As an angel announces to the priest Zachariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear John the Baptist, we are brought to the very cusp of the appearance of the Emmanuel, God with Us, Jesus Christ. Before we can look forward to Christ’s nativity, however, we must first look backward if we are to understand the splendor of its glory.
Gabriel’s announcement, as it turns out, was actually only one of the divine interventions by which children with a special destiny were given to barren couples, which also included the birth stories of Ishmael, Isaac, and Samson. Even the format of the announcement is similar: appearance, followed by fear, good news, doubt, the sign, the response and the departure.
At first glance, then, we might perceive similarities to Old Testament stories in the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel of the birth of Jesus to Mary. When we take a closer look, however, we understand just how powerfully unique were the events about to surround her in Bethlehem.
Think back to the icon of the supplication (Deisis) which portrays John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary flanking the Lord Jesus in prayer, as we discussed last time. As John is the last prophet of the Old Testament preparing the path for the Lord, Mary represents the first and the ideal Christian. Her exclamation, ‘Let it be according to thy word,’ gives birth, both literally and figuratively, to that very Word in the flesh.
With this in mind, our eyes become open to the uniqueness of Mary’s child, and the grace and power behind the newness of the events unfolding. John was great before the Lord; but Jesus himself is the great one of the Most High. John prepares the people; Jesus is to rule them. Most importantly, while John is inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit ‘overshadows’ the virgin, not merely inspiring a man of flesh, but conceiving the Son of God.
Here we go to the heart of the matter. Despite the many Scriptural testimonies to the power and operation of the Holy Spirit in anointing and inspiring humankind, there is in the entire Old Testament only one case to be compared to the virginal conception of Jesus. That example, of course, is the creation of the cosmos from a chaotic and formless void, as described in the opening of the book of Genesis.
In the Annunciation, we see demonstrated a new creation, by which God’s world-creating spirit is active again with the begetting of God’s Son in the womb of Mary. Jesus, as St. Paul tells us in I Cor. 15, is the New Adam. Mary is the new Eve. As in the Gospel of Matthew, so too in the Gospel of Luke, we see Who and the How of Jesus is in his dual identity not only as the Son of David in the flesh, but the Son of God through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.