Further reflections on Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 1:
Just how much, over the centuries of religious piety, has arisen from the use of the word ‘virgin’ to translate the greek ‘parthenon’, a young woman, not married.
A young, unmarried woman was betrothed to Joseph.
In ancient societies she would indeed be expected to be virginal. It is little wonder that she might question and doubt the message of the angel, that she would conceive.
Too much has been made of this term ‘virgin’. On the one hand, some wish to defend the literal truth of scripture here, while others doubt that a virgin can conceive, so argue for some other interpretation. While I think that Luke is in fact telling us that a virgin has conceived without sexual intercourse with a man, I also think that to focus on this debate is largely to miss Luke’s purpose.
it seems clear that Luke has little or no interest in the biology of Mary’s conception. That is, he is not trying to explain how Mary has conceived, in a modern scientific sense. His interest is theological. That’s the emphasis: the Holy Spirit will come upon her. So, in verse 35 we read of the hovering presence of the Spirit, overshadowing.
This is filled with theological meaning: we might even dare to say it is pregnant with theological purpose. The question is whether we, like Mary, are open to what this might mean, even though like her we may be filled with skepticism about it!
The Spirit hovering over Mary offers a direct association with the first creation story in Genesis 1. This is to be a new act of the same creative God. Now the world-creating one, who produces beauty and form from chaos, works within this world.
The same hovering presence operative in the creative act was recognized as the ‘cloud of the presence’ in the Exodus journey; the same ‘cloud’ imagery is seen in Luke’s transfiguration story, in chapter 9.
In all this, Luke is inviting us to see the world—the world we know, and call ‘our world’—as the arena of God’s creative presence and action.
This theological purpose is then fleshed out in many images, in the canticles of Zechariah and Mary (the Magnificat). What God does and the impact of God’s purposes upon human affairs are pretty clear.
For the ‘modern’ reader, these canticles immediately raise a problem. That is, they challenge immediately the idea that this is an accurate historical record. I have said that this s not Luke’s purpose. But people try to read it that way.
Can we literally imagine these songs composed on the spot, with such form and so rich in Old Testament imagery?
One view is that they were instantaneously spirit-inspired. God composed them, and Zechariah and Mary were the channel or mouth-piece for the words. But if that is the case, then in some sense their words and acts are devalued. It’s not their praise at all.
Another question of course is: who was there to write them down, in the moment?
The ‘form-critical’ approach offers a different idea. These were some kind of liturgical elements,perhaps already existing, or developed in Christian worship, and attributed to Zechariah and Mary. So the story element is not literally, but the praise fits.
If we follow this line, how do we relate this to Luke’s purpose?
The challenge is to ask what Luke is wanting us to know through this. This has to do with the way John’s birth, to a Hannah-like figure, and Jesus’ birth, in line with the ancient prophecy of a saviour for the nation, are in continuity with the creative and redemptive ways of God.
There is also an interesting question about the place of John. v76 is a great celebration of him.
It is too easily said that God’s salvation comes only through Jesus. Here, John is part of God’s salvation.
There is also a tradition, and a large body of scholarship, which suggests that John himself may have been seen as the long expected messiah. Indeed in the gospels he is asked as much. Are you the one?
Is this celebration of John a relic of that rival tradition?
I think it is important to allow this text to be what it is, and not force it into Christological service, as if it does not honour Jesus to allow any praise of John. Let it say what it says.
Let John be, in his own right, a visible act of the presence of God, a prophet of God and, as such, one who points us in the direction of Jesus.
The chapter ends with John growing up, ‘strong in the spirit, and in
the desert. There’s no comment on that: inviting us to wonder about the
geographic significance Luke might be suggesting. So much of the Hebrew
tradition sees the desert as the place to learn about God. To Luke’s
city-based and fairly middle-classed audience, this is a reminder …
The challenge is to see what God is doing here, and to know it. What
does this knowledge do to the way we see and live in the world?