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, favoured 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 favour 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.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.
The inspiration of poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and writers, to this very day, the Annunciation has proved an irresistible attraction to the arts. Particularly in early Florentine art, the Annunciation’s depiction contains highly symbolic images, treasure to the cognoscenti needed to decode them.
The Lukan account of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel has little of this subtlety – but is beautifully crafted, linking forever the forthcoming births of John the Baptist and Jesus. The setting is not a Temple but a home in the unprepossessing town of Nazareth in Galilee – well away from the epicentre of the Jewish faith. Gabriel, ‘Man of God’, evidently did not favour the Temple over the humble home. As with Zechariah, Gabriel has little small talk to smooth over the bombshell he is about to deliver. If his opening remark is meant to prepare Mary – she simply found it disturbing. As with Zechariah, his reassuring ‘Do not be afraid’ introduces his main message – the boy whom she shall bear will be of crucial significance for the world. With the boldness of youth, Mary fastens on the flaw in this plan – which, significantly, does not raise Gabriel’s ire (cf. his response to Zechariah). In language reminiscent of the Genesis, Gabriel announces the divine progenitor of the child will be none other than God’s Spirit. Her pregnancy is no less likely than that of her aunt Elizabeth, ‘for with God nothing will be impossible’. When Mary acquiesces gracefully to the plan, Gabriel leaves, his job done.
If we are tempted to place the church above the home as a place where God is encountered, this passage is a necessary corrective. The church has extracted much doctrine from this short passage – perhaps more than it can bear. What is required of us is an openness to receive God’s ‘favour’ and the courage to accept it in faith.
you choose to use us
in the fulfilment of your purposes for our good.
When we find this hard to accept,
you do not walk away from us,
but are constant in your love for us.
Let your Spirit so work in me
that my inconstancy is transformed into a ‘yes’ to you.
The Rev’d John Young is a retired minister living in Glasgow in the Synod of Scotland.