The message to Mary about Jesus' birth (Luke 1:26-38)

Summary

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth with a message for Mary, who was promised in marriage to Joseph. The angel told Mary that she would have a son, whom she was to name Jesus. The angel said, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God.”

Mary asked how this could be as she was a virgin. The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and God’s power will rest on you.” He also told Mary that her elderly relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant, for there is nothing that God cannot do. Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant”.

A painting of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary (The Annunciation, Salesianerkirche Church, Vienna)

Background

When Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels they did so independently, using different sources and eyewitnesses. They also came from different backgrounds.

Matthew was a Jew who became a Christian. He was familiar with the Old Testament and keen to show how Jesus has fulfilled prophecies about the Messiah.

Luke, on the other hand, was a Gentile (non-Jew) who wanted to show that Jesus was saviour for all humankind. Luke also shows a special interest in women and marginalised people (eg social outcasts, the poor, tax collectors). The particular interests of Matthew and Luke are shown in the way they write.

Mary holds a special place in the Christian faith as the mother of Jesus. This is highlighted in particular by the Roman Catholic Church which believes that Mary is blessed with some special characteristics:

  1. She is given the title Mother of God.
  2. Mary herself was conceived free from original sin and was therefore perfect, this is known as the Immaculate Conception.
  3. A perpetual virgin – after giving birth to Jesus, Mary had no more children and remained pure.
  4. Mary did not die a normal, physical death but was taken up to heaven in bodily form, this is known as the Assumption

Understanding the text

Mary is the focus of Luke’s account as the angel tells her (rather than Joseph) about the child she will give birth to. We learn about Mary’s character – the angel tells her “You have found favour with God” and Mary shows her obedience to God’s wishes by saying “I am the Lord’s servant”. When Mary accepted what God wanted she was taking a great risk. She would probably have to face public shame and perhaps Joseph would be angry. Yet Mary did not doubt the angel’s message and gave her acceptance.

Luke does not quote from the Old Testament as Matthew does. However, he agrees that the child to be born will be God’s son and the promised saviour. This is shown in the following ways in Luke’s account:

  1. The angel refers to the child as “the son of the Most High” and “the Son of God”.
  2. The angel also says “The Lord will give him the throne of his father David”. It was expected that the Messiah would be from King David's family line.
  3. The angel says of Jesus “his kingdom will never end”. In the Old Testament, this promise was made to King David. Jesus’ kingdom, however, will be more than just a political or geographical area. It will be a spiritual kingdom.
  4. Luke agrees that Mary will be a virgin when the child is born and that his conception will be through the power of the Holy Spirit.