“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1,26-38)
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
1. Luke constructs the Infancy Narrative in the light of Old Testament themes and stories.
Here in Luke 1,26-38, the Evangelist imitates the form of Old Testament birth annunciations – for example, those to Abraham about Isaac’s birth in Genesis 17; to Samson’s parents about his birth in Judges 13, and of Old Testament missioning or call stories – for example, those to Moses in Exodus 3; to Gideon in Judges 6.
The pattern includes the appearance of an angel of the Lord or the Lord Himself, a reaction of fear, an announcement about the birth of a son, an objection from the person who receives the announcement, ‘How so?’, and the giving of a sign to reassure the recipient.
Further, the narrative is constructed principally on a parallelism of the announcements of the conception of John the Baptist and Jesus – J. A. Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism. New Testament Answers (NY 1991) 29.
2. By such construction, Luke relates the story of Jesus to Old Testament history and prepares the reader for the career of Jesus, destined to play a significant role in the history of salvation.
3. From Mary, the recipient’s point of view, the Word of God – not any other word since it is communicated by an angel sent by God (Luke 1,26) – comes to her as it came to her ancestors like Abraham, Moses, Gideon and Samson’s parents. She embraces their sentiments and reacts, just like them, with fear and objection. Thus it is in the model of the hearers of God’s Word in the Old Testament that Luke portrays Mary, the new recipient, and hearer of God’s Word.
4. V. 29 depicts Mary’s initial reaction to the Word, just communicated to her by God: “But she was greatly troubled at the saying and was questioning what sort of greeting this might be.” Thus in this verse, Luke introduces Mary as someone who reflects, meditates on things that she hears and that happen and tries to grasp their meaning. As Stock comments, “Mary does not allow the meaning of the word and the action of God escape her; she does not follow her own path blindly and unreasonably. She is present with her whole being to God and she becomes personally involved in what is happening to her. She gives a wonderful example of reflection and contemplation” – Stock, Mary, 63.
This is true to her character portrayed throughout the infancy narrative: Luke 2,19.51.
5. In v. 34, Mary raises a question, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” What does “this” (‘touto’ in Greek Text) mean?
Kilgallen explains it this way (Kilgallen, “A Comment on Luke 1:31-35”, ET 112/12 (2001) 413. Here she is immediately concerned with the fact of her virginity and thus, “this” refers, from her point of view – from “what is Mary’s immediate concern” – to the earliest part of the angelic revelation in v. 31: “… you will conceive in your womb and bear a son …” “The direct and explicit intent of Mary’s question is to seek an explanation of how a virgin will conceive.”
Further, Kilgallen explains, the second half of her question underlines her assumption. She does not say, ‘I am a virgin’ but, ‘I know not a man.’ Without repeating the word, virgin, already used in v. 27, Luke employs this latter expression to emphasize her assumption. That is, she assumes that the child will be conceived through a man.
We may conclude “Thus, Mary’s full question to the angel represents a question about the manner of a virgin conceiving (‘how?’) and the assumption that a conception can only take place through a man (‘I know not a man’).”
6. Is that all Mary is concerned with? Does “this” refer only to the earliest part of the angelic revelation in v. 31 that we discussed above?
Once again we turn to Kilgallen (Kilgallen, “The Conception of Jesus (Luke 1,35)”, Bib 78/2 (1997) 226-227). He reaps for us a big crop of Lucan citations: Luke 18,36; 22,19; 24,40; Acts 2,12.14; 10,16 + 11,10; 16,18; 19,10.17; 23,7; 24,14; 26,16; 27,34.
These citations demonstrate that “this” refers to “a complex antecedent and not just to one part of the antecedent.” Now he argues that also in Luke 1,34 “the pronoun can equally refer to all that the angel has announced.”
Thus Mary in v. 34 asks both how the conception can happen – as announced in v. 31 – as well as how all what the angel has described – in vv. 32-33 in the language shaped by the prophetic imagery of Nathan’s oracle delivered to David in 2 Sam 7,10-14 – can be realized. Here lies the complete nature of Mary’s question.
7. Does this Mary’s question in v. 34 “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” betray, by any means, any disbelief on her part in the Word of God which she has just listened to?
First, we must understand the context or the disposition in which she asks this question. At the very outset of the scene in v. 29, Mary is depicted as troubled or perplexed. She is troubled by the words of the angel (Luke 1,29). A rabbinic tradition attributed to R. Shemuel (as in the Babylonian Talmud, Qiddushin 70a) records an opinion that males extend to a woman no greeting at all. So, when someone, not a woman, especially an angel greets her, a woman a common salutation “Hail” she gets, no wonder, perplexed. Her perplexity is only increased by the substance of the angel’s message in vv. 31-33. It is in such increased perplexity that she raises this question in v. 34.
