The message by which God revealed to Mary that she would be the virgin mother of the Messiah; or, in a broader sense, the entire account of Lk 1.26–38, that contains later reflections upon the mystery of the Incarnation. The New Testament (in Mt 1.18–25) contains another account of an annunciation according to which Joseph is informed of Mary's virginal and miraculous conception of the Messiah. This latter section, however, seems to represent an official report of the Jerusalem church, for it is more concerned with scriptural fulfillment than Luke ch. 1–2 and more careful to present a summary of Christian beliefs, including the royal Davidic prerogatives of Jesus through His foster father Joseph. Interest here is limited to the Lukan account. After investigating the authorship of Luke ch. 1–2, this article considers some of the important doctrinal questions raised by the Annunciation narrative.
Authorship of the Account. The origin and literary style of the entire infancy narrative of Lk 1.5–2.52 must be appreciated in order to look with proper focus upon all other questions, such as those that inquire about the nature of the angel's appearance and the meaning of the message to Mary. In brief, according to the hypothesis proposed here, the Greek text of the Lukan infancy narrative reflects an earlier Hebrew form that circulated in a group dominated by St. john the apostle. John, in turn, derived the salient ideas from Mary herself in the early days after Pentecost. One must trace this development with more precision.
Hebrew Background. A Hebrew original frequently appears beneath the surface of the present Greek text, not only in the continual use of parallelism, but also in many other literary details. Parallelism is a balancing of ideas, so that the second member repeats the first but with some new or different insight; such an ebb and flow of thought moves through almost every sentence of Luke ch. 1–2. A careful study of the Greek text reveals other Hebraic features, different from the classical Greek style of the prologue (Lk 1.1–4) and from the Septuagint form of Luke ch. 3–24. By translating the Greek back into Hebrew, one can discover examples of assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia typical of Hebrew poetry: e.g., "He shall go before him [lipnê ]… to prepare [l epannôt ] for the Lord… (1.17; cf. Mal 3.1); "Mary remained [wattēšeb ]… and returned [wattāšob, ] to her own house" (1.56).
Another indication of Hebrew background, evident in the larger development of these chapters, is the prevailing style of haggadah. Whereas the midrashic style quotes Scripture and sees its interpretation in terms of present events (cf. Mt ch. 1–2), the haggadic presentation simply alludes to Biblical passages and penetrates into a contemporary act of salvation by continual but indirect appeal to the ancient Scriptures. Later some of these allusions will be cited, but the following instances in Luke's Gospel can be noted at present: 1.12–13 (Dn 10.7, 12); 1.16–17 (Mal 3.1, 23); 1.19 (Dn 9.20–21); 1.28–32 (Zep 3.14–17); 1.35 (Ex 40.35). Haggadah, like midrash, begins with history—with the great redemptive acts of God in the present as well as in the past—but it never delays over, nor is it primarily interested in, details of chronology, geography, or history. It seeks to bring the reader into
close contact with the mysterious work of salvation contained within and beneath events and continuing into the present moment.
Marian and Johannine Influence. The first two chapters of Luke's Gospel, moreover, move in the quiet, rhythmic meter of personal reflection and humble simplicity. They reveal an intuitive, subjective, feminine approach. The heart in which these verses were originally formed seems to have been Mary's, for they reveal the secrets of her soul at that moment when God chose her to be His mother as well as during that long time afterward when she pondered God's goodness toward her. One also senses in the infancy narrative the calm, joyful spirit of the Christian assembly during the first years after Pentecost (Acts 2.42–47): the expectation of the messianic triumph any moment; the assiduous study and the careful observance of the Mosaic Law; Jerusalem as the center of hopes; the special place accorded the poor and lowly (Acts 1.12; 4.23–37; 1 and 2 Thes). The atmosphere is not troubled by any of the controversies that soon began to disturb the Church: quarrels about the care of Hellenists and the reception of Gentiles (Acts 6.1; 11.1–3; Gal 2.11–14). During the first years of the Church Mary shared, especially with John, her contemplative appreciation of the Incarnation (cf. Jn 19.26–27; Acts 1.14).
John, for his part, made his own contribution to the infancy narrative, or at least one can say that, as Mary's story was sung or recited in the Johannine circle of Christians, ideas typical of John's theology acquired a prominent place in the narrative: e.g., the delight in number symbolism; the overarching presence of the Jerusalem Temple; the overshadowing of the divine presence; the analogies with the Book of Revelation in schematization, scenes, lyrics and Old Testament imitation.
