Let It Be: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Four

 
Advent Week Four Liturgical Resources

Big Picture

1) If you’re lighting a traditional Advent wreath in your home or church, this week you'll light a candle of love against the shadows of hate.  Reading Luke’s account of the Annunciation in this candlelight casts it as a story of a loving God who cares deeply for humanity – and at the same time casts “love” as an unfolding force in history, taking shape through generations of ordinary, unexpected, and often vulnerable people.

2) A common practice in scripture is telling stories in parallel pairs, with each story illuminating the other.  Here in Luke, the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary immediately follows the story of his visit to Zechariah.  Each visit involves foretelling a miraculous pregnancy, and each unfolds according to a common choreography.  These stories are meant to be read together – and when we do, one contrast stands out:  both Zechariah and Mary ask Gabriel a clarifying question, but while Zechariah is struck mute for his lack of belief, Mary gets a patient (albeit mysterious) explanation.  Why?  Is it because Zechariah, as a priest, should know better?  Or is Luke underlining that Mary’s response isn’t a particularily skeptical one like Zechariah’s (“How will I know that this is so?”), but rather a form of wonder and astonishment (“How can this be?”)?

3) One of Luke’s primary concerns is to tell this story in a way that evokes Jesus’ connections with David, with the Hebrew prophets, and with the apocalyptic ideas in Daniel.  The big idea here is that God’s love expressed in and through Jesus isn’t brand new with Jesus’ arrival; rather, the arrival of Mary's baby is the culmination of a longstanding love that has been moving through history for centuries, a great river with tributaries reaching back to some of the most ancient wellsprings of scriptural imagination.

4) The earliest Christian communities (not unlike Christian communities today!) wrestled with how to understand the mystery of Jesus being "the Son of God."  In his letter to the church in Rome (written a few decades before Luke), Paul uses a formula that may have been an early Christian creed, indicating that Jesus was adopted as Son of God at his resurrection (Romans 1:3-4).  Mark puts the adoption earlier in the story, at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11).  In contrast to adoption theories, Luke contends in this week’s passage that Jesus’ identity as God’s Son goes all the way back to his conception.  Matthew makes a similar claim.  And John, of the four Gospels probably the last to be written, places Jesus’ divine sonship all the way back “in the beginning” (John 1:1).  We should be candid and unembarrassed about the differences of perspective and emphasis here.  Far from weakening credibility, these differences testify that the mystery of the Incarnation exceeds the limits of any single point of view.  And if we read all four accounts together, like sides of diamond, we can rejoice that salvation comes not "once and for all" but at every stage of life.

5) In traditional paintings of the Annunciation (this one's by far our favorite because you, the viewer, are turned into Gabriel, the bearer of good news!), Gabriel appears to Mary while she is reading - and more often than not, she is reading the seventh chapter of Isaiah (specifically Isaiah 7:14).  This is consistent with Luke’s portrait of Jesus as arriving in accord with Isaiah’s vision – but it’s also consistent with Luke’s portrait of Mary as an erudite young woman well-acquainted with Jewish scripture and tradition, and therefore fully capable of composing the Magnificat (with its sophisticated echoes of Hannah’s song).  It’s unlikely that Mary was literate, of course, but the point these paintings are making is clear:  Mary was wise beyond her years, thoughtful, learned, and deeply formed in Jewish tradition.

Scripture:

1) Obviously Mary’s virginity is part and parcel of Luke’s emphasis on the miraculous character of Jesus’ birth, but it’s also true that in the ancient world “virgin” was a shorthand way of saying “young.”  Part of Luke’s perspective here is that in Jesus, God is coming into the world in a hidden, unexpected, subversive way.  In a world dominated by the authority of older men (a world not unlike our own!), Jesus will come into the world through the faith and strength and body of a young woman.  In a world dominated by Rome and Jerusalem, Jesus will come into the world through a family from Nazareth, a “nowhere” town unmentioned in all of Hebrew scripture.  In a world dominated by imperial power and violent strength, Jesus will come with a soft spot on his head, and Mary’s milk on his breath.

2) Throughout this story, Luke is keenly interested in emphasizing the links between Jesus and David.  First, he mentions that Joseph is from the "house" or lineage of David (this makes the link to the Davidic line, and at the same time makes it all the more striking that Gabriel doesn’t appear to Joseph (as in Matthew), but rather to Mary).  Second, Gabriel tells Mary that Jesus will inherit David’s throne; likewise, the reference to a “kingdom” that “will have no end” is the fulfillment of the promise to David (2 Samuel 7:16; 1 Chronicles 17:14; Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 2:44, and Daniel 7:14).  And third, Mary’s calling herself “the servant of the Lord” is an echo of a phrase applied to David (2 Samuel 7:5), thus elevating Mary’s stature in the story to one on par with King David’s.

3) “For nothing will be impossible with God” (v. 37) is the story’s pivotal theme, evoking God’s question to Sarah and Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14).

Takeaways:

1) Reading the story of the Annunciation through the lens of this week’s Advent theme of “Love” is an invitation to reflect on what love really is, both God’s and ours.  The Christmas story is an epic, multigenerational love story, a story of God coming to be with us through prestigious prophets and “nowhere” towns; though venerable priests and vulnerable young women; through stars and shepherds and scripture and song.  Try reading the scriptures referencing David (in #2 above) and substituting the word "love" instead of the words "he" or "David."  Christmas is the time when we proclaim that God has confirmed that LOVE sits on the throne and that God is establishing LOVE forever.

2) For Luke, we cannot truly come to grips with this act of divine love without it taking our breath away.  Wonder is a key theme in this story, from Mary’s “How can this be?” to Gabriel’s “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  And so the story should be told and explored in ways that sparkle with wonder – and it's also an opportunity to reflect on the role wonder plays in our faith, and in our lives.

3) As her song makes clear, Mary is a revolutionary – but she is also a learned contemplative, a young woman familiar with the tradition who was capable both of marveling at God’s love and of reflecting on its implications for her life.  The traditional Annunciation image of Mary reading may call us to ask, “What are we reading these days? How is it preparing us for greater insight into God’s love for us and for the wider world?”  Mary’s decisive “Let it be” marks her as nothing less than the first disciple (from the Latin discipulus, “student”), and we do well to follow in her footsteps.