For the last three Sundays, I have preached that Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. That being said, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either the first or the second coming; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the angel’s Annunciation to Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus.
The angel’s greeting in this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. Typically, you see a pale young woman in a diaphanous blue gown seated on a throne. You see an angel devoutly kneeling before her. You see a dove hovering over the scene. What you don’t see is Jesus! But in truth, the whole point of the Annunciation story is Jesus. Luke shares this early tradition, because it tells us something we need to know about the identity of Mary’s son.
We are told that Jesus is to be born of a virgin and that his father will be none other than the Lord God. The archangel Gabriel explains that the conception will take place in a spiritual manner as God’s power passes over Mary like a shadow. Now, the virginal conception of Jesus is a difficulty for some faithful Christians. And I can understand why. After all, none of us here today has ever witnessed such a thing. Nor are we expected to! The Gospel portrays the event as a one-of-a-kind occurrence. And that’s one main point of this story: Jesus is one of a kind. The other main point is that Jesus comes from God—exactly how is less important.
This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we consider the first advent of our Lord. More precisely, we look at the time just before Jesus’ first advent, namely, the annunciation to Joseph. Now the art world has always favored Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary over Matthew’s story of the annunciation to Joseph. I don’t know about you, but I could not possibly rank one story above the other. Each has its own artistic and theological merits.
But before addressing the Gospel, let me say something about the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only. It serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign. Well, he gets one anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” The child in question was probably King Ahaz’s future son, or just possibly Isaiah’s.” And there is no reason to believe that the young woman in question conceived in any way other than the normal way of doing it. For some reason or other, our lectionary omits the final verse of the prophecy, which portends the future fall of the kingdom to Assyria.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ at his birth, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. At the risk of being called pedantic, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the virginal conception. It is the story of the angelic Annunciation to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and bear God’s Son.
The angel’s greeting in this story has inspired composers throughout the history of the church to try to capture the essence of that moment in a musical setting of the “Ave Maria.” And this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. A typical painting would look something like this. A young woman dressed in a diaphanous blue gown is seated on a throne, her head surrounded by a golden halo. Before her there kneels an angel of ambiguous gender with hands devoutly clasped in prayer. Above is a white dove in a golden nimbus, and from the dove a ray of light emanates, aimed at the head of Mary—as if Jesus is to be conceived in Mary’s head!