Similar, yet… In many respects our gospel (Luke 1:26-38) is similar to the annunciation of the birth of John. The angel Gabriel appears to announce the birth of the child, and the annunciation follows the pattern of birth annunciations in the OT: The angel says, “Do not be afraid,” calls the recipient of the vision by name, assures him or her of God’s favor, announces the birth of the child, discloses the name of the child to be born, and reveals the future role of the child in language drawn from the Scriptures. After their respective announcements, Zechariah and Mary each ask a question, a sign is given, and the scene closes with a departure. The similarity of structure and content between the two scenes invites the reader to consider the differences between them all the more closely. For example, the first announcement came as an answer to fervent prayer; the second was completely unanticipated. John would be born to parents past the age of child bearing, but the miracle of Jesus’ birth would be even greater. Jesus would be born to a virgin. The announcement of Jesus’ future role also shows that at every point Jesus would be even greater than his forerunner. Watch how these nuances are developed in the course of the details of this scene. Note this narrative comparison also punctuates the beginning of Mark’s gospel which has no infancy narrative: John the Baptist is not the Christ, not Elijah, not the prophet to come, and not worthy to loosen the strap of the sandal of the one who is to come.
The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary parallels the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (1:-25); in fact, they are so interwoven that we know before we are explicitly told in vv.39–45, 67–79 that these two mothers and their sons belong to one story. First, the opening reference to “the sixth month” (v.26; cf. vv.24, 36, 56) ties the report of Elizabeth’s conception and response to this account. Second, the appearance of the angel recalls Zechariah’s encounter in the temple (vv.11, 19, 26). We know from the prophet Daniel that Gabriel as an eschatological messenger; what will he say now? Gabriel comes to the virgin (vv.26–27), delivers his message and receives her response (vv.28–38a), then departs (v.38b). With Gabriel’s departure, Mary will serve as the central figure joining together the various scenes of the birth narrative.
Parallels. The parallels also extend to language and form (vv.5–23 and vv.26–38). Joel Green  notes that the stories of John and Jesus share the following progression of elements: “(1) Introduction of Parents; (2) Specification of Obstacles to Childbearing; (3) Encounter with an Angel, Gabriel; (4) Response to the Angel; (5) “Do Not Be Afraid,” with Address by Name; (6) Promise of a Son; (7) Objection; (8) Giving of a Sign; and (9) Departure of Gabriel.” In the arena of language, we notice
|Luke 1:11–20||Luke 1:28–38|
|“he was troubled” (v.12)||“she was much troubled (v.28)|
|“the angel said to him” (v.13)||“the angel said to her” (v.30)|
|“Do not be afraid” (v.13)||“Do not be afraid” (v.30)|
|“will bear you a son” (v.13)||“you will … bear a son” (v.31)|
|“and you will name him” (v.13)||“and you will name him” (v.31)|
|“he will be great” (v.15)||“he will be great” (v.32)|
|“said to the angel” (v.18)||“said to the angel” (v.34)|
|“and replying, the angel||“and replying, the angel|
|said to him” (v.19)||said to her” (v.35)|
|“Gabriel … God … sent” (v.19)||“Gabriel … sent … God” (v.26)|
|“and now” (v.20)||“and now” (v.36)|
The one account echoes and interprets the other, demonstrating that these scenes and especially these sons function together within the one purpose of God.
Contrasts. The points of contrast between these two scenes are equally telling. First, Elizabeth has a need—she is childless, disgraced; but Mary has no apparent need. Similarly, the redundancy in the explanation of Elizabeth’s childlessness (vv.7a, 7b, 18) signals how her need has led to the recognition of the obstacle that must be overcome prior to its resolution. But the triple assertion of Mary’s virginity (vv.27a, 27b, 34) is not presented as an obstacle to the resolution of any need on her part. Contrasts make explicit what was already implicit in the narrative—namely, the real needs here are not those of Mary or even of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Israel is estranged from God, under alien rule, oppressed. God’s covenant with his people has not been realized fully. Hence, God is intervening in human history to bring forth an everlasting kingdom. In doing so, he solicits and embraces the partnership of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary—themselves Israelites and representative in their own ways of the people of Israel.
While the descriptions of the two promised children share some common points, clearly Jesus is held up above John. Note that “He [John] will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,” Jesus’ conception results from the activity of the Spirit (vv.15, 35). Both are important in the realization of God’s redemptive will, but Jesus is primary – rooted in the Spirit as part of his intrinsic being.
It is also worth noting that Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel takes place at the center of Jewish life, the Temple, only a veiled doorway from the presence of God’s glory. But Gabriel travels to Mary, far away from the center of things in Jerusalem, to Nazareth in Galilee—inconsequential, shunned, unclean. Yet, the Temple priest Zechariah, the one who maintains cleanliness, responds to Gabriel’s words with hesitation rooted in unbelief. Mary, on the other hand, though she is only a young Galilean girl, embraces God’s plan, proclaiming herself as God’s servant. These points of contrast point to something profound about the focus of God’s redemptive initiative in Luke’s Gospel, and foreshadow the joy with which the people on the margins will receive divine favor.
Joseph, husband of Mary, gets scant attention in Like, yet he is “introduced:” of the house of David. Most scholars hold that Luke’s primary interest is in establishing that royal connection. Jesus’ acclamation as Son of God (vv.32, 35) must be read at least against the backdrop of the use of this expression to designate the Davidic king in the OT. Even more obvious are the unmistakable reminiscences of the divine promise to David of an everlasting dynasty found in 2 Sam 7:11b-16 in vv.32b-33.
Photo credit: “The Annunciation” by Daniel Bonnell