26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

See the general introduction to Luke

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today/challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Luke.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Pattern and structure of Birth Announcements

The story of the annunciation to Mary is based on a pattern established in the Hebrew called for example, to Hagar, mother of Ishmael (Gen 16:9-15), and to Hannah, mother of Samuel (Judges 13:3-7).

In the New Testament, it also appears in the Annunciation to Zechariah (the Father of John the Baptist, Luke 1:5-25) which precedes the story of the Annunciation to Mary.  Named “theophanic birth announcements” the main focus is on the child, instead of a listing of all the relatives, modelled in the Gospel of Matthew who lists the genealogy of Jesus through the line of David.

The passage may be broken into 8 vignettes:

  1. Appearance of the angel/greeting vs 26-28
  2. Reaction of person vs 29
  3. Naming of person vs 30
  4. Announcement of the coming birth/ naming of baby vs 31
  5. Prediction of the child’s future destiny  vs 32-33
  6. Questioning vs 34
  7. Reassurance/ explanation vs 35-37
  8. Acceptance vs 38 

Parallel Annunciation to Zechariah

John the Baptist is important in the Gospel of Luke. John was a significant figure at the time, and Luke creates a strong connection between Jesus and John, with John preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus. The connection begins with parallel Annunciation stories to both sets of parents. The story of John’s Annunciation to his father, Zechariah, precedes the Annunciation to Mary. Luke will continue this pattern of paralleling the two in their births continuing his imitation of the Old Testament:

  1. Angel Gabriel visits both Zechariah (1:19) and Mary (1:26) to announce an unexpected birth.
  2. Zechariah is startled by the visitor (1:12) and so is Mary (1:29).
  3. Both are reassured by the angel and the name of their coming child is announced (1:13 and 1:32).
  4. Both are perplexed about how this could be (1:18 and 1:34), but whereas Zechariah questions the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” (1:18), Mary comes to full acceptance, “Here am I, servant of the Lord” (1:38). This is the beginning of Mary’s journey to be the perfect disciple.
  5. Both Mary and Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will have a son and both are told not to be afraid (1:13 and 1:31), common words of heavenly reassurance.
  6. Both John (1:15) and Jesus will be great (1:32) but only Jesus will be “Son of God, the Most High.”
  7. The Annunciation to Zechariah occurs in the Sanctuary of the Temple (1:8-9), whereas Mary’s occurs in the simplicity of her home (1:26).
  8. Zechariah was a high ranking priest, (1:8) whereas Mary was a simple Jewish woman (1:27), but in fact it is Mary who is most highly favoured by God.
  9. As part of Luke’s infancy narrative, both Zechariah (1:67-79) and Mary (1:46-55) pray in a canticle expressing praise for a merciful God, but Mary prays at Elizabeth’s home when she is first pregnant and Zechariah prays after the birth of his son.
  10. John becomes a prophet, reaching out to the alienated and broken- hearted. He prepares the way for the Lord.

Characters & Setting

There are only two characters in Luke’s story of the Annunciation, Mary and the angel Gabriel.

The Angel of the Lord

The Angel of the Lord appears as a special messenger at significant times throughout the Scriptures including appearances to Abraham (Gen 22:11-15) and to Moses ( Ex 31:11-13) and in several birth annunciation stories. In Jewish belief, God was beyond any human understanding and so communicated through a messenger. Angelic messengers were seen as important links between God and humans. The message was always heavenly, sent by God and for important reasons. As well as delivering God’s message, angels would also praise and describe God as being ‘almighty’ (“The power of the Most High will overshadow you,” 1:35).

The appearance of the angel is given further significance because (he) is named Gabriel. In Jewish understanding, Gabriel was an important angel who stood at the left hand of God, second only to Michael who stood at God’s right hand. Unlike some other angels in the Scriptures who might give a message and then disappear, Gabriel returns to deliver highly significant messages from God.

Mary

The choice of Mary to be the mother of the saviour , a term used only by Luke, is significant in many ways.  

“She is among the most powerless people in her society. She is
young in a society that values age; female in a world ruled by
men; poor in a stratified economy. Furthermore, she has
neither husband nor child to validate her existence.”

(Johnson, p. 39).

Mary, a powerless young woman who accepts God’s invitation, features more strongly in Luke’s Gospel than in any other, demonstrating the Gospel themes of mercy and justice, particularly to those who are marginalised. Her words in the Magnificat, prayed at the home of Elizabeth, express Luke’s intention of presenting a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; (who) has filled up the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53).

The Annunciation takes place in Nazareth in Galilee, a small town in a territory separated from Judah, by Samaria. The town would have been inhabited by Jews and some Gentiles. The setting of the Annunciation in the home of a simple peasant girl, in a small town on the outskirts of the Roman Empire is central to the purpose of Luke’s Gospel. The setting in this simple home is contrasted against the setting of the Sanctuary of the Temple, where the Annunciation to Zechariah occurs. The story of Mary, visited by an angel in the setting in her home, begins to build a picture of a God who will raise up the lowly to greatness, which is evident throughout the Third Gospel.