Diptych Arrangement. It is difficult to determine whether John or Luke was ultimately responsible for the carefully wrought literary structure of these chapters. They are arranged like a sacred drama in two diptychs: one of the annunciations of John the Baptist and of Jesus; the other, of their births. Each section is divided into a series of seven scenes, including: introduction of time and place; appearance of actors; canticle or dialogue; departure of actors. That the two annunciation scenes carefully follow a literary pattern becomes evident in the following outline, borrowed in part from René Lauren-tin's studies:
Annunication of John the Baptist (1.5–25)
- Presentation of the parents
- Apparition of the angel
- Anxiety of Zachariah
- "Do not fear"
- Announcement of the birth
- Question: "How shall I know this?"
- Answer: the angel's reprimand
- Sign: "Behold, thou shalt be dumb"
- Silence of Zachariah
- Departure of Zachariah
- Annunciation of Jesus (1.26–38)
- Presentation of the parents
- Entrance of the angel
- Anxiety of Mary
- "Do not fear"
- Announcement of the birth
- Question: "How shall this happen?"
- Answer: the angel's revelation
- Sign: "Behold, thy kinswoman has conceived"
- Response of Mary
- Departure of the angel
Luke, in any case, put the infancy narrative into final shape when he included it in his Gospel. This study of literary origins has important conclusions for the Annunciation account. In such an intricate, artificial arrangement as found in Luke ch. 1–2, one must admit that the author(s) took liberty with historical details in order to highlight the religious significance of these details. The chapters contain far more than what Mary understood at the moment of the Annunciation; they are the fruit of her long, meditative prayer and the appreciation of her intuition by John, Luke, and others. Here, as elsewhere in the Gospels, God is not giving us a biography of Mary and Joseph, not even of Jesus, but the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus. Many details, therefore, which our curiosity finds important, are passed over in silence.
Doctrinal Question. Some doctrinal questions deserve attention. First, what, precisely, was God asking of Mary? In other words, did Mary understand that she was consenting to be the Mother of God or simply the Mother of the Messiah?
Mary's Knowledge of the Divinity of Her Son. From her Old Testament background, Mary had no clear reason to think that the Messiah would also be personally and substantially divine. The Scriptures spoke of a royal Messiah born of the family of David [2 Sm ch. 7; Ps 2; 88(89); 109(110); Isaiah ch. 7–11; Mi 5.1–5], of some kind of priestly Messiah in the line of Aaron (Ez 44.15–31; Zec ch. 3–4; Dn 9.24–27; Joel), and possibly of a prophetic Messiah (Dt 18.15–19). Each of the messianic figures, although God's special representative, was expected to be thoroughly human. True, the Annunciation account describes Mary's child with Biblical phrases proclaiming God's presence among His people. Mary's child would be: great [Ps 48.1; 86.10; 96.4], the Son of the Most High (Gn 14.19–20; Sir 24.2), the Holy One (Is 1.4; 5.24; 41.14), the everlasting King of all the earth (Ex 15.18; Is 24.23; 40.10; Za 14.9); and the Savior, as implied in the name Jesus [Ps 24.5; Is 43.3; Dn 6.27]. In Old Testament times, however, all these phrases were understood of God's personal intervention through human mediators, but not of the mediators' being personally divine. From the Biblical texts woven into the Annunciation account, one can never establish a clear awareness on Mary's part of Jesus' divinity. If God accorded Mary a special revelation about the divine nature of her son, Mary's approach toward the Incarnation would have remained thoroughly Biblical, that is, more implicit than explicit, more experiential than notional, and more intuitive than rational.
Even Pentecost, which brought new light to Mary's understanding, did not direct attention primarily to the distinction of person and nature in Jesus, but rather to God's presence in Jesus, dynamically saving His people in the Messiah, even to the extent of placing Him as an equal at His side in bestowing the Spirit (cf. Acts 2.32–36; 3.20–26; Rom 1.3–7). Mary certainly agreed to be the mother of the promised Messiah; how much more she knew about her son at the moment of the Annunciation cannot be clearly established from the Biblical text.
Mary's Resolution to Remain a Virgin. Another, perhaps insoluble, question centers on Mary's resolution to remain a virgin. When asked to be the mother of the Messiah, Mary replied: "How shall this happen, since I do not know man [as a wife does her husband for the procreation of children]?" (Lk 1.34; cf. Gn 4.1; Jgs 16.26; 1 Sm 1.19). Various interpretations are given to this answer: Mary is not yet married but only espoused to Joseph and therefore not able to conceive immediately (P. Gaechter); Mary is intending to be Joseph's wife and, therefore, unable to bear the Messiah who must be virginally conceived (J. P. Audet; T. W. Auer). The latter interpretation adds an elliptic phrase: "How can this be since I ought not to know man if I am to be mother of the Messiah, when, as a matter of fact, I am already bound to a man?" Both of these opinions seem to circumvent the obvious meaning of 1.34. Against the first, one can object that solemn espousals granted marital privileges, although at that time in Galilee it was considered improper to enjoy them; against the second opinion, the proposed interpretation cannot be supported by Greek grammar. The meaning, then, of Mary's words would seem to imply a resolve to maintain virginity and to follow a way of life intended to prepare one for the great eschatological victory of God. Such a vocation was known in the Bible (Jer 16.2) and especially among the members of the qumran community. Why, then, it is asked, did Mary consent to the solemn espousals with Joseph? Did she and Joseph have a private agreement between them? These confidences, under-standably enough, remained locked within Mary's heart.