Second, Mary puts the right question in relation to her actual situation. Her question is not absurd as Bultmann thinks for a bride but it is important for her as Fitzmyer thinks. She already has a man, a husband, Joseph. She is betrothed to him and yet, remains ‘parthenos’ (Luke 1,27) – which we may translate as ‘a virgin’– i.e. the legally ratified marriage has taken place, but she has not yet come ‘to know a man’ in Mary’s euphemistic language or ‘to share bed and board with him’ in our crude terms. So she rightly asks this significant question: how the Word just spoken to her can be accomplished in her being still a virgin without having sexual relations with her husband?
Third, we have to look at Mary’s question or interrogative discourse from a literary point of view. We may deal with this now, as it clearly answers our initial question. As clearly seen in the above table, an objection is also a common feature of the annunciation pattern. It should be treated as a standard literary device that is employed by sacred authors to advance the dialogue and narrative. In the case of Mary too, by her objection, the dialogue is advanced – as the angel explains that the conception will be by the Holy Spirit (who appears, true to Lucan style, at the beginning of this new stage in the narrative) and the power of the Most High, and so, the child will be called holy. Further, he gives the pregnancy of Elizabeth as a sign – and the narrative is advanced as well – the sign involving Elizabeth’s pregnancy prepares for the next scene: the Visitation.
Moreover, already the reader is told in v. 27 that the protagonist is a virgin and thus prepared in hand for this question in v. 34. In Fitzmyer’s terms, “This term [virgin in v. 27] and the following phrase prepare for 1:34.” On the other hand, Mary’s words in v. 34 explain her picture as a virgin in v. 27. Hence, Mary’s question casts no doubts or traces of disbelief in the Word she receives and hears. She only seeks further elucidation about the Messiah in regard to the conception and realization of all the angel has described. She remains the one who faithfully listens to the Word of God with a diligent mind.
Further, the term ‘virgin’ and Mary’s subsequent question point to the angel’s explanation of a conception by the Holy Spirit. They also verify, we observe, the angel’s explanation: ‘If a virgin without having yet any sexual relations with her betrothed husband conceives legally, she should do so only by some supernatural means which the angel proposes.’ Luke’s particular diction of ‘parthenos’ instead of ‘pais’ (girl) or ‘paidiske’ (maid) or ‘korasion’ (maiden) and the subsequent question of Mary thus clearly manifest his intention here that he wants to stress the point of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit.
8. Luke presents Mary as the first one to hear the Gospel. We say this because the words of the angel in vv. 32.33.35 reflect the post-resurrectional Gospel of the early Church. Jesus is called, for example, God’s Son by the angel to Mary. It is after the Resurrection that the apostles went and preached this – in the language shaped by the prophetic imagery of Nathan delivered to David in 2 Samuel 7,10-14. Paul preached it in Antioch of Pisidia as in Acts 13,33. Here Jesus’ sonship is related to the Resurrection: “… by raising Jesus.” This becomes very clear in Romans 1,4 where the divine sonship of Jesus is related to His Resurrection: “and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead …” Hence it is clear that what the early Church has said about Jesus after the Resurrection is brought back or retrojected to the Annunciation scene and let Mary hear this Gospel. As Fitzmyer phrases it, “There is now evidence to show that “Son of God” was used in Palestinian Judaism in pre-Christian times by Aramaic speakers […] When these post-resurrectional titles appear earlier in the gospel tradition […] they are to be regarded as retrojections of the evangelists who used the earthly Jesus titles current for him in the post-resurrection period or in their own day …”
Thus she is cherished as the first to hear the Gospel – the Word of God to be proclaimed after and in relation to the Resurrection.
9. Luke not only portrays Mary as someone who hears God’s Word but also as someone who accepts and obeys God’s Word. To the angel’s Christological revelation, she responds, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” With these words, she chooses to become the instrument of God who is at work in the marvellous conception of Jesus without male partner.
10. But does she fully comprehend this Word of God? Neither does she fully understand all that God asks of her nor does she fully fathom all aspects of her calling. Yet, she responds in total obedience to the Word of God. With these words of obedience, she begins a long process of learning which we may elaborate on in the following sections of this Chapter. Here she speaks both for herself and for the Church: “Mary speaks for herself as she freely chooses to accept God’s plan for her. But Mary is used by Luke to stand also for the entire body of the faithful, the Church, as it pledges obedience, even in matters not fully understood.”
