Luke 1:26-38. Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent features the Annunciation.  The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, an unmarried maiden in her early teens, and announced that she would give birth to a male heir to the throne of David.  This story is so widely known  that we sometimes overlook the importance of the actual words spoken by the Angel and by Mary.

Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.”Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“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 called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit
"The Annunciation." Fra Angelico, 1439.

Luke wants to tell us several things about Mary in this account of the Annunciation.  First, Luke is emphatic that Mary’s child had no human father. Nor is it an accidental aspect of the story.  Luke tells us in verses 27, twice, that Mary is a virgin, in verse 34 that Mary has no relations with a man, and in verse 35 that Mary would conceive by the Holy Spirit.  Here is the original Greek for Luke 1:27:

πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυὶδ καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ.

Verse 27 tells us that a virgin (parthenos) was betrothed to a man, named Joseph of the House of David, and that the virgin’s name was Mary.  Luke is not ambiguous: he persistently makes the case that Mary was a virgin when she conceived of Jesus.

Parenthetically, in Matthew’s Gospel (1:23), we are told the virgin birth confirms the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Some scholars have argued that the Hebrew word, almah, ought to be translated as maiden or young woman, rather than virgin. However, the Septuagint version of the Old Testament translates the Hebrew term “almah” in Isaiah 7:14 into Greek as “parthenos.”  This word has only one meaning in English: “virgin.”

Mary is Obedient to the Will of God. 
Perhaps of greater interest to contemporary Christians is the figure of Mary as a person of unwaivering faith and firm resolve.  We are alerted to this fact when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is highly favored or full of grace.  While many bible versions translate the Greek  kecharitōmenē as highly favored, the word has its root in the Greek charis – or grace.  To be more specific, Paul’s letters regularly translates the term “charis” as grace.   The term here kecharitōmenē is the passive perfect tense of the verb “to grace.” The perfect tense would be “you graced,” while the passive perfect would be, “you are graced.”
The Gospel author Luke interpolates Gabriel as using the perfect passive tense.  When the Gospel authors record Jesus as saying it is written to cite ancient scripture, they use the perfect passive tense.  The perfect tense is used to refer to a past event which still holds true today. Thus, kecharitōmenē in this context means “Mary, you were (and still are) graced by God.”  Unsurprisingly, the Greek term for you are graced or full of grace is not to be found anywhere else in the New Testament.  The term kecharitōmenē can be found in the New Testament exactly once – to refer to Mary in verse 1:28.
Mary, notwithstanding her extraordinarily humble means, is asked to take on a heroic responsibility, and she does so with enormous serenity and confidence.   At the very least, Mary risks being ostracized, as she will carry a child out of wedlock.  So serious was the matter that Joseph, according to Matthew’s Gospel, considered divorcing Mary, but was convinced otherwise by an angel of the Lord (Mt 1:20).
Yet despite the fact that the Angel Gabriel’s message raises as many questions as it answers, Mary cooperates with the Lord’s will. She responds, Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be it done unto me according to your word.
You Shall Name Him Jesus
The angel Gabriel tells Mary the destiny of her son:
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.
The Angel Gabriel invokes the covenant in 2 Samuel 16: Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.  Gabriel is telling Mary that her son will fulfill the prophecy that, through David’s line, an everlasting kingdom shall be established.  And Luke is careful to tell us that Joseph, the step-father of Jesus, is descended from David (as does Matthew in the geneology of Mt 1:6-16).  Luke tells us that her son will be called Son of the Most High.  Luke borrows a term, Most High, oft used in the psalms (22 times) to describe God.

4 Comments

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  1. It seems odd for you to say, “The angel Gabriel uses the verb in the perfect passive tense.” We know, of course, that it’s the gospel writer, Luke, who is using the verb as Gabriel would not have been speaking Greek to Mary. Likewise, Jesus is not speaking Greek but his words are being interpreted and translated by the author of the gospel.

    • I am glad that you read the post carefully enough to catch my mistake, and I changed the post. In the case of the Annunciation, we only have one translation, and I assume that Luke is faithful to the intent of the original language. You would be right to remind us that this would not always be the case… Luke, Mark and Matthew may place slightly different words on the lips of Jesus for the same event.

      What is most interesting is that “kecharitomene” is only used once in all four Gospels. It is a unique term. The issue is not whether Luke accurately preserved the words that Gabriel spoke, regardless of the original language. The question is, how do we translate kecharitomene from the original source into English? Jerome uses “gratia plena” or “full of grace.” It is not perfect. But I don’t see “highly favored” as superior, since the most common translation for the root of the original term is “graced” not “favored.”

      Actually, the best translation might be “O graced one,” as “favored” does not do justice to the use of the root word “charis.” I would qualify this and say that no one is suggesting that Mary is not fully human here. I do suggest that, as she is the bearer of Jesus Christ, she is certainly the beneficiary of a unique and unmerited grace. It is not theologicaly dubious to call her “graced,” as her mission in the context of the saving work of Jesus Christ is unique.

      It would, on the other hand, be most unfortunate to say Jesus the Son of God was born of a sinner. The Gospels do not lead us to conclude that Mary was prone to sin. If that is the case, this is not by her own merit that such a grace was won. She received an unmerited grace necessary to bring about the birth of the Christ.

      cheers

      • I agree that the important question here is the translation of “kecharitomene” and there are good arguments for both “full of grace” and “highly favored.” Perhaps we need to read them both to capture the richness of the meaning rather than choosing between the two.

        Regarding Mary and sin–I don’t think there is evidence of her being any more nor any less “prone to sin” than any other human being. She was graced/favored/blessed by God in taking part in the incarnation of Jesus. Why would we need to raise her up to some “sinless” state in order for this to be?

      • That is a good question. From in inter-faith perspective, you have a valid point. The Gospels do not explicitly tell us that Mary was without sin, either as a result of a grace received at conception or because she avoided sin as a result of graces received throughout her life. On the other hand, Mary is one of the few figures in the Gospels for whom there is no account of her sinning, nor of her faith being completely shaken. The Gospel’s silence on this point is worthy of comment.

        The early Fathers of the church speak not of an “immaculate conception,” but they tell us that Mary was “pure,” “unblemished,” “spared from sin,” etc.

        This understanding was early. The twelve apostles must have had a high regard for Mary, as the early Fathers of the church record that opinion. Mary was so highly esteemed that the eastern church did not merely believe her to be pure; they presumed that she was assumed or taken into heaven, like Elijah.

        Around the tenth century and later, theologians argued whether Mary was sinless, and whether this potentially sinless state was intrinsic to her nature, or simply a virtue or grace of managing to avoid sin.

        The Eastern Orthodox argue that Mary was born in a state akin to Eve prior to the fall, but they do not use the term “immaculate conception.” For this reason, Christians often say poetically that Mary “untied the knot” of sin introduced by Eve and Adam.

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