citizens of history.  Even so, Luke is compelled investigate eyewitness accounts and write an orderly account of what had happened.  So that Theophilus -- and two thousand years later, we – might now the certainty of the things that have been taught. 
Another reason I adore Luke’s gospel so, is that he doesn’t jump straight to the manger, nor to the betrothal and pregnancy of Mary.  He doesn’t even start with the annunciation.  Luke, who granted does not go as far back as John, begins with the announcement of another impending birth.   Yet, as it precedes and intermingles with the intrauterine existence of Jesus, he stands these two narratives in such close vicinity of one another, his audience cannot but examine these two annunciations together.  In context.  And when we resist the temptation to lift the One out of the scripture, away from the other, what we find in their proximity, their togetherness, is how the first illuminates the second.  Raises it from humanly expectations and allows it to shine with the light of Divinity. 

John’s parents were almost everyone a devout Hebrew would expect the parents of a prophet to be.  Both descended from priestly lines.  Both were “righteous in God’s eyes, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”  Both mature in years, endowed with wisdom that can only come from having so much experience with life.  They were past the stage of knowing who they are – priest and his barren wife.  Having lived so many years together, Luke’s audience can infer that they knew one another very well, as only two people who lived together for decades can.   They knew each other’s rhythms and moods; how the other chews their food, and what their voice sounds like in prayer.  The only flaw in their story: Elizabeth’s barrenness and disgrace because of it.[1]    

Mary, on the other hand was about as different from these parents as one could be, and still be a devout Jew.  Instead of a priestly heritage, she came from the line of kings.  She was a woman; young where Zachariah and Elizabeth are old.  Betrothed, but still residing in her father’s home, suspended in a sort of identity twilight: already a bride, but not yet a wife.  No longer solely her father’s responsibility, but not yet fully her husband’s either.  Alone in contrast with the togetherness of John’s parents.  While scripture doesn’t explicitly say that she was poor, she was betrothed to a carpenter and not a priest; and when making her sacrifice at the temple following Jesus’s birth, she was forced to use two birds instead of the more expensive animals.  Thus, we can infer that she was not well off.  She likely hasn’t been praying for a pregnancy to precede her marriage; Zachariah and Elizabeth have been praying for a baby for years.  Scripture is also silent on whether or not she knew her betrothed well.  She likely doesn’t even know what side of the pallet Joseph sleeps on, let alone how he would handle this new, eternity-altering development. 
Zachariah is inside the holy of holies when he meets the angel.  It is an expected place for such a heavenly encounter.  Scripture does not tell us where Mary is; but we can be certain that she was not in the holy of holies (women were not permitted past the Court of Women) and that she was alone.  Because no one else is mentioned alongside her.  While Zachariah is alone inside the holy of holies, he is still attached to his fellow priests with a rope.  His presence is anticipated greatly by a large crowd just outside the room.  There is no mention of anyone anticipating Mary’s return; though even if she is expected by her family, they do not constitute a crowd.  Even when greeted by the angelic messenger, Gabriel, he announces the impending pregnancies differently.  To Zachariah, he says, “your prayers have been heard.”  To Mary, he proclaims, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you!”  Of the two characters, any Israelite would have assumed that the latter greeting belonged to Zachariah and the former to Mary, if only because it had been that way in scripture before.    

After the pronunciation, Zachariah asks, “How can I be sure?”  Mary asks, “How will this be?”  The very manner in which each phrases their question illuminates their differences in faith.  Zachariah is saying “can I trust God?  How will I know this is what will happen?”  Mary is saying, “How is this going to happen?”  Hers is a question not of faith, for she displays her expectation of the promise to be fulfilled, rather it is a question of mechanics.  Zachariah is rendered mute for his doubting; Mary is left to explain all of this to her parents and fianc√©.  And then await their reactions.  Though, throughout all of this, The Lord was with her.    
Thus, we find that the annunciation of John in a completely expected and predictable way (to an ancient Jew) highlights exactly how upside-down Jesus’s kingdom would be.  That the only person to know about his existence was a young, poor, not yet married virgin girl, tells scripture readers so much about their coming King.  That His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. 


[1] Scripture does note that it is Elizabeth who cannot conceive (v.7).

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