Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 1:26-38

As the curtain rises on this second scene, Mary is described simply as “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (1:27). That is all.

There is no description of her domicile; it is simply inferred from the verb (eiselthon, “entering,” typically used with reference to “coming into” a house) that she is at home privately, precisely as one would expect a young woman of that time to be, in seclusion from the gaze of men. In such a culture, the virginity of a young woman was both her own and her family’s central concern, a matter of honor.

We, who live in a time of sexual laxity more resembling Roman than a normatively halakic Jewish culture, may too easily underestimate the degree to which sexual purity was then integral to both personal and family honor.

It is exceedingly unlikely that a man other than her father or younger siblings would have access to a young woman in her familial home. Thus, we should not be at all surprised that Mary was taken aback by the appearance of the angel Gabriel. Here we need to bear in mind that there is no reason for us to imagine that Mary was confronted with one of the angels as imagined by the painters, whose wings are visual attributes designed to distinguish them symbolically from humans: Dan. 9:21, for example, refers to “the man Gabriel.” That he was not, however, human but a divine emissary must have been suggested by his bearing or radiance.

That Mary is a virgin, moreover, is emphasized by repetition of the term parthenon. This firm identification heightens the sense of the extraordinary in the event of Gabriel’s direct address to Mary (Hebrew Miriam), since, as we have seen, it was so unusual in Jewish culture for any man, let alone a strange man, to salute a woman, especially an unmarried woman, directly (Lightfoot 1979: 3.25).

But what he says is still more extraordinary: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28). The term kecharitōmenē (“highly favored one”) is highly unusual, precedented in the Septuagint only in Dan. 10, where Gabriel is likewise the speaker, and it establishes here a connection between Mary as singular “chosen one” and her most saintly Old Testament predecessor in relationship to the eschatological fulfillment of God’s purpose to redeem his people.

Mary is perhaps to all outward appearances quite ordinary, but in the divine perspective she is to be revealed as extraordinary on a level yet unimagined in her culture. (Gabriel’s form of address to her, his calling her kecharitōmenē , suggests in historic Catholic exegesis her having found favor before the angel declares it; the parallel with Daniel supports that implication.)

The subversion of normative cultural expectation is heightened in several ways, some highlighted by the pairing of this narrative with that of the announcement to Zacharias of John’s birth: special births in scripture had always been announced to the father to be; this time it is the woman who hears first. Gabriel says to Mary, “The Lord is with you,” not merely in greeting but in the context a strong affirmation of her chosenness. The following phrase, “blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28), is missing from some manuscripts but anticipates the response of Elizabeth in 1:42.

All of this together makes the angel’s greeting a stunning indication of Mary’s importance to what follows.

 

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