Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord
Isaiah 7:10-14; 8:10 Hebrews 10:4-10 Luke 1:26-28
Birth Announcement stories are not unusual in sacred scripture; one simply has to know how to recognize them. Three men (also called angels) visited Abraham in Genesis 18 and one of them announced to Abraham, “I will surely return to you in due season, and Sarah will have a son.” At this, Sarah, eavesdropping through the wall of the tent, laughed, and got into trouble with Abraham. But she did conceive, and bore a son, at the age of about 89 years (no wonder she laughed!) according to the text. At the shrine of Shiloh in Samaria (a principal place of worship before the Jerusalem Temple was built), Eli the priest begrudgingly apologized to Hannah, whom he had wrongly presumed to have been drunk. He said to her, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (1st Samuel 1). Hannah, the barren of Elkanah’s two wives, had come to Shiloh to ask God for a child. Returning home, she and her husband conceived Samuel, the greatest prophet since Moses (ca 1050 BC). It was from Hannah’s Canticle (1st Samuel 2) that the Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff) borrowed greatly. Likewise, Isaiah the prophet announced (ca 720s BC) that the wife of King Ahaz of Judah would conceive and bear a child (see today’s first reading, Isaiah 7), hoping to encourage him to be a more pro-active and effective king because he was to have an heir for whom to provide. And, of course, in the New Testament, Luke recounted the angelic annunciation to the aged Zechariah (Luke 1:5ff) before the miraculous conception, birth and naming of John, to be known as the Baptist. This preceded by a few months the angelic Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, later called Theotokos (Greek for “God bearer” or “Mother of God”). There are at least this many important biblical birth announcement stories!
The Annunciation narrative about Jesus’ conception, birth and naming in Luke’s Gospel account serves in the lectionary as the antidote for the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. The temptation to become like God had appealed to Eve (Genesis 3:5). Gabriel’s announcement of God’s saving and corrective grace burst into humanity through Mary, for God would become human. Gabriel announced the news, and after some intense personal, emotional travail, along with some encouraging angelic persuasion, Mary assented. She, the New Eve, became the mother of God Incarnate, the New “mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). Mary can be said to have been the first to hear and embrace the Gospel of the Incarnation, and was, thus, the first Christian from that very moment of Annunciation and miraculous conception.
The vehicle of announcement is essential to the Good News. It is the function of lectors, deacons and homilists. Isaiah’s prophetic message about a young woman, conceiving a child, and whose name means God is with us – all this was meant to be good news to King Ahaz of Judah who was terribly anxious, and to all Jerusalem as well, as both king and people watched from a distance while their northern Jewish cousins, the Kingdom of Israel, fell to the Assyrian Empire (ca 722 BC). Should they turn and run? Stand fast and fight? Surrender and grovel? Isaiah, a prophet in Judah, of noble birth and familiar with Judah’s high and mighty, worked hard to encourage and steer Ahaz along a path of virtue and fortitude. In fact, Assyria did not lay siege to the Kingdom of Judah which would endure for more than another century. But, Isaiah’s words would be appreciated out of their original context, reinterpreted by early Christians, and understood to be a prediction of that of which the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation was the fulfillment. Thus, we read the Beginning of the Good News (Mark 1:1), the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14), the time of fulfillment is near at hand (Mark 1:15) – the story of God’s saving presence grows and evolves, is heard and reflected upon, and is proclaimed and applied to human life in every age and locale by those who embraced it. Discipleship in the fullest sense requires that each disciple announce the Good news in the ordinary ways of life. Note the two components: (a) announcement, and (b) good news. The Gospel being announced is not misery, grimness, judgment, terror, fear or impending doom. Those who claim to be Christian and who attribute to God the pedagogical tool of wrath, pestilence and destruction are unfaithful and of twisted hope. Sometimes they are religious scam artists who seriously misrepresent the Gospel message and seem at the same time to enjoy abusing and manipulating the weak-minded and vulnerable who want to believe, but who sadly fall under their influence. The healthy Church proclaims (announces) news that is truly constructive for people. The true Gospel message is edifying, hope-filled, forgiving, attractive, intelligent, reasonable, merciful, encouraging, engaging, humorous, insightful, wise, exhortative, strong, loving, prayerful, consoling, healing, just, peace-filled, etc. Anything less is from another source, not from the Good God of Israel, the God of Jesus of Nazareth, the God who is love. Beware of any who preach using fear and trepidation. Give respect only to the Gospel of Goodness.
The Letter to the Hebrews (i.e., early Jewish Christians) spent a lot of time relating the Risen Jesus to the Temple ritual of 1st Century Jewish culture by means of Christian re-interpretation. Jesus was the fulfillment (completion) of the Torah. He replaced temple sacrifice with his own. His priesthood replaced the Temple high priesthood. He was at once the priest, altar and lamb of sacrifice. In other words, by embracing the Risen Christ, the Jewish Christians could let go of the Jerusalem Temple culture, an idea that became an absolute necessity when the Temple was violently destroyed in 70 AD. Today’s second lesson, although a bit obscure to the modern way of thinking, offered consolation and encouragement the early Jewish Christians. Their faith was evolving, moving from received Judaism to a Jewish-Christianity and further on to a Gentile-Christianity, allowing the Risen Lord to lead them to a life in a New Covenant, holy, loving and complete. The same Gospel encourages us likewise to continue to evolve and develop in our faith.
Today’s feast is one of the principal solemn feasts of the Church year. It is not a devotional feast, i.e., one focused on Mary as a member of the Communion of Saints. It is a theological feast, i.e., one which articulates, and begs reflection upon, an essential Gospel mystery, the Incarnation. It marks the liturgical recognition of the moment of shift between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This Annunciation began the greatest reform process in humanity’s religious and theological history. The ethnic faith first instilled in Abraham and Sarah, which took on a religious identity with Moses, Miriam and Aaron, which later stabilized and became landed with the likes of Joshua and Samuel, which received significant political status with Kings David and Solomon, and whose conscience matured to holiness with the critical minds, eyes and voices of the prophets – this faith was about to embrace the ideal, the very Spirit of God for all of humanity. The fullness of this insight will be celebrated on the Solemn Feast of the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) some nine months hence. In the meantime, we must listen for, and hear as effectively as we are able, the Good News who’s beginning was announced privately and quietly by an angel to a humble young woman, who’s personal fiat (Latin for “Let it be done...”) was likely the most significant since the Creator’s own. Do you say “Yes” to engaging life fully? If so, you receive two guarantees: (a) life will be messy, and (b) God will be with us, indeed!