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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

Announcements and Signs

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Luke stresses that the birth of Jesus takes place among the pious people of Israel. Thus, the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are introduced as “righteous,” “observing all the commandments blamelessly.” Luke seldom uses “fulfillment passages” as Matthew does. Instead, his narrative echoes episodes from Israel’s scriptures. And so, like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth are an aged, infertile couple.

Again reminiscent of Abraham, Zechariah encounters an angelic messenger who announces that his wife will become pregnant. The angel describes the child, to be named John, in language filled with scriptural allusions:

  • Recalling the announcements of the births of Samson and Samuel, the boy will “drink neither wine nor strong drink”
  • He will be like Elijah of old and, as depicted by the prophet Malachi, will “turn the hearts of fathers toward their children” before the great and terrible day of the Lord.
  • The messenger who speaks to Zechariah, Gabriel, is named in Daniel chapter 9 as the angel to proclaim the coming of an anointed leader.

Thus, Luke portrays the birth of John as heralding the climax of Israel’s story. Zechariah seems doubtful. As a sign of Gabriel’s truthfulness, he is rendered unable to speak until the child’s birth.

 The scene then shifts to Nazareth in the Galilee where a wedded virgin is also visited by Gabriel. “Wedded virgin” refers to the custom of that time for parents to sign a marriage contract for their children shortly after puberty. But the young woman continued to live with her parents until the young man had established himself. Only then did the couple live together and consummate the marriage.

Mary is called God’s “favored one” because she will give birth to a son, who will be named Jesus. The child is to be conceived by the creative power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who was present at the world’s creation. Jesus is referred to in terms surpassing those used of the Baptizer: he will be called “Son of the Most High God” and will rule from the throne of David – recalling the prophet Nathan’s words to David in Second Samuel. 

Although Mary questions Gabriel about the predicted pregnancy, she is not given a punitive sign like Zechariah. Apparently she is not disbelieving, but only puzzled. Like Zechariah, she is given a sign. She is told that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant since “nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary assents to the angel’s words. This is the beginning of Luke’s depiction of Mary as the model disciple. She “hears God’s word and keeps it” (Lk 11:28).