In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The 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. 36And 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then 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.
Literally from Greek: But in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, out of the house of David. And the name of the virgin (was) Miriam. And he came to her and said, "Rejoice, graced one. The Lord is with you." But she was thoroughly confused at the word and pondered what sort this greeting might be. And the angel said to her, "Fear not, Miriam, for you have found grace from God. And behold! You will become pregnant in womb and you will bring forth a son, and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called son of the highest, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David, his father. And he will reign upon the house of Jacob into the eternal, and his kingdom will not end." But Miriam said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" The angel answered and said to her, "A holy spirit will come upon you, and the highest power will overshadow you. Therefore, the one being born will be called holy, a son of God. And behold! your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month of her, the one said to be barren. For each word from God will not be impossible." But Miriam said, "Behold a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
The passage appears only in Luke, and expresses at least two major themes in Luke, his accent on the role of women and the role of the Holy Spirit. More than any other gospel, Luke lifts up women. For example, his annunciation story follows right after the visit of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah. True to form for Luke, the man, Zechariah, doesn't really get it, but the woman, Miriam, does.
Likewise, the child in Elizabeth will have the "spirit of Elijah," but the child in Mary will be from the "holy spirit." Later on, Luke will frequently use the phrase "in the power of the Spirit." He is careful, though, to make sure that his first use of "holy spirit" is in connection with Jesus.
Translating from Greek, I'm surprised at the number of translation errors in the NRSV. Mary does not say, "for I am a virgin." The phrase should be translated "for I do not know a man." Secondly, there is no definite article in front of "holy spirit." Literally, it should be "a holy spirit." ("Son of God" is the same way.) In verse 37, NRSV says, "For nothing will be impossible with God." It should be: "For each word from God will not be impossible."
My guess is that the translation committee opted for traditional theology over the actual words of the Greek text. From this side of the trinitarian debates, we read "a holy spirit" as the Holy Spirit, "a son of God" as the "Son of God," and "the highest" as the "Most High." (None of these are capitalized, incidentally, in the Greek text.) The evangelist Luke, friend of Paul, author of the third gospel and the book of Acts, was less pious in telling his story than his translators have been in translating it.
The doctrine of the virgin birth comes rather later in Christian history than is often thought. The earliest New Testament writer, the apostle Paul, writing around AD 50, never mentions it and says only that Jesus was "born of a woman" (Gal 4:4). The earliest gospel writer, Mark, writing around AD 70, starts his gospel with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Only Matthew and Luke say that Mary was a virgin, and they were written around AD 80. (Writing later than Luke, the fourth gospel also says nothing about a virgin birth.)
These early witnesses appear to be struggling with how to think of Jesus, specifically the "how" and "when" of Jesus' divinity. Paul sometimes gives the impression that Jesus became "Son of God" upon his resurrection. Mark gives the impression that Jesus became "Son of God" at his baptism. Matthew and Luke roll it back earlier to his birth, which is why they both mention the virginity of Mary--or "Miriam," as she is more properly called. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born by a special action of God right from the very beginning of his life. Even this, however, was not enough for the author of the fourth gospel. The author of the fourth gospel rolls the divinity of Jesus back before the beginning of creation. Subsequent theology has sided with the fourth gospel.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which meant that they were engaged to be married. Engagement in those days was tantamount to marriage. It was a binding agreement. The woman would typically continue to live with her parents for up to a year, although it was not unknown for the couple to begin to live together right away. Essentially, an engagement in those days amounted to the passing of control over the woman from the father to the husband. Women would get married around the ages of 13-15, the men around the ages 17-22.
Luke draws a close parallel between the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. (See Joseph Fitzmeyer, The Gospel according to Luke, pp. 314-315.) The birth of John is announced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the temple. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, who is "terrified." Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid, and that "Elizabeth will bear you a son." He is to be named John, and he "will be great. The birth of Jesus involves Mary and Joseph (1:27), in Nazareth (1: 26). Gabriel appears to Mary, who is "perplexed." Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that "you...will bear a son." "You will name him Jesus," and "he will be great." (There's more. See Fitzmeyer for a complete exposition.)
For Luke, John the Baptist is the "symbol, synthesis, conclusion and consummation of the Old Testament" (Borg and Crossan. See The First Christmas, pp. 113ff). This is why his mother is presented as aged. She is like Hannah, who gave birth to the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1: 1-19). As the "old age" is consummated in John the Baptist, the "new age" begins with the birth of Jesus. His mother is not old, but rather a young virgin.
The angel Gabriel addresses Mary three times in this text. First, he gives the greeting xaire, which literally means "grace to you," and was a common greeting in the world of that time. He calls her "favored one"--or "graced one"--and says, "The Lord is with you."
In his second address, Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that she has "found grace" with God. Her pregnancy is announced by idou--behold!--unfortunately not translated in NRSV. Like John the Baptist, "he will be great," but unlike John the Baptist, Jesus will be "son of the highest," and will rule on the "throne of David" over the "house of Jacob." Luke thus associates Jesus with Israel's greatest king and with Israel's primary progenitor.
In Gabriel's third speech, the angel tells Mary that the child will be born from the Holy Spirit and the "highest power"--"Most High," in NRSV. The child will be "holy," "a son of God." Readers will notice that Luke mentions the "highest power" twice. The "highest power" in the world of that time was Caesar Augustus--the word "augustus" means "worthy of being worshipped--who was also called "son of God." (He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been elevated to "god-hood.") Luke is being subtly subversive. He is saying that, no, Caesar is not the "highest power." God is. And Caesar is not the true "son of God." Jesus is.
Also in Gabriel's third speech, the angel tells Mary of Elizabeth's conception. Any first century Jewish person would have recognized the parallels between Elizabeth's condition and that of both Sarah (Gen 17: 7) and Hannah in the Old Testament. Elizabeth's conception, Mary would have understood, is through an action of God.
"For each word from God will not be impossible," then says Gabriel. Mary is to understand that though her situation is some different from Elizabeth's, Sarah's, and Hannah's--she is not aged--nevertheless, her conception is a word--rhema--from God and will happen. Mary responded with her own "behold" statement: "Behold, a servant--doule, slave--of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." For Luke, Mary is the primary witness and the model of faithful obedience.
Note also that, in Luke's other work, the book of Acts, after the resurrection of Jesus and just after his ascension, the disciples are all together and among their number are "certain women," and Mary, "the mother of Jesus," and his brothers. As Mary was present, obviously, at the birth of Jesus, so Mary is also present at the birth of the church. She is the human link between these two miraculous births.
The Annunciation is one of the most frequent subjects in the history of art. The image above is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.