December 13, 2016

The Annunciations - The Nativity



Luke begins his Nativity narrative with the annunciations of the angel Gabriel to Mary and Zacharias. It seems that Luke purposefully places these two stories next to each other to not only contrast Mary and Zacharias, but also to compare the two miraculous birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

The first annunciation of Gabriel occurs in Jerusalem at the temple to Zacharias, a priest of the course of Abia. The courses of the priests were established during the reign of King David, when there were too many priests to serve in the temple at one given time. Because of their large numbers, King David divided the priests into twenty-four courses, Abia being one of these courses. Each of these courses would serve for one week twice throughout the year, meaning that Zacharias would only have the chance to actually serve in the temple for two weeks during each year.

Temple assignments for the priests, ranging from performing sacrifices to lighting the menorah, were chosen by casting lots. The most honorable assignment was to burn the incense before the veil of the temple. This burning incense was offered every morning and evening in the Holy Place and represented the prayers of Israel ascending to heaven before the veil. This was the closest that Zacharias would ever come to the Holy of Holies, and it appears to be an assignment that he had never previously received.

As part of the ritual, Zacharias, while praying, was to burn a combination of incenses on the golden altar, including interestingly enough, frankincense, one of the gifts of the wise men. Outside, the people would be praying and waiting until Zacharias had finished. After which he would come to the door of the temple to pronounce a blessing upon them. Of course, Zacharias would never be able to pronounce this blessing, because he had been cursed by the angel, adding to the awe and wonder of the people.

The second annunciation of Gabriel occurs in the small village of Nazareth, to an obscure young girl named Mary, who was probably around 12 or 13 at the time. The contrasts between these two annunciation stories is remarkable, and it seems that Luke hopes that we will notice the differences. One occurs to a notable and respected elderly man and temple priest, the other to an unknown young girl. One occurs in Jerusalem, and at the temple, the most holy place in Israel, the other in an obscure village of Galilee, likely in a meager and simple home.

Luke also contrasts the very words of the vision of Gabriel, perhaps to teach us of how we should respond to inspiration from God. Both Zacharias and Mary are visited by the angel Gabriel. Both are told to fear not, and that they would be blessed with a child. Both Zacharias and Mary ask for a sign or for understanding. The angel then gives both of them a sign; in the case of Zacharias he is made dumb and possibly even deaf, and Mary is given the sign that her relative Elizabeth, who has been without child, will conceive a son.

It is interesting to note that while these two visions are very similar, there are also some striking differences, that perhaps help teach us why Zacharias was cursed, while Mary was blessed. One of the differences seems to be in one simple word. When responding to Gabriel, Zacharias asks, "Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years." Yet, Mary responds, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Zacharias is seeking for a sign to know if the angel is really speaking the truth, while Mary simple believes, and only asks how this miracle will actually happen. One other difference is how Mary responds when she says with faith: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Mary not only believed without doubting, she immediately was willing to follow.

It is remarkable to think of the consequences of these annunciations for both Zacharias and Mary. For Zacharias, having a son would be one of the greatest blessing he could receive. Yet for Mary, being unmarried, and pregnant, would likely mean that she would tried before the local synagogue, and be mocked and scorned for years possibly her entire life. Yet Zacharias, a man, a priest, and a respected individual, is the one who seeks a sign, and waivers in believing. While Mary, a young girl, and really a nobody in society, simply believed and trusted that she would be blessed for following God. What remarkable faith and determination Mary had. No wonder, the Father of us all, chose her to be the mother of the Son of God.

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