Saturday, December 22, 2012

Meditation on Luke 1:26-38: The Angel Gabriel was sent....

Taken from: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives; by Pope Benedict XVI

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk 1:26f.). In the first place, the annunciation of the birth of Jesus is linked chronologically with the story of John the Baptist by the reference to the time that has elapsed since the archangel Gabriel’s message to Zechariah, that is to say “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The two events and the two missions are also linked in this passage by the indication that Mary and Elizabeth, and hence their offspring too, are blood relatives. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, made as a consequence of the dialogue between Gabriel and Mary (cf. Lk 1:36), occasions an encounter in the Holy Spirit between Jesus and John even before they are born, and this encounter at the same time makes visible the relationship between their respective missions: Jesus is the younger of the two, the one who comes later. But he is the one whose proximity causes John to leap in his mother’s womb and fills Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit (cf. Lk 1:41). So in Luke’s annunciation and nativity narratives, what the Baptist was to say in John’s Gospel is already objectively present: “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me’” (1:30).

Now, though, it is time to look more closely at the story of the annunciation to Mary of the birth of Jesus. First let us consider the angel’s message, then Mary’s answer.

A striking feature of the angel’s greeting is that he does not address Mary with the usual Hebrew salutation shalom—peace be with you—but with the Greek greeting formula chaĩre, which we might well translate with the word “Hail,” as in the Church’s Marian prayer, pieced together from the words of the annunciation narrative (cf. Lk 1:28, 42). Yet at this point it is only right to draw out the true meaning of the word chaĩre: rejoice! This exclamation from the angel—we could say—marks the true beginning of the New Testament. The word reappears during the Holy Night on the lips of the angel who says to the shepherds: “I bring you good news of a great joy” (Lk 2:10). It appears again—in John’s Gospel—at the encounter with the risen Lord: “The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (20:20). Jesus’ farewell discourses in Saint John’s Gospel present a theology of joy, which as it were illuminates the depth of this word. “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). Joy appears in these texts as the particular gift of the Holy Spirit, the true gift of the Redeemer. So a chord is sounded with the angel’s salutation which then resounds throughout the life of the Church. Its content is also present in the fundamental word that serves to designate the entire Christian message: Gospel—good news.

“Rejoice”—as we have seen—is in the first instance a Greek greeting, and to that extent this pronouncement by the angel immediately opens the door to the peoples of the world: the universality of the Christian message becomes evident. And yet this word is also taken from the Old Testament, and thus it expresses the complete continuity of biblical salvation history. Stanislas Lyonnet and Réne Laurentin in particular have shown that Gabriel’s greeting to Mary takes up and brings into the present the prophecy of Zeph 3:14-17: “Rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout, Israel… the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”

There is no need here to enter into a detailed textual comparison between the angel’s greeting to Mary and Zephaniah’s prophecy. The essential reason for the daughter of Zion to rejoice is stated in the text itself: “the Lord is in your midst” (Zeph 3:15,17). Literally it says: “he is in your womb.” Here Zephaniah is alluding to a passage in the Book of Exodus which speaks of God dwelling in the ark of the Covenant as dwelling “in Israel’s womb” (cf. Laurentin, Structure et Théologie, pp. 70f., with reference to Ex 33:3 and 34:9). This same word reappears in Gabriel’s message to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb” (Lk 1:31).
Whatever view is taken regarding the details of these parallels, there is clearly an inner resemblance between the two messages. Mary appears as the daughter of Zion in person. The Zion prophecies are fulfilled in her in an unexpected way. Mary becomes the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the Lord truly dwells.

“Rejoice, full of grace!” One further aspect of the greeting chaĩre is worthy of note: the connection between joy and grace. In Greek, the two words joy and grace (chará and cháris) are derived from the same root. Joy and grace belong together.

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