Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

From Luke (BTCB; forthcoming) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 1: 26-38

When Gabriel tells Mary of her aged cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, it serves to signify that “with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37); this immediate analogy with another providential event in her family seems intuitively confirming for Mary,just as the typological element in Gabriel’s speech provides confirmation for Luke as narrator (Aquinas,Catena Aurea 3.35, quotes Chrysostom to this effect). Much in Gabriel’s proposal is drawn together in very few words, and the response to it by Mary is now immediate: “ecce ancilla Domini” says Mary in the famous Vulgate Latin translation: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (KJV). Mary here offers herself as the doulē, or “bondservant” of the Lord, in words that recall Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11) as well as anticipating the exuberant citation of Joel’s prophecy cited in Acts 2:18. These echoes strengthen our appreciation that Mary’s words are a prayer, offered not to Gabriel himself but to the Lord; she adds a distinctive remark that clarifies her understanding that what is said to her, as in all of these other parallels, is a fulfillment of the word of God himself. For two millennia her words have signified for Christians the obedient heart that remains exemplary for all the faithful: “Be it unto me according to thy word” (KJV). Medieval painters, for whom this scene is cherishable, found it appropriate for altarpiece painting precisely because it reveals that through her obedience the Word is made flesh. Accordingly, they developed a visual iconography that is faithful to Luke’s narrative in such a way as to make of their work a verbal as well as visual icon. In the “Ghent Altarpiece” of the Van Eyck brothers, for example, Mary’s ecce ancilla Domini appears over her head as she looks up, praying, but the words are upside down and reversed, so as to indicate that she speaks neither to us nor to the courtly Gabriel, but directly to the Lord. Typically when Gabriel “appears” in annunciation paintings (especially after Giotto) his courtly body language bespeaks the posture of a royal suitor; also typically he finds Mary reading a psalter or the prophecy of Isa. 7:14; her “be it unto me according to thy word” is often signified by her hand held, palm down, over the open page of scripture (e.g., Roger Van de Weyden, “Three Kings Altarpiece”).[1] In this context we are led both by Luke’s narrative and such well-composed painterly commentaries to see Mary as a devout virgin being “courted,” and her willing obedience as an exemplar for all faithful persons in whom, in a real and analogous sense, the word of the Lord seeks also a nuptial habitation. Calvin reflects a long tradition of earlier biblical readers: “Now if the holy virgin showed herself the handmaid of the Lord precisely in submitting herself freely to his command, then it is the greatest insult if we deny him, by fleeing from him, such obedience as he deserves and asks” (1972: 1.31).

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.



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