[December 21, 2014] This is the last Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday for us to prepare for the birth of the Messiah on Christmas Day. It is also the day when we reflect on the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced the birth of Jesus, and Mariam consented. This event introduces Mariam to the readers of the Scriptures. In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus we only see her from a distance; the attention is on Joseph, a descendant of David, who adopts Jesus into his lineage, the gentile magi who by following a star give confirmation to and acknowledgement of this, from the outside as it were, and Joseph’s protection of Jesus (and his mother) when Herod makes his mad attempt to destroy this threat to the survival of his dynasty. Mariam is not mentioned again in the Synoptic gospels until Jesus has begun his apostolate and we see her come to Jesus, as the head of a household of children, wishing to see Jesus. Luke’s account differs from Matthew’s very much in how he speaks of women and particularly of Jesus’ mother.
Matthew writes in a Jewish style and is concerned about Jesus’ Davidic lineage and the fulfillment of the prophets. Jesus is the coming near of the kingdom of the heavens, the Son of Man who will come in glory, come in humility and love to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and to the gentile outsider, and who makes himself a sin offering for the people. Matthew was one of those lost sheep—a tax collector—until Jesus called him, a representative of the Twelve, and was intimately concerned about the gentile mission and its basis and justification in Jesus’ own apostolate.
For Luke, the gentile mission is a given. Luke himself is a gentile cosmopolitan, a physician who met the apostle Paul in the high country of southern Galatia and perhaps treated him for malaria when he and Barnabas had arrived from the mosquito-infested coast of Pamphylia. This was probably in 45 CE (15 years after the Passion). Luke was what was called a “god-fearer,” a gentile who attended the synagogue and worshiped the God of Israel. He probably met Paul when he addressed the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. If I may be permitted to speculate, perhaps Titus was Luke’s brother and they were there together. Luke does not mention him yet he was unmistakably present according to Paul’s own account. Luke and his brother (?), however, were not residents of Antioch. Their home seems to have been Philippi, the Roman colony on the eastern tip of Europe. Why they were in Pisidia, we do not know, but they were apparently used to travel. At some point soon after this encounter and their making commitment to the Messiah Jesus, Titus attached himself to Paul and began to accompany him on his travels. Luke, on the other hand, disappears.
My guess is that Luke and Paul had a conversation and Luke was given a task by Paul. He probably traveled to Palestine and Syria and spent the next three or four years gathering information by interviewing the eyewitnesses of Jesus. This information he would correlate into a “bio” (or Life) of Jesus, the Hellenistic genre of biography, using Matthew’s “memoir” as a basis. At the time Luke left Paul, Matthew had not yet published his manuscript—he would publish it in 52 CE—but was still working with sheets of parchment or papyrus, organizing and editing them. This was when Luke met Mariam the mother of Jesus. At the time she was living with a young man named John, and might have been residing in or near Jerusalem at the time, perhaps even in Bethany. I believe that the account that we have in Luke’s gospel of the circumstances surrounding the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus come primarily from Mariam, however they were collaborated. Mariam was probably then in her late 60s, almost 70 years old, at the time. After this she and her companion John may possibly have moved to Ephesus, the hub of Paul’s apostolic activity, where she died (and/or was assumed). After his research, Luke joined up again with Paul in 49 CE, four years later (Acts 16:10). Did he accompany Mariam and John on their journey? In any case, his task was completed seven years later in Philippi, in 56 CE, four years after Matthew’s scroll was published. (This is my own calculation.)
Unknown to Mariam, Elizabeth—perhaps Miriam’s elderly aunt—was pregnant (at the end of her second trimester), when Mariam’s life was changed forever. Elizabeth and Zechariah lived in Judea, not far from Jerusalem, where Zechariah served as a priest. Mariam was a young woman, perhaps only fifteen years old, living in the town of Nazareth in lower Galilee. Nazareth was a small Jewish settlement built on “the southernmost of several parallel east-west hill ranges that characterize the elevated tableau of Lower Galilee” (Wikipedia) overlooking the Jezreel Plain. It was 3.7 miles south-southeast of the Greek town of Sepphoris, 5.6 miles west of Mount Tabor, 11 miles from the Sea of Galilee as the crow, and 40 miles from Jerusalem. Though quite small, it was not cut off from the traffic of world and probably had its own synagogue with its own books and possibly a school. It would have been in this synagogue that Jesus was circumcised and named (Luke 2:21).
Mariam’s parents had formally engaged her to be married to Yosef, the son of Eli (or Ya’akov according to Matthew), a local artisan (tektōn). The word designates someone who makes things, usually of wood but also of iron and stone, though the early tradition remembers him as a worker of wood. It is unclear whether he was a poor itinerant worker or someone who was a highly skilled craftsman with a shop and possibly employees. According to Wikipedia, “Geza Vermes has stated that the terms ‘carpenter’ and ‘son of a carpenter’ are used in the Jewish Talmud to signify a very learned man, and he suggests that a description of Joseph as ‘naggar‘ (a carpenter) could indicate that he was considered wise and highly literate in the Torah” (citing Landman, Leo (1979): The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series, Vol. 70, No. 2 (JSTOR); University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 125–128). This is something I would like to look into; it might give us some insight into the early education of Jesus and his brothers, James and Jude. If true, it might also suggest something about the decision of Yosef’s parents to espouse their son to this particular young girl of their village.