Placement of the Story

The story is placed between the Annunciation to Zechariah (1:5-24) and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (1:39-56), significantly emphasising the connection between Jesus and John the Baptist. The Annunciation stories are paralleled, allowing for comparison in character, setting and response.  The visit to Elizabeth expresses the unbridled joy of the two women. The words of the angel to Mary and Elizabeth’s response to Mary have been combined to create the words of the ‘Hail Mary.’ Both annunciations lead to Songs of Praise by Mary and by Zechariah in which both praise a merciful God. In his canticle, Zechariah maintains a focus on the “tender mercy of God” (vs 78). Mary, on the other hand, responds personally to this merciful God, who has embraced “the lowliness of his servant” and raised her, “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (vs 48).

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Annunciation: an announcement

Angel Gabriel: a significant divine messenger

Virgin Mary: emphasises Mary’s youth and also the divine intervention in the conception of Jesus

Joseph, of the House of David: makes clear the royal lineage to King David

Jesus: common form of the name “Joshua”. Luke does not explain its meaning “YHWH saves”

Son of the Most High: Jesus will have the same essence as God (this is central to the theology of the incarnation i.e. God becoming human and entering the messiness of our world)

Do not be afraid Mary: Mary receives the message once she has been called beyond fear, a common biblical pattern describing the  interplay between fear, reassurance and acceptance.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you: God is active in the world

And of his kingdom, there will be no end: fulfilment of the promise to David  (2 Sam 7:16)

Here I am, servant of the Lord: acceptance of the angel’s assertions and willing submission.

Luke’s work comes in two parts, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, and the story of the Annunciation is part of Luke’s broader purpose, which sees the journey of the Good News from Galilee to Jerusalem and on to Rome. The Annunciation to Mary begins the story of a merciful God would take human form, entering the messiness of human lives, and according to Luke, bringing salvation to all. Luke emphasises Jesus’ ministry to those who were poor and marginalised, and the choice of a “lowly” young woman to be the mother of the Saviour shows that Jesus’ mission would a mission that will “raise up the lowly”, filling them “with good things” (Lk 1, 52b-53a).

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Church interpretations and usage

The incarnation is at the heart of Christian faith i.e. the understanding that God entered the reality of everyday life in the person of Jesus. In Jesus therefore, God is fully human and fully divine. The accounts of Jesus’ nativity in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew show Jesus as being truly human. In Luke’s account of the Annunciation, the visit by a divine messenger to announce that Mary will have a baby to be “the Son of God, the Most High” defines Jesus’ divinity. The feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on 25 March, 9 months before the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Mary has an important role in Catholic prayer life as seen by prayers to Mary, including the  Hail Mary, Rosary, the Memorare and  the Angelus. The ‘Hail Mary’ is created from words of the angel at the Annunciation and of Elizabeth during the visitation.

Mary is a feminine role model of faith for Catholics.  Her importance in Church culture is exemplified by many images of Mary used in the church e.g. Our Lady Help of Christians, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Rosary and Our Lady Star of the Sea.

Meaning for today/challenges

The Annunciation is the story of a young peasant Jewish woman who was confronted with a great mystery that would have challenged her faith and surrendered herself to a call from God. Whilst the context is very different in contemporary society, there are meanings and challenges:

  • What is the significance of God’s choice of a young peasant girl to be the mother of Jesus?
    • The story of Mary speaks to those on the margins of society, a powerless young woman who was called to be great. Her story tells the powerless that they are valued in God’s eyes. She also presents a challenge for society, and especially the Church to “raise up the lowly.”
    • Mary brings a female connection with the divine within a patriarchal history. “She became the symbolic point of mediation between heavens and earth- the earth mother” (Richard Rohr, p. 71). She therefore is a role model for women, especially  in the Church today.
    • Mary is both contemplative and engaged with the activity of life. After her experience with the angel, she set off the next day to Judah to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  There she prayed her Song of Praise, known as the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55). Mary therefore challenges us to balance the contemplative with the activity of life, the ordinary with the extraordinary.
    • Mary exemplifies how to deal with the contradictions and concerns of life , “to treasure and hold the mystery until she finally embraces the paradox” ( Rohr, p. 71).
  • Why is the Annunciation central to the Christian understanding of the incarnation (God becoming human)?
    • The annunciation is the first announcement that the divine is breaking into the world. It reminds of the normality of God’s outreach to ordinary, humble ones; it places the meek and otherwise inconsequential at the centre of the fullest revelation of God. Is Mary’s story every woman and man’s story?