December 7, 2014

The Annunciations

Luke begins his Nativity narrative with the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary and Zacharias. It seems to be very clear that Luke was purposefully trying to place these two stories next to each other so you could see a difference between not only these two individuals, Mary and Zacharias, but also between these stories, both the birth of John the Baptist, and the birth of Jesus Christ. Though John's birth is miraculous, he is born of natural means, while Jesus’ birth is unnatural and impossible (though with God, nothing is impossible).

The story begins by telling of the angel who comes to both Mary and Zacharias and telling of the foretold child (see Luke 1:11 and 1:28). Both accounts mention the circumcising and naming of the child (see Luke 1:59 and 2:21). Both accounts tell of family, friends, and others who are amazed at the events of the birth of these two individuals (see Luke 1:58 and 2:18). It also speaks that both children "grew and waxed strong in the spirit" (see Luke 1:80 and 2:40). However, there is one difference here, it mentions that Jesus was "filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him." Now this is not to mean that John the Baptist did not have the grace of God or wisdom, but it again shows that Luke is trying to contrast a prophet, who is great, with the Messiah, the Son of God.

Interestingly enough, the story that Luke begins with, begins in the temple. Of the six stories in Luke 1 and 2, half of them happen in the temple, showing the emphasis that Luke puts upon the temple within his writings (both the gospel of Luke and Acts).

The first annunciation by Gabriel comes to Zacharias. Zacharias was a descendant of Aaron, and of the course of Abia. During the reign of King David there were so many priests, so many descendants of Aaron that King David decided to divide them up into twenty-four courses, so Abia was one of these twenty-four courses. Each of these courses throughout the year would serve one week twice throughout the year, meaning that Zacharias would only have the chance to be in the temple and actually serve for two weeks during the entire year.

Again, because there were so many priests, each of the specific assignments were drawn by lot. The greatest assignment was to burn the incense before the veil of the temple. This incense was significant because it represented the prayers of the righteous ascending to heaven before the veil of the temple, and it was the closest place that Zacharias would ever come to the Holy of Holies. It is significant that one of the spices that was used within the incense is actually frankincense, thus tying the gift given to Christ from the wise men to the temple ritual.

Priests burning incense on the altar (image from Temple Institute)
Once the priest had entered in the temple on that morning and had burned the incense, he then would exit the temple and pronounce a blessing on the people. Of course, Zacharias would never be able to pronounce this blessing because he had been made unable to speak by the angel Gabriel.

Again, it seems that one of the things that Luke is trying to do is put these two stories right next to each other, purposefully trying to show us and teach us how we should act when we receive inspiration or a revelation from God. The angel Gabriel appears to both Mary and Zacharias (see Luke 1:11 and 1:28). Both are told to fear not, and that they would be blessed with a child (see Luke 1:13 and 1:30-31). Both Zacharias and Mary ask for a sign or for understanding (see Luke 1:18 and 1:34). The angel then gives both of them a sign; in the case of Zacharias he is made dumb and possibly even deaf (see Luke 1:20), and Mary is given the sign that she will see Elizabeth with child even though Elizabeth had been claimed to be barren (see Luke 1:36).

So what is the difference? How is it that one is cursed and one is blessed? One of the differences seems to be in one simple word. In Zacharias’s account, it reads, “and Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18). Yet, Mary says, “then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). Zacharias is seeking for a sign to know if the angel is really speaking of the truth, while Mary believes, yet is only asking how it will actually happen.

One of the other things that differentiate this story is how Mary also responds: “and Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Mary not only believed, and was only asking for clarification of how it would happen, but she immediately said “I will do as you would have me do.” You have to realize the consequences of this decision. She would be mocked and scorned for years possibly her whole life; people thinking that she had committed adultery when she really was innocent. And yet she humbly and quickly accepted the will of God. This is a powerful testimony up who Mary was. It is no wonder of why God choose Mary to be the mother of His own Son!

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