Being legally engaged, an engagement that would require a legal divorce to break off, the two would have been carefully watched until their wedding took place. The wedding night might have been expected to produce proof of Mariam’s virginity (that she was untainted property, never before “used” by a man). Having grown up in the village together, they might have known and interacted with each other, though since the engagement their contact would have been limited. Nevertheless, they must have been excited and Mariam would have had a number of conversations with her parents about her future, and possibly—though chaperoned—discussions with Yosef too. They would have talked about their wedding and also their arrangements afterwards for a home and family.
Then one day an angel visited Mariam …
The gospel simply states this. Yet Gabriel identifies himself as one who stands in the presence of God (Luke 1:19). He is not an ordinary angel, of which there are myriads. According to the Book of the Revelation, there were seven angels who stand in God’s presence (8:2). There are two six-winged flaming seraphs who cover God and shouts “these words to each other: ‘Holy, holy, holy is YHWH Sabaoth. His glory fills the whole earth.’” Then there are four cherubs singing similar words ceaselessly who are underneath the throne of God: great creatures that in some way represent the creation. Then there are the seven angels who stood before God. After this there come the other orders and ranks of heaven, a hierarchy clouded over for us by our ignorance and blindness. These are mythological descriptions of a spiritual reality. The heavens are part of creation, its unseen “dimension” that is inseparable from “earth,” the realm that is seen. The heavens lie between God and the “earth” and are alive with consciousness, consciousness that is hierarchical, with “messengers” (pl. of angelos) from God to “earth,” the outer realm where our clumsy egos reside. Gabriel is a consciousness that is pretty high up there, where time and space border on the singularity of eternity. It seems as though space means little to Gabriel in terms of it posing a limitation; perhaps Gabriel even exists above time as we know it and comes to Mariam from a place of time’s fulfillment, effecting possibilities that could—in terms of probability—never happen, unless the fulfillment of time required it.
In other words, Gabriel was (and is) an awesome creature who unless he took some form compatible with our limitations could not even be contemplated by such humble things as ourselves, whose consciousness is so unconscious. He manifested himself to Mariam in some way, however: Mariam heard his words, perhaps only in her mind (though she might not have been able to tell the difference), and felt his presence—she was afraid—and she spoke to him; we have no idea, however, what she saw, if she saw anything. Luke tells us that he “appeared” (the passive of horaō) to Zechariah, just outside the veil that covered the Holy of Holies in the Temple (to the right of the golden altar of incense), and that Zechariah “saw” him (the same verb but active). Perhaps Mariam did too, or perhaps not. Luke literally says that Gabriel “entered” (eis-erchomai) her, though perhaps this just means that he entered the room (or space) where she was. I find it suggestive though: he entered the field of her consciousness; her awareness became strangely awakened.
In any case, when Mariam heard Gabriel’s “greeting,” she was greatly troubled by his words: “Rejoice, you who have been graced! The Lord is with you.” The Byzantine text has the additional words, “Blessed are you among women” (the same words as in verse 42). The word that follows chaire, the greeting, translated by Tyndale as “full of grace,” is kecharitōmenē, the perfect passive participle of charitoō. The root of this word is charis, the word we translate as “grace.” The verb charitoō means to highly favor, and its passive form means to be highly favored, to have favor bestowed on one. The Greek perfect tense refers to completed action with present consequences. In other words, God selected and bestowed divine favor on Mariam at some point in the past with the consequence that in the present she enjoys God’s favor. She lives in God’s grace. It is on the basis of this word that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was perceived. On the basis of the redemption wrought by her Son, she was preserved from sin from the moment of her conception. That might seem far-fetched to some, but the angel’s words say that God has favored Mariam before Gabriel came to her and suggests that God’s grace formed her into the person she was to equip her for the most unique task that any woman on earth has ever been given. The difficulty with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has more to do with the Roman doctrine of Original Sin, and how it is passed on, than with Mariam being the recipient of such salvific grace from the moment of her conception.
Gabriel’s words do not mean: “Lucky you! In God’s lottery you have been selected.”
Gabriel, who as he spoke to Mariam was standing in the presence of God, says to her, “The Lord is with you.” God was with her, accompanying her on her journey to this point in time, and was standing by her at that moment. Circumstances did not just “happen” to her. Perhaps Gabriel even means that like him, she too stands in the presence of God, that the membrane between her “earth” and God’s “heaven” was very thin indeed when it came to her life and person.