Mary’s response identifies the whole story of Luke 1, 26-38 with a call story in mission literary form. Her earlier words in v. 34 are an objection, found in both annunciation and missioning forms. This objection advances, as a literary device, the dialogue between Mary and the angel. But her last word in v. 38 “effectively finishes the dialogue between them and their encounter.” Her reply to the angel at this juncture is “an element which lies outside the characteristics of an Annunciation form.” It suggests “not so much an Annunciation form, but a Mission form.” In call stories, the climax is thus reached with the protagonist’s reply of willingness.
Mary’s response of being the handmaid of the Lord echoes the wish of the pious mother of Samuel, Hannah, who responds Eli, “Let your maidservant find favour in your eyes” (1 Samuel 1,18). Here Hannah identifies herself as ‘maidservant’ or ‘slave, servant’ and expresses her lowly condition. Mary identifies herself and expresses her condition before the Lord in the similar language of ‘slave’ both here in Luke 1,38 and later in her song of praise in Luke 1,48: “for he has regarded the humble state of his handmaid.” As Stock remarks, “Mary is the only woman in the whole Bible to call herself the servant of the Lord.”
Mary’s response of being the handmaid of the Lord also recalls ‘the servant of the Lord’ in the Old Testament. “Holy Scripture defines “servant of the Lord” as a man to whom the Lord has given a particular calling and to whom has been entrusted an important service to the people of God.” Acts 2,18 calls the Christian believers the servants and handmaids of the Lord. Thus Mary is placed alongside the great servants of God, such as Moses, David, prophets, and Christian believers, who committed themselves to the Word of the Lord that they heard. The scene ends, as the angel departs, but having defined Mary as a listener and devotee to the Word of the Lord.
Mary’s response in mission form also manifests her faith and fidelity. To her, God’s Word alone is enough. The angel concludes his discourse with the words “For with God not impossible will be word (or thing)” – which Mary will catch up in her response. Here she submits totally to the word; she trusts what the angel stresses that the power of God has no limit.
In her submission to the Word of God, she takes a great risk. She is already ‘engaged’ – i.e. she has formally exchanged agreement to marry Joseph in the presence of witnesses, as was the custom of the day (Mal 2,14); the bride price is already paid; she, though still living in her family home, waits for Joseph to take her to his home; Joseph now has legal rights over her and can call her as his wife: Matt 1,20.24 ‘wife.’ The betrothal determines her decision-making and behavioral patterns. If she gets conceived without him, then she violates his marital rights and commits adultery. Deut 22,23-24 which in LXX version exactly reads Luke 1, 27 imposes death by stoning. So lies the stake. In spite of this, she freely and responsibly responds: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. It is because, as mentioned earlier, to her, God’s Word alone is enough. She is thus portrayed in a heroic way as being ready to pay any price for her free and conscious choice – made with will and intellect.
11. At this point Mary stands in contrast to Zechariah who does not believe in the Word of God: “because you did not believe my words” (Luke 1,20). Instead, Mary excels and outshines by her faith in the Word announced to her.
It is not only to Zechariah but also to Sarah, Mary stands in contrast. When Sarah, the old and barren wife of Abraham, hears the Word of God regarding the birth of a son unto her, she laughs to herself. She does not believe in the Word. Instead, she thinks of the impossibility of such a Word. Then comes the divine message that carries in LXX reading the very word r`h/ma, uttered by the angel in Luke 1,37 (the whole of Luke 1,37 echoes or alludes to LXX Gen 18,14) and subsequently by Mary in Luke 1,38: “With God is any word impossible?” (Gen 18,14). Once again Mary outshines by her faith in the Word of God. She presents “a positive image to Sarah’s relatively negative one; she responds with obedience to God where her predecessor mocked him.” She believes like Abraham, the husband of the same Sarah, or Job who utters before God in a similar fashion (Job 42,2). To her anything is possible with God, as God Himself had spoken to Zechariah: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even if this should seem impossible in the eyes of the remnant of this people, shall it in those days be impossible in my eyes also, says the Lord of hosts?” (Zech 8,6).
12. We can thus conclude that Mary is pictured in Luke 1,26-38 as someone who hears, reflects on, questions, and once clarified, gives consent to the Word of God; as someone who accepts in faith God’s Word or God’s plan of salvation and is ready to cooperate with it; in a nutshell, as a model believer from the very beginning. By virtue of this, she is already a member of Jesus’ eschatological family of disciples. So no wonder the Lucan Jesus identifies her when they meet each other in Luke 8,21 as a hearer and doer of God’s Word and upholds her for His audience to imitate. In the words of Fitzmyer, “Here [Luke 1,38] Luke writes with hindsight, and foreshadows the way in which he will depict Mary in the Gospel proper, especially in 8:19-21 …”
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