On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we prepare to “turn the corner” into the Christmas season. We hear Mary’s words of obedient faith. And we pray that the same kind of faith might come to birth in us. I think of the words of my favorite Christmas carol, “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem.”
“Oh, holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
That is always my Christmas prayer.
1. The Call of Mary
We “begin” a fourth time in Advent – from the birth pangs to the gospel to the witness and now to the divine creation out of nothing –heading toward the actual birth. As Levine and Witherington note in their commentary, “The one miracle greater than that of a postmenopausal woman conceiving is that of a virgin conceiving.” When Mary wonders about the mechanism of this miracle, Gabriel’s answer in verse 35 echoes the language of Creation.
In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep and brings order out of the chaotic waters. In Luke’s writing (remember that “Luke” wrote both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles), the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary here and to the disciples in Acts 1:8ff. In other places in Luke, the verb for “overshadow” is used to indicate the coming of judgment and the great reversal at the end of the age. Perhaps this is a nod toward the reversals mentioned in Mary’s song, historically called the Magnificat.
Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the word for “overshadow” has an additional and deeper meaning. “Further,” they write, “the Greek verb translated ‘will overshadow you’ is used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible to describe God shielding and protecting (Ps. 90:4; 139:7; Prov. 18:11). Mary is thus described as empowered and protected by God…” (page 288).
This text is often called the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary of the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth and her own entry into the family way. Commentators note, however, that this text has much more the flavor of a prophetic call story than that of a birth announcement. Levine and Witherington remind us that “Mary” is just a translation of the Hebrew name, “Miriam.” Miriam is the first of many women in the Hebrew Bible who participate actively in and then sing about God’s triumphant salvation.
Mary wonders what sort of greeting she has received. We might wonder what sort of prophet we encounter here. “The evangelist Luke does not exalt Mary as a goddess, or as a mother, or even as a woman,” Mark Allan Powell writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “He thinks she has a more important role, as the ideal Christian. In the Third Gospel, Mary becomes the model for Christian discipleship, the person who all people, men and women alike should emulate, especially if they wish to follow her son.”
This ideal Christian moves from terrified to incredulous to obedient – all in the span of nine verses. The word the NRSV translates as “perplexed” would be better translated as “terrified,” according to Levine and Witherington (page 34). This makes more sense of Gabriel’s words of calm and comfort to the young woman. Any prophetic call worth the bother should begin with terror at the prospect of seeing the Lord of the universe face to face. Mary finds herself in line, for example, with Isaiah and his vision in Isaiah 6.
In the middle of the text, we have both the naming of Jesus and the description of his role and mission. Jesus, the new Joshua (“Jesus” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew/Aramaic name “Yeshua”), will lead God’s people into the promised land of God’s blessing. He will be the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. He will be king of Israel and heir of David. He will claim and fulfill the royal promises and messianic hopes of Israel, including those found in our first reading from 2 Samuel 7.
Notable as always is the title “Son of God.” Remember that the Roman emperors claim this title as their own – on coinage and statues and official proclamations. “Son of God” is not only about origin and descent. It is about authority and mission. Mary is the first, in Luke’s account, to hear the good news of Jesus and, quite literally, to bear that news to the world.
Mary assents to this prophetic and apostolic role. It’s worth looking at that assent in detail. Karoline Lewis notes this rapid transition in Mary’s vocation. “Any sermon on this text worth its weight will somehow create, expand, and eventually resolve, to a certain extent, and as much as is theologically possible, the tension between “How can this be” and “Let it be with me according to your word,” Lewis writes in her 2011 workingpreacher.org commentary.
“Here am I,” Mary says. Again, I find us in the divine throne room with the prophet Isaiah. “Here am I,” he declares, “send me.” It is conceivable (pardon the pun) that either Isaiah or Mary could have refused the call. God rarely kidnaps people into prophecy. In the face of this impossible possibility, Mary accepts her calling and opens herself to whatever may come.
“Here am I,” Mary says, “the slave of the Lord.” The NRSV translation softens the term Mary uses. It is the Greek doule, not diakone. The word literally means “female slave.” Commentators note that this text has often been used to exalt a kind of passive submission as a virtue. In this way, the assumptions of enslavement are underwritten and encouraged. In a time when more women and children are enslaved globally for the purposes of sex trafficking than ever before in human history, such a reading is troubling.
Levine and Witherington provide some help in this regard. “Alternatively, Mary’s self-designation can function as an ironic indicator of both personal freedom and complete devotion,” they write, “the only master Mary has is God, and she willingly places herself in divine hands…” To be a slave of God is to be free from every other master, which is to be truly and fully free to be what God has created us to be.
The description, they continue, also associates Mary with other “slaves of the Lord” in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles: Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Zerubbabel, Paul, and James. “Mary thus situates herself,” Levine and Witherington conclude, “among kings, prophets, apostles, and evangelists.” Mary is, for Luke and for us, a model of the “obedience of faith” we will find in the second reading for this Sunday.
Lewis suggests that preaching on this text “will move us from the absence of God (1:34), to the presence of God (1:35), to the fulfillment of the promises of God (1:36)….Somehow, someway,” she concludes, “a sermon on this text will negotiate the radical transformation…from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship.” With God indeed all things are possible. With Mary as our model and inspiration, perhaps we too can consider our prophetic callings, no matter how humble our circumstances or spirits.
More on this text tomorrow…
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Lewis, Karoline, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/marys-response.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.
Powell, Mark Allan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3. Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-71-11-16-5