The Announcement

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 4
December 24, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The announcement to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Son of God has been the subject of many paintings. Of course, Mary is there, as well as the angel Gabriel who brings the message and a perhaps surprising dove. Mary is surprised that she is to be the mother because she is a virgin, but Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will bring this about. That explains the dove, which is often used as a symbol for the Spirit. The Holy Trinity -- Father, Son and Spirit -- are at work here to bring about the salvation and renewal of the world.

The Annunciation -- or Announcement, to use the more familiar English word -- is described in only one of our Gospels, that of Luke. It's the announcement to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Son of God. This is a well-known scene because many artists have tried to picture it, and thousands of those paintings can be found online -- just google "annunciation pictures." (It should go without saying that such a painting may not be historically accurate!) In many of them the angel Gabriel can be identified easily by the wings -- though there's no mention of that feature in our text. Gabriel is simply a messenger (which is what the word "angel" means), though obviously a very high-level courier who understands the importance of this mission.

Another figure in the paintings is Mary, who is going to receive the message. In most of the pictures she looks as though she may be in her mid to late 20s, and she's often shown in an attitude of prayer. In fact, in some paintings she's kneeling at a prayer desk with her devotional book of hours open. But while many of the artists who painted those pictures were highly skilled and appreciated the religious significance of the event, the physical representations of it aren't too realistic.

Mary was probably younger than the women portrayed in those paintings -- it's likely that she was in her early teens. Nazareth, where she lived, was an out-of-the-way village, not a place where an important family was likely to have lived. (Years later, when Nathaniel was told that Jesus was from that village, he replied, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"1) Mary undoubtedly prayed, but she would have spent a good deal of her day with household chores like cleaning or helping to prepare for meals rather than with formal religious practices. Maybe the artists thought it wouldn't be respectful to picture an angel appearing to a young woman who was sweeping the floor or stirring a pot.

There's also a third figure in many of those paintings -- a bird. Specifically, it's a dove. Some people may miss that feature, and those who do notice it may wonder how a bird got into the house. More to the point, what is it doing in this religious painting? We'll find out in good time.

But the most important figure in our text is neither Gabriel, nor Mary, nor the dove. In fact, the most important figure isn't shown in those paintings because he hadn't been born yet. He is the child that Gabriel has come to tell Mary about. "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

This is the first time that Jesus is mentioned in Luke's gospel. The angel has come to announce to Mary, even before the child is conceived or born, the most important figure not only in this gospel but in the entire New Testament -- indeed, all of scripture. The child to be born will be important not just for "the house of Jacob" but for all the people of the world. Gabriel's announcement is, if you wish, a prophecy about who the child to be born will be.

God's decision and Mary's

How would Mary react to the angel's announcement? A modern young woman, told by an angel that she's to be the mother of a heroic figure, might reply, "Wow! That's really cool!" Or, realizing the responsibility and the possible difficulties that that would entail, she might say, "No, I don't want to do that." But Mary's reply to the angelic message is very down to earth and practical. "How can this be, for I am a virgin?" (The King James version translated the Greek literally -- "For I do not know a man.") Mary is not naive -- she knows where babies come from. So it's natural for her to ask, "How am I supposed to bear a child?"

Gabriel's reply is straightforward but startling. "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." And the angel goes on to tell Mary about the pregnancy of her older relative Elizabeth, to assure her that God is able to bring about what has been announced to Mary.

We're told right away of Mary's response to the announcement, but let's pause a bit and think about how that message must have struck the young woman. It may seem that she's simply being told what's going to happen, and that she will have no choice in the matter. "Nothing will be impossible with God," the angel tells her. But is Mary to be entirely passive, bearing the Son of God whether she likes it or not? There is something rather unpleasant about that idea.

God is involved in everything that happens in the world -- that's what the creeds mean when they say that God is "almighty." But God doesn't simply move creatures around like inert pieces on a chessboard. And human beings have some degree of choice about what they will do. Apparently, Gabriel isn't surprised that Mary wants some explanation about the surprising message that she has received.

In any case, Mary's reply comes without hesitation. She is definitely on board with the message she's received: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

An act of God

"The Holy Spirit will come upon you," Gabriel said, and that explains the dove in the paintings. In all the gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism, we're told that the Holy Spirit descended upon him "like a dove."2 That doesn't mean though that the Holy Spirit simply is a dove, and the Spirit isn't always represented in that way in biblical texts. In the story of Pentecost, the Spirit is manifested as "a sound like the rush of a violent wind" and "tongues, as of fire" on the apostles.3 But a dove is easier to picture than a wind.

This symbol for the Holy Spirit is present in the paintings because of the statement in the Apostles Creed that Jesus was "conceived by the Holy Spirit." It's like what is spoken of in Genesis, when God "formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being."4 In fact, the Nicene Creed associates the Holy Spirit not simply with the beginning of human life, but with all life.

But the beginning of this life in the womb of Mary will be unique, and the child to be born "will be called the Son of the Most High." And if you look at those paintings of the Annunciation, you'll see that the dove representing the Holy Spirit is flying along a beam of light toward Mary's ear. The divine Word of whom John's Gospel speaks was personally united with the human child that Mary conceived, so that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."5

As we approach Christmas, our attention is naturally focused on the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. But Luke's story of the announcement of that birth reminds us that it is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at work in that event to save humanity and to renew the whole creation.

And that's a whole reason in itself to pay attention to Jesus.