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, favored 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 favor 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.
Translation: 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.
Background and situation: The passage appears only in Luke. The book of Luke has just begun and we can already see brought to expression 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.
In regard to "spirit", the child in Elizabeth will be "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (1:15) and have the "spirit of Elijah" (1:17). The Holy Spirit is intimately connected with the conception of Jesus (1:35). Luke will frequently use the phrase "in the power of the Spirit" in both Luke and Acts.
The annunciation: In the late first century, it appears that the early church was beginning to deal with the question of when Jesus became "Son of God." Paul, writing in the 50's, doesn't seem particularly interested in this question, though sometimes gives the impression that Jesus became "Son of God" at the resurrection. (See Rom 1: 3-4, for example.)
The earliest gospel writer, Mark, writing around AD 70, starts his gospel with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. For Mark, it appears that this is when Jesus became God's son. If all we had was the gospel of Mark, we'd all be "adoptionists," i.e. the idea that Jesus was "adopted" by God in his baptism and that this is when he became the "Son of God."
Matthew and Luke, writing 10-15 years later than Mark, roll Jesus' divinity back to his birth. Jesus was the "Son of God" at his conception. Naturally, the birth of a divine figure would be accompanied by miraculous signs, such as the virginity of his mother, which is why the two gospels which proclaim Jesus' divinity from birth are the same two gospels which mention the virginity of Mary.
Even this, of course, was not enough for the author of the fourth gospel, writing c. AD 95. 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--more properly, "Miriam"--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 young 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. Marriages were arranged by families. The girls would usually be married right after puberty, around the ages of 12-14, the men around the ages 17-22.
Luke draws a close parallel between the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. 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 Miriam and Joseph (1:27), in Nazareth (1: 26). Gabriel appears to Miriam, who is "perplexed." Gabriel tells Miriam not to be afraid, and that "you...will bear a son." "You will name him Jesus," and "he will be great." (See Joseph Fitzmeyer, The Gospel according to Luke, pp. 314-315.)
The two stories are connected for an important reason. 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. Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist close one age. Joseph, Miriam, and Jesus inaugurate the new.
The angel Gabriel addresses Miriam three times in this text. That amounts to one speech for each use of the word "virgin." Luke probably intended this. The word "virgin" appears twice in verse 27, which is followed by two of Gabriel's speeches. Miriam uses the word herself in verse 34, whereupon Gabriel gives her his most important and final message: The child is from the "Holy Spirit" and "the highest power."
In his first speech, Gabriel greets Miriam with xaire, which literally means "grace to you." This was a common greeting in the world of that time, like "good day" or "howdy". Luke probably intends the literal meaning as well. Gabriel calls Miriam a "favored one"--or "graced one"--and says, "The Lord is with you."
In his second address, Gabriel tells Miriam 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, her child "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 Miriam 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 Miriam 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. Miriam 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 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." "Let it be" is genoito, (aorist, middle, optative). It implies origin, either from natural causes, or through special agency. Miriam promises non-interference in what God may be doing.
This is at the heart of Luke's purpose. The important characteristic of virginity, for Luke, is that it means the child can only be met with receptivity by human beings. We humans can do nothing to bring the new age about. We can not kick it into gear, or make it happen. We may only "let it be to me."
This is indeed a great word of wisdom. "When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom, let it be." Letting things be is, you might say, "going with the flow."
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 Miriam, "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.
Image: Annunciation, John Collier