December 14, 2013
This is the third of a series of posts on the Christmas story in the gospels. The first one concerned Matthew’s account, and the second concerned Mark’s account. I’ll divide consideration of the story in Luke into two parts.
The gospel of Luke is our other nativity story. Or rather it is what we consider the real deal: it is the one that most captures our imagination. It is the one with the inn, the stable, the manger, the animals and the shepherds. It is the version most often read on Christmas Eve both at church and at home to children. It is the account that provides the frame for our smooshed together nativity story. We simply add in the wise men from Matthew as if Luke, in the excitement, had forgotten about the wise men that we read about in Matthew.
Matthew’s account and Luke’s account are really quite different. They don’t deserve to be blended. Both focus on a virgin birth, but the differences are much more striking.
In Luke, the Angel Gabriel appears not to Joseph but to Mary, who reacts at first with dismay, but then hears “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and he shall be called Jesus” (1:30-31).
Moreover, there is double the miracle, because six months before, Luke tells us, the Angel Gabriel had appeared to the priest Zechariah, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth (a kinswoman of Mary) would conceive a child that they should name John, even though both were childless and well advanced in years. Zechariah was not just dismayed but doubtful of this news, so Gabriel made Zechariah mute “until the day that these things come to pass” (1:20). When Elizabeth’s baby is born, she is urged to call him Zechariah after his father, but she surprises everyone by saying the baby should be named John. And so mute Zechariah is asked his preference, and when he writes “John” on a tablet, his gift of speech is restored. “And they all marveled” (1:63): the miracles (seen by many) begin well before Jesus is born.
In Luke’s narrative about Gabriel appearing first to Zechariah and then to Mary announcing the two miracle births, there is also an account of a meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. When Mary enters Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth’s baby “leaped in her womb,” Elizabeth says to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). Mary, for her part, utters a marvelous prayer of joy and thanksgiving, which begins “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1:46-47). Is there a longer or more beautiful prayer by a woman anywhere in the Bible?
This part of the narrative ends with a lovely prayer by Zechariah praising God for fulfilling various prophecies and promises (1:68-79).
Chapter 1 in Luke’s account is taken up with the angel Gabriel’s appearance first to Elizabeth and then to Mary, then with the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, and finally with the birth of John. We tend to jump over this part of the narrative to get more quickly to the birth of Jesus, but a great deal of important foundation is laid here. Among other things, Luke’s version connects up the nativity story to the later baptism of Christ by John by having John’s birth be part of the Nativity story.
What especially strikes me about Luke’s account is how much more the Nativity story focuses upon women in his telling, and yet how little we lift that up when we tell Luke’s story in our own ways.
[Image: Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1434, from the Cortona altarpiece, Museo Diocesano, Cortona, Italy]