This feast day takes its name from the Latin word for “announcement,” and refers to when, in the Gospel according to Luke, Mary received the news of Jesus’ birth from the angel Gabriel. In the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, the word commonly translated as “angel” in fact refers to a “messenger” of God, whose purpose is to relate God’s will. Indeed, the name Gabriel itself means “God is my strength” in Hebrew. The readings that culminate in today’s Gospel portion all relate to how God’s might is manifested in birth and marital relations, as well as when people seek to do God’s will.
The First Reading
A Sign of Deliverance
In the first of today’s readings, the nation of Judah and its king, Ahaz, face a profound threat from two kings to their north, Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel. In the midst of this political crisis, Ahaz refuses to receive Isaiah’s word, perhaps in fear of its implications. Isaiah nevertheless declares that word—a sign of deliverance from the immediate threat. The promise is set within the span of time marked by a pregnancy and the newborn’s weaning. The fulfillment of that promised deliverance will confirm for the king and people what the child’s name declares, that “God is with us.”
The Lord spoke again to Ahaz: “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, be it as deep as Sheol or stretching high above.” But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask, so that I do not test the Lord.”
So Isaiah said, “Listen, then, House of David: Is it not enough for you to exasperate people, that you exasperate my God, too? Therefore, my Lord indeed will give you a sign. Here—this young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a son. She will name him, ‘Immanuel.’”
A Poem for a Royal Wedding
Psalm 45 extols an unnamed Israelite king and the princess who is about to become his bride. The king is just and powerful; his bride, beautiful and adorned in gold. The reference in verse 6 to the king as God’s anointed is one foundation for the Christian understanding that the king depicted here is Jesus. This interpretation, however, ignores many of the psalm’s other details. The psalm’s distinctive first verse deserves note. Uniquely among the psalms, the author here refers to his own poetic impulse and skill (verse 1).
For the director, according to “Lilies,” of the sons of Korah, a poem of discernment, a song of love.
- My heart is stirred by a good thing.
I recite my verses to a king.
My tongue is the pen of a skilled scribe.
- You are the most beautiful among men.
Grace is poured out on your lips.
Therefore, God blesses you always.
- Strap your sword onto your thigh, mighty one!—
your splendor and majesty!
- In your majesty, find success!
Ride in the cause of truth and righteous humility.
May your right hand make you skilled in awesome deeds!
- Your arrows are sharp—
nations will fall under you!—
into the heart of the king’s enemies.
- Your throne—wondrous king!—forever and ever.
A scepter of fairness is the scepter of your reign.
- You love justice and hate evil.
Therefore, wondrous king, your God anointed you
with oil of gladness, over your companions.
- Myrrh, aloes, and cassia-cinnamon infuse all your garments.
From ivory palaces, stringed instruments give you joy.
- Daughters of kings are among your prized women.
The queen takes her place at your right hand in gold of Ophir.
- Listen, daughter! Look! Turn your ear!
Forget your people and your father’s house.
- The king craves your beauty.
Since he is your lord,
bow to him.
- With a gift, daughter of Tyre, the richest of people will seek your favor.
- All-glorious, a king’s daughter is within, her raiment of embroidered gold.
- In many-colored cloth she is led to the king.
Maidens, her attendants, after her are brought to you.
- They are led in happiness and joy.
They enter a royal palace.
- Your sons will take the place of your ancestors.
You will appoint them princes throughout the land.
- I will commemorate your name in every generation.
Therefore, nations will praise you forever and ever.
or Psalm 40:5-10
Proclaiming God’s Greatness
The psalmist declares the need publicly to extol God’s wonders and mighty deeds that rescue God’s followers from harm. Such public proclamation follows God’s instruction (verse 8) and pleases God even more than animal sacrifice (verse 6). The portion of the psalm in this reading reflects on God’s past actions in redeeming the psalmist from danger. In the verses that follow, which are excluded here, the psalmist sets out the hope that God similarly will offer protection from threats and dangers that the psalmist currently faces.
- Many deeds have you yourself done, Lord, my God—
your wonderous plans for us!
None compare to you.
Were I to open my mouth and speak these things,
they would be more than can be told!
- Sacrifice and offerings you do not desire—
you have opened my ears.
A burnt- or sin-offering you do not demand.
- Then I said, “Here! I have come!
In a book-scroll, it is written for me:
- To do your will, my God, is my desire.
Your instruction is at my core.”
- I reported tidings of righteousness in a vast congregation.
I will not restrain my lips,
you know, Lord.
- Your righteousness I did not hide within my heart.
Your faithfulness and redeeming power I have told.
I have not concealed your steadfast love and fidelity
for a vast congregation.
The Second Reading
Jesus as the Fulfillment of Animal Sacrifice
The Epistle to the Hebrews argues in detail that the literal requirements of sacrifice set out in the Scriptures of Israel were intended for this world, not the world to come that Jesus opens up. Even as sacrifices serve effectively to atone for sin in the earthly Temple, they also set the pattern for the offering of Jesus’ body to remove sin entirely for the time that is to come. The word order of Psalm 40, today’s alternate psalm reading, adjusted by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews so as to apply to Jesus, provides scriptural support for the argument.
It is simply impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to remove sin. That is why, when Jesus comes into the world, he says:
Sacrifice and offerings you do not desire; yet you provided me a body. You take no
pleasure in burnt-offerings or sin-offerings. Then I said, “Here! I have come! In a
book-scroll, it is written for me: To do your will, God.”
First he states that God does not want or take pleasure in sacrifices, oblations, burnt-offerings, and sin-offerings, although these things are offered according to the Law. Then he asserts, “Here, I have come…to do your will.” He rejects the first in order to establish the second, with the intent that we be sanctified by the offering of the body of Anointed Jesus once for all time.
Gabriel’s Announcement to Mary
Gabriel’s visit to Mary focuses attention on Jesus’ identity as God’s son and David’s heir from his birth. Gabriel announces that because holy Spirit will be involved in the conception of the child, the resultant birth is holy. In this section of Luke’s Gospel, as in Jewish tradition, holy Spirit refers to God’s self-disclosure to favored individuals. It is not the same as the later conception of the third component of the Trinity. Similarly, Luke here presents Jesus as son of God in the holiness of his birth, not as divine in trinitarian terms.
In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist], the messenger Gabriel was sent from God to a Galilean town named Nazareth, to go to a maiden contracted in marriage to a man whose name was Joseph, from David’s line, and the name of the maiden was Mary. Gabriel went to her and said, “Greetings, God-favored: The Lord is with you!” But she was shaken through at the word, puzzled at what sort of address this could be. The messenger said to her, “Do not fear, Mary, because you have found grace with God. Look: You will conceive in the womb and give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called Most High’s son, and the Lord God will give him his father David’s throne, to reign over Jacob’s house forever; of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the messenger, “How will this be, since I am not intimate with a husband?” The messenger replied and said to her, “Over you holy Spirit will come, and Most High’s power will overshadow you: that which is produced as holy will be called God’s son. And look: Elizabeth is your relative—she also has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who is called barren! Not a single thing God says will be impossible.” Mary said, “Here is the Lord’s servant; may it happen to me according to what you say!” And the messenger went away from her.
See Holy Week Years A, B, & C for Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday