Saturday, December 21, 2013


Rosetti's Anunciation
I’ve been reflecting on one of my favorite scenes from the Christmas narrative, the “annunciation.” You remember it begins this way: In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be" (Lk 1:26-29). 

Precisely because it is such a familiar scene to so many of us, it may be worth taking a closer look at those opening verses.


The annunciation to Mary resembles certain other annunciation scenes from the Old Testaments. The most important of these is the announcement of the birth of Samson: 

Manoah and his wife
There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines’ (Judges 13:2-5).

Luke’s choice of words points us to a messianic prophecy the Church uses on Palm Sunday: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he." (Zech. 9:9)

There is also a reflection of this shout of messianic joy in Zephaniah 3:14, "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!."

The image of a barren woman bearing a child and the messianic overtones in the passages that tell the “daughter” Jerusalem to “rejoice” at what is about to happen form just some of the background for Luke’s opening chapter. Let’s not forget the angel’s appearing to Zechariah to announce to him that his old, barren wife would bear a son, John the Baptist (Lk 1:7, etc.) 


If you, like me, pray the “Hail Mary” constantly, you might be interested in a quick look at what Luke’s original Greek text reveals about the angel’s greeting.

First, there’s the wonderful alliteration of the three “k” sounds in Gabriel’s “Chaire kecharitomene," (kyray kekahritoh meneh). Chaire is the normal word of greeting, “Hail.” I remember how we First Year Greek students used to exchange it with one another in the hallways just for fun. The second word is difficult to translate. It’s actually a verb (the perfect passive participle if you’re interested), charitoo, which means “to bestow favor upon, to favor highly, to bless.” The root of the word, char- means “gift, grace.” The ending on the verb is feminine singular. So we can try translating the two words “Hail, O highly favored one” or “Hail, Gifted Lady.” 

St. Jerome translated it into Latin as “Ave, gratia plena,” “Hail, full of grace.” Although the word “grace” catches the Greek root of the verb, it seems to me to say both too much and too little. Gabriel is not telling Mary that she is filled with grace, but rather that she has been highly favored by God.

This strange greeting is followed by “the Lord is with you.” To show just how odd and overwhelming this saying was, Luke says that the young maiden (aged 12 or 13?) was “troubled” by the angel’s words. Let’s look at that word for a moment. In1:12 when Zechariah saw the angel that appeared to him in the temple he was “troubled” (Greek terasso -- the RSV translates it a little strongly as “terrified”). So now when Luke describes this young teenage girl reacting to the appearance and the strange greeting of the angel, he uses not terasso but diaterasso, the dia- is an intensifier that adds the idea of “thoroughly.” The poor girl was “thoroughly terrified” by the angel! Or at least she was “utterly confused” by the words and “wondered what the greeting might mean” (v.29). Gabriel has to calm her down and tell her “Do not be afraid, Mary” (v.31).

John Collier, Annunciation 
We can only try to imagine Mary’s reaction to being told that she has been “highly favored” by God. Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us She is among the most powerless people in her society: she is young in a world 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. That she should have “found favor with God” and be “highly gifted” shows Luke’s understanding of God’s activity as surprising and often paradoxical, almost always reversing human expectations. (The Gospel of Luke, Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 39)”


The “holidays” are an ordeal for many people, especially those whose family situations are troubled. Alcohol or drug abuse turns “the night before Christmas” into a nightmare. It seems to me that Luke’s recounting of the annunciation offers us lessons that we can all profit from regardless of our situation in life. For example, “God’s activity is often surprising and paradoxical,” and “sometimes God’s plan for us can be overwhelming or even terrifying.”

I can think of a couple of my students who would really be comforted to know the lesson of the annunciation, that God can use the young, the powerless and the minority person to further the divine plan.

May our God for whom “nothing is impossible” bless you with a grace-filled Christmas!

Henry Owassa Tanner, Annunciation 


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