December 19, 2016

A Reflection on Saint Luke's Infancy Narrative

Zechariah and the Angel
Angel Appearing to Zacharias, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1490.

St. Luke devotes the first two chapters of his Gospel to events in the infancy of Christ. Luke's infancy narratives consider six episodes structured in pairs about the early lives of John the Baptist and Jesus; two annunciations, two births and circumcisions and two scenes set in the Temple. The account also features many canticles (the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Gloria, and the Nunc dimittis — all of which praise God for the redemption of man. The stories, like the canticles, reference Old Testament passages showing that God's salvation was imminent.

The central event is the Annunciation of Mary wherein the Word (Jesus) becomes flesh. The Blessed Virgin gives her fiat, (her yes), to God's plan. From the very moment of Christ's conception in her womb Mary's life is inextricably bound up with God's redemptive ministry. She serves under her Son in perfect obedience.

Luke portrays Zechariah and Elizabeth as devout Jews. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a woman from the priestly family of Aaron. Both were blameless in observing the commandments and ordinances of God's Law. Despite this, they were well advanced in years and without children. (Luke 1:5-7).

At the Temple in Jerusalem, the offering of incense was one of the most solemn aspects of daily worship. This honor was determined by lot, due to the sheer number of priests. Zechariah was selected to perform the offering, a privilege.

At the Golden Altar of Incense, the Archangel Gabrielle announced to Zechariah that Elisabeth would give birth to a son, who he was to name John — a name meaning "God is gracious." This son would be the forerunner of the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:12-17), and on him God would bestow exceptional holiness. In disbelief, Zechariah asked for a sign authenticating the prophecy. The angel identified himself as the Archangel Gabriel, sent by God. Because of his doubt Zechariah was rendered mute, and was not able to speak until the day the prophesy was fulfilled. Consequently, when Zechariah went out to the worshipers in the temple's outer court, he was unable to say the blessing (Luke 1:18-22).

Compare this to the Virgin Mary’s response when the Archangel Gabrielle came to her in the Annunciation. Gabrielle reveals to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Anointed One. Rather than express disbelief, our Lady asks a question. "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" Gabrielle said to her in reply, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (Luke 1:34-35). Mary displays faith and the world prepared for its Savior.

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