Mary's Holiness. The Annunciation account presents a rich theology of Mary's holiness. Aside from God, no one in the entire Bible is the recipient of such beautiful salutations as Mary: Lk 1.18, 30, 35, 45, 49; 2.19, 34. Mary is presented also as the new Temple and the new ark of the covenant, for God's spirit overshadows her (1.35) as it did Moses' Tent of Meeting and Solomon's Temple (Ex 40.35; Hg. 2.6–9). She represents God's people at prayer, in pilgrimage to the Temple, struggling with the evil one and witnessing the promised salvation (1.35, 46–55; 2.21–50). Because of God's generosity in her regard, she already possesses what the rest of the world still anticipates. She receives in advance what other men will be given after the death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Appearance of the Angel. Finally, the question is asked, "Did an angel actually appear to Mary?" Some have raised a doubt because a number of Old Testament passages actually refer to God under the metaphor of the angel of the Lord (Gn 16.11–14; 48.15–16; Ex 3.2–4). There is little doubt, however, in late Old Testament books, such as Daniel and Tobit, or in apocryphal works of the last century b.c., or in the New Testament that Palestinian Jews believed in angels and accorded them great veneration. In any case, the Annunciation account does not speak of any bodily appearance of the Angel. The best Greek MSS do not say that Mary saw the angel; even the words found in a few MSS, "when she heard him [the angel]" are not part of the original text. If God sent the angel Gabriel to communicate His message to Mary, the angel mediated some kind of interior locution within the silence of Mary's soul.
Liturgical Feast. Of Eastern origin, the liturgical Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) was introduced at Rome between 660 and 680. Strictly speaking, it is a feast of our Lord and the oldest liturgical books entitled it Adnuntiatio Domini. The date, March 25, was chosen in relation to that of Christmas, but also in virtue of an old tradition according to which the creation of the world, the Incarnation, and the Passion of Christ occurred on that date. These historical data, as well as the prayers of the Mass and the readings from St. Leo in the Office of Matins, placed the feast in the general framework of the plan of salvation. In the Middle Ages, popular piety resulted in the Feast of the Annunciation being celebrated as a Marian feast. The 1969 revision of the Roman liturgical calendar restored the feast as primarily a Solemnity of the Lord in which Mary, his mother, is intimately associated. The full title of the feast indicates its christological focus—the Annunciation of the Lord—restoring its ancient name.
Bibliography: e. burrows, The Gospel of the Infancy, and Other Biblical Essays, ed. e. f. sutcliffe (London 1940). r. laurentin, Structure et théologie de Luc I–II (Études Biblique ; 1957), with ample bibliog. a. medÉbielle, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) 1:262–297. t. maertens, Le Messie est là: Lc 1–2 (Bruges 1954). p. gaechter, Maria im Erdenleben (Innsbruck 1953). m. j. lagrange, "Le Récit de l'enfance de Jésus-Christ dans Saint-Luc," Revue Biblique, 4 (1895) 160–185; "La Conception surnaturelle du Christ d'après Saint-Luc," ibid. 11 (1914) 60–71, 188–208. k. bornhauser, Die Geburts-und Kindheitsgeschichte Jesu (Gütersloh 1930). h. sahlin, Der Messias und das Gottesvolk: Studien zur proto-Lukanischen Theologie (Uppsala 1945).
[c. w. fields/eds.]
an·nun·ci·a·tion / əˌnənsēˈāshən/ • n. (usu. the Annunciation) the announcement of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:26–38). ∎ the church festival commemorating this, held on March 25 (Lady Day). ∎ a painting or sculpture depicting this. ∎ formal or archaic the announcement of something.
- dove and lily pictured with Virgin and Gabriel. [Christian Iconography: Brewer Dictionary, 645]
- Elizabeth Mary’s old cousin; bears John the Baptist. [N.T.: Luke 1:36–80]
- Gabriel messenger angel; tells Mary she will bear Christ child. [N.T.: Luke 1:26–38]
- Hail, Mary prayer adapted from the words of Gabriel to Mary announcing the coming birth of Christ. [N.T.: Luke 1:26–36]