The words, “Of all women you are the most blessed,” might have been inserted here. They are not for that reason false, for not only does Elizabeth say them in verse 42 but Mariam says in verse 48, “From now onwards all generations will call me blessed.” The word “blessed” in verse 28 and 42 (the perfect passive participle of eu-logeō) means to be well spoken of, to be praised or extolled. It is the word used when Elizabeth says in 48, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” referring to Jesus. The word that Mariam uses in 48 is different; it is the future indicative of makarizō, to be called, considered or counted as having a benefit bestowed on one, to be fortunate. In the first, you are most highly spoken of (by God?); in the second, you will be considered benefited, fortunate, “happy,” one on whom God has bestowed something wonderful and good. In the first, Gabriel and Elizabeth both speak of who Mariam is in herself, before she became pregnant as one favored by God. In the second, Mariam speaks of herself as a result of her pregnancy (she never says herself that she is worthy of praise; Elizabeth and possibly Gabriel say this).
Mariam could not have been anything but troubled by this greeting. She did not doubt it, as Zechariah did. That was why it was so troubling. First of all, nothing in Mariam’s life would have made her expect that something like this would happen. In fact, she had other plans. Second, it singled her out. What was going on here? She did not doubt the nature of the visitation, that it was an angel of awesome majesty visiting her, nor did she doubt the angel’s words: Gabriel being who he was could not but know what he was talking about. But how could this be about her (even though Mariam knew it was)?! If Mariam was who she was, her humility could not have left her any other way than frightened. She had not even heard yet what Gabriel was about to say to her!
The angel says her name, “Mariam,” and continues, “Do not be afraid; you have won God’s favor.” Was Mariam afraid of the angel, or of the angel’s words? The context would seem to suggest it was the messenger’s message that frightened her. Why should she not be afraid? Because she have found favor (grace) with God: heures charin para tōi theōi. The word “find” means to come upon, to discover. In other words, don’t be afraid, Mariam, because God is favoring you, giving you grace, showing you—in other words—God’s love.
Then the angel delivers his message: “Look!” pay attention now. “You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.” In my other postings I have written extensively on the meaning of this.
I want us to focus on the words Gabriel says after this: “Your aunt (?) Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible for God.” Mariam’s life has just been turned upside down. She did not ask for this to happen; it was not her fault. It was something for which she was destined from the beginning though she never knew it. How will she be able to face her parents or Yosef? They cannot possibly understand. She leaves them, however difficult this must have been (though staying would have been even more difficult), and goes to Elizabeth and her husband, about the only people in the world who would understand, and who can give her the support she needs. Mariam had no need to come out of the closet with her aunt; to her great relief her aunt already knew. Mariam stays with them in their home for three months and is there when Elizabeth gives birth. This means that she was probably also in the synagogue on the eighth day when the baby was circumcised (could women be present? Elizabeth was). This means, furthermore, that she would have heard the prophecy of Zechariah when his tongue was finally loosed. That prophecy was all about the child growing in the womb of the unwed teenager in their midst, whose presence was probably unknown to any except Elizabeth and Zechariah. This confirmation was probably the insight and encouragement that gave Mariam the strength she needed to go home and face Yosef and both of their parents, not to mention the scorn of her village. What a brave young woman she was! She had, however, the support of two older people who loved and respected her.
Imagine the shame she could have felt as her belly swelled with the growth of new life, always worried about when people would begin to wonder. It was only a matter of time before people knew. God had brought this on her. It was one thing to change in one’s mind, but these changes were in her body; there was nothing abstract about them and they would soon be visible to all. And faithfulness to the God whom she loved required that she bear this before the eyes of her family and neighbors, however they might ridicule and scorn her. She loved the child in her womb “with a love beyond all telling.” Yet the opinions of others, spoken or unspoken, was bitter and painful. Nevertheless, she learned to ignore them and to focus all of her energy on nurturing the beautiful and beloved life within her.
When a person comes to the realization that they are different from others—when their denial finally collapses and they face who they are and always have been—when, indeed, they discover a life within them that is precious and wonderful—it is both a frightening and liberating experience. They know that they are going to face the ridicule and scorn of others, even though their “condition” is not their own fault but is by God’s design. They have to confront the shame that put them in denial in the first place and instead accept with thanksgiving this gift of God, a gift that came to them when they were still in their mother’s womb (if it was not already written in their genes). It may mean for them that they must step out of toxic relationships and seek supportive ones. It is only with the support of others that they can find strength to face the world, and to face the cost that their disclosure may demand of them. In Mariam’s case her relationship with Yosef was restored, but only by God’s grace. It did not look as though that would happen; it happened only because God intervened in Yosef’s dreams. Apart from God’s grace, it was too much for Yosef to accept, however good a man he was. Those who come out after their self-realization may have a high price to pay, but they gain their lives in return. God also might gain their lives, for their true selves are no longer hidden behind masks (of which they themselves might not even have been aware). They have become before God authentic people with new life pulsating within them, people whom God’s grace and favor can now heal and empower, people who can be at home in God’s presence. They can enjoy their redemption on a completely new level. What emerges is something new; indeed, if they are believers in Christ what may emerge into the world from their lives is the newness of Christ. This is God’s gift to the world when people, by God’s grace, are able to let go of the chains of shame and become authentic before God and their fellows. But as Mariam’s example shows, it is not easy. May Mariam’s openness and bravery be our inspiration.