On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary gives us Luke 1:26-38. It is the story of “the Annunciation,” nine months before Christmas. But we are in December, chronologically only a week-and-a-half before Mary will give birth.
It’s all good. Advent is an excellent time to think about the promise of Jesus birth given to the Virgin Mary.
The Annunciation and Lectio Divina
I’ve written about this passage before, in reference to March 25 on which the Church celebrates the Annunciation. But I’ve also just spent a week dwelling in this text with my Advent class on classical Lectio Divina. So I decided that for a Monday(ish) meditation, I would bring in a slightly edited version of the reflections I made throughout that week.
Day 1: Be Not Afraid
What struck my curiosity first, here and in the message to Zechariah a few verses earlier, was the first phrase of the angel’s greeting:
Don’t be afraid!
I think of this as the standard angelic opener. And I always figure it was needed: imagine a stranger showing up in your living room without knocking at the door, in clothes so bright with God’s reflected glory that they shone like the sun. It would be… startling, to say the least.
I went to Bible Gateway and searched the phrase in the NRSV. It occurs 67 times, counting OT, NT and a few from the Apocryphal books. When you start reading through them, it’s like the high-points of the Biblical story.
- God says these words to patriarchs and prophets
- Midwives speak these words to women in labor
- Prophets speak these words to Israel in exile
- Jesus says these words to crowds and disciples.
I’m led to think about this as a core element of God’s ongoing guidance to humanity. Of course it is a bit ludicrous to think you can boss your fears into submission. But the gist of the meaning, in text after text, is
You actually do not NEED to be afraid. God is with you. God is acting for your good and the worlds’s good. You can let go of your grasping, clenching response to troubling circumstances.
As I spent a couple minutes meditating on the verse, repeating the words over and over, my mind went to a good topic of prayer: that the world, beset by a pandemic, an economic crisis, and numerous nations with irrational authoritarian leaders, might hear the call: “Do not be afraid.” Dear God help us let go of the anxiety and walk with you through the darkness into the light.
Day 2: Favor with God
What captures my attention today is the words to Mary, which we Protestant types tend to gloss over. After the initial “Hail Mary,” as it were, Gabriel says
You have found favor with God.
I’m not diving into the Greek, but I find that the only other instance of the phrase “favor with God” in the NRSV is also from Luke’s pen, in the Book of Acts, where Stephen, the deacon and first martyr, is reciting Israel’s history and says that king David found favor with God. The NIV has the phrase here and in a description of young Jesus finding favor with God and people.
That is mighty fine company for Mary to find herself in.
- There’s David, the most lauded king of Israel, to whom was promised a perpetual reign and the the eventual Messiah.
- Then Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, the Messiah promised to David and his line.
- And finally Mary. Young. Innocent. On the cusp of adulthood, betrothed but not married.
There she is, praised by the Angel Gabriel in words otherwise used only for the King and the Lord.
Astonishing, really. Why are we Protestants so hesitant to sing of her and to be in wonder at the miracle brought about through her?
Day 3: Forever
Today I was at first intrigued by the word “forever” in the Annunciation of Mary’s child’s reign.
When I looked to Calvin’s commentary I found that he spent more attention on the promise that Jesus would reign “over the house of Jacob.” And why not? It is a bit of an odd claim, since the Church quickly became majority Gentile.
Here’s Calvin’s take:
By a new and wonderful adoption, God has admitted into the family of Jacob the Gentiles, who formerly were strangers; though in such a manner that the Jews, as the first-born, held a preferable rank…
I was glad to see Calvin preserved Paul’s priority on the continued calling of the Jews, or their eventual restoration.
When it came to my word “forever” Calvin reminds us that this was the promise to David himself and his heirs, though historically the visible fulfillment has been rather up and down. Mostly down. He suggests that the real fulfillment of the literal promise is in heaven.
Day 4: The Power of the Most High
Today I’m looking at Gabriel’s explanatory words to Mary at the Annunciation of this exceedingly unlikely thing: that she, a virgin, would supposedly be pregnant.
The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Simple as that. As Gabriel explained about the pregnancy of Mary’s aged relative Elizabeth,
For nothing will be impossible with God.
The thing that interested me was the use of the word “power” here. It seems potentially troubling. Think of a situation where someone uses their “power” to cause someone else to become pregnant…
So I did a little search of the word “power” in Luke. In the NRSV it occurs 20 times in his Gospel.
Most of them are references to Jesus’ miraculous works, and especially his miracles of healing.
Then others are about the effect of the Spirit’s presence in someone’s life — usually in Jesus.
Another group is less sacred power — those “powerful” cast from their thrones in the Magnificat, the “power” of darkness, and someone in a parable getting “royal power.”
The use of power related to God seems tied to his goodness, fitting his character. God’s power works toward healing the brokenness in people’s lives.
What if instead of worrying about “abuse of power” here, I thought differently about God’s powerful work of making Mary pregnant. Could it be an example of healing and redemption?
It powerful — but there was no abuse. After all, it happened only on her agreement:
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
I really love my Advent lectio divina class. My experience of these texts is different every year. Maybe next time around you’ll want to join in! (Click here to get on the waiting list.)
This year Mark is the main Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary. Want a great way to creatively engage with each Sunday’s text? Want something to keep your kids on-topic during the sermon on Sunday? Try my Illuminate-You-Own Gospel of Mark. Each story is on a page of its own, with a blank facing page for doodles, prayers, sermon notes, or journal entries. Click the image below to check it out on Amazon. (It’s an affiliate link.)