Believing the Annunciation: a personal perspective


Scripture: Luke 1: 26-38 Nigel Bunce

The Annunciation — the announcement in Scripture of Jesus’ coming birth — appears in different forms in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels.  

I spoke some weeks ago about how Jesus became an increasingly heavenly character as time passed after his death. People must have asked, how could this Messiah have such low-born origins? Both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels appeared about 50 years after Jesus died. They tried to fill in the gaps.

The Annunciation

Both these Gospels tell of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit. We call this the Annunciation (the Announcement) of Jesus’ impending birth. Both authors also identify his mother as Mary. As well, they place his birth in Bethlehem, as foretold by the prophet Micah [5: 2].

In Matthew’s version of the Annunciation, an angel appears to Joseph, Mary’s fiancé. She is already pregnant by the Holy Spirit. The angel tells Joseph to keep the engagement and to name the child Jesus. The angel justifies all this by (mis)-quoting the prophesy [Isaiah 7: 14] about the young woman being with child. The mis-quote is because the Gospel writers used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which contains that error.

Today, we are reading Luke’s version of the events that led up to that “first Christmas”, Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is now pregnant. She has been living in seclusion for five months. Now, during the sixth month of her pregnancy, the Angel Gabriel appears again.

Don’t be afraid

In Luke’s Annunciation story, Gabriel appears to Mary, a young unmarried woman. As he did with Zechariah, Gabriel first tells Mary not to be afraid. We have probably all said something similar at one time or another. Someone – a friend or relative, a hospital patient, a parishioner – is in distress.

We try to comfort them by saying something like, “Don’t worry” or “I’m sure things will turn out OK” even if we really are not sure about the outcome. Maybe we say it as much to comfort ourselves as the person to whom we say it.

Was Gabriel really certain that everything would go OK? I guess we have to believe it was so.. After all, he was an angel sent by God!! However, Mary was less than enthusiastic with Gabriel’s prophesy. Gabriel also told Mary about her relative Elizabeth’s pregnancy. This links John the Baptist and Jesus even before they were born.

People married young back then, so Mary was almost certainly only a teenager. She risked death by stoning for being pregnant but unmarried. But Gabriel talked her into accepting – I guess you don’t have much choice if it’s an angel who tells you what to do!

Jesus’ ancestry

Both Gospel authors present genealogies that purport to show Jesus’ illustrious ancestry. Matthew traces him in fourteen generations back to King David, and a further fourteen back to Abraham [Matthew 1; 1-16]. Luke’s lineage of Jesus goes right back to God, by way of David and Adam!

Twenty-eight generations of, let’s say, 25 years each is only 700 years. So I doubt that Matthew or Luke really believed that their genealogies were literally true. They wanted the world to believe that Jesus really was the Messiah. However, both Matthew and Luke had a problem with Jesus’ immediate parentage.

For Matthew, he came from “Joseph, the husband of Mary”. Luke describes Jesus as “the son (as was thought) of Joseph”.

A scandalous birth?

In other words. there was some scandal about his parents not being unmarried. Really? a king born in a stable to an unmarried girl?  Seems questionable.

Many authors down the centuries have claimed that Jesus was illegitimate. In the modern era, James McGrath has reviewed some of those claims. He argues that the scandal caused by Jesus’ association with outcasts during his ministry seems to refute the idea that he himself was an outcast from society. 

The stain of Adam and a perfect man

However, the Annunciation stories also offer an explanation for a different problem. How could Jesus be an ordinary mortal person, yet free from the ‘Stain of Adam?’ Because, according to Genesis 2, Adam and Eve committed the first sin by disobeying God.

The “stain of Adam” was that sin transmitted itself to all his descendants, as a kind of genetic mutation. Since Mary conceived with out the dubious benefit of human intercourse, Jesus could be the “perfect man” who was born without sin, unlike everyone else. Maybe, we could think of Luke’s account as an early example of ‘fake news’. Thereby, it made those problems go away.

the problem of Biblical literalism

I have seemed to be very heretical in what I have said so far. I seem to be trashing one of Scriptures most favourite stories. To my mind, the problem is Biblical literalism – taking the words of the Bible as literally true. .The late bishop John Spong wrote this in his book Biblical literalism; a Gentile heresy.

“Unless Biblical literalism is challenged overtly in the Christian church itself, it will, in my opinion, kill the Christian faith … it renders the Christian faith increasingly unbelievable to an increasing number of citizens in our world.” 

Bible stories: facts or myths?

I think that Spong is right on this. We 21st ‘moderns’ are so hung up on taking the world literally, that we cannot put ourselves into the mind-set of 1st century people. Not only did they believe in miracles; their world-view was steeped in myth. That’s something that we struggle with.

The idea that a story may not be literally true, but that nevertheless, it reveals a deeper truth under the surface. Yes, I am sceptical of the literal truth of the Annunciation, today’s Gospel story. Did an angel really tell a young virgin that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit? Quite probably not.

My personal “take’ on Christian belief

But to me, the importance of Luke’s story is that it is a vehicle for telling me that Jesus had a special holiness. Luke announced that he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. Even though he didn’t fit the expected mould for a Messiah who would come on clouds in great glory.

What I have tried to do today is to explain why I can still be a Christian. Not by believing everything in the Bible literally. Instead, by looking for the truths that lie underneath the surface. And accepting them, and enjoying them, for what they are.

The Annunciation is a beautiful story with deep meaning. Against all the odds, a naiive young woman accepts God’s call to do something that she doesn’t want to do. Something that puts her life at risk. But something that will have great consequences for bringing God’s Kingdom closer. Yes, I can believe in the Annunciation.  Definitely.  Amen