This is the second of a series of nine articles about the Immaculate Conception and other related themes that will be published daily from December 1 through 9.
The Gospel According to St Luke has been called often “The Gospel of Mary.” A careful reading of the words of St Luke reveals that the evangelist knew Mary personally and drew much information from Mary’s memories from the early days when she was promised to Joseph. Many like to think of Mary as an ordinary Jewish maiden who was selected by God for an extraordinary mission. However the will of God was not made known to her suddenly without warning. If we read both the Old and New Testament carefully we can discover evidence of Mary’s spiritual life before the Annunciation. I call all of those details “the Silent Gospel of Mary” and I invite you to enter that delightful garden of peace, goodness, and wisdom where Our Blessed Mother grew up and was prepared, like a Princess, to be the Gebirah, the Glorious Queen who will reign with her son over the House of David for ever and ever.
St Luke starts his Gospel as a letter to Theophilus, a regent in a province during first century of the Roman Empire.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
We have the great privilege to read St Luke’s account because the Church copied and saved the words of the Luke the Evangelist until this day. From Luke’s introduction we can deduct that many accounts of the early days of Christianity existed at the time. Most appear to have been mixed collections of anecdotes written by various believers. Luke offers Theophilus a first hand account since he had been a follower of Jesus from the early days, perhaps because he was a physician close to the Zebedee family, the household of John and James, the “sons of thunder” (see Mark 3:17.) In time that household of faithful followers of Jesus would receive Mary and is likely to have been the core of the first Christian church. It was the young John Zebedee who respectfully waited outside the empty tomb so that Peter could enter first. See John 20: 3-10.
The information that follows pertains to the extended family of Mary. We will see later that we have good reason to believe that Luke received the account directly from the Mother of Jesus.
Birth of John the Baptist announced
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Zechariah and his wife were from the tribe of Levi. From there one can deduct that Mary’s father was also a Levite whose wife was of the tribe of Judah. There we see the hand of God at work for Jesus was destined to be King and High Priest forever “after the manner of Melchizedek.” See Psalm 110:4. So through Mary’s lineage, Jesus was both Prince and Priest. Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin. They were righteous before God both in keeping the Torah and the mizvot. God had kept Elizabeth barren until her old age because he needed her to give witness of God’s power and mercy, as we shall see later.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
“The hour of incense” must have been something similar to the Angelus, the height of the day. The priests cast lots and Zechariah must go in the Holy — not the place reserved for the Presence of God but the previous chamber — to make the incense offering. The vision of an angel, a messenger of God, to the right of the altar of incense startled the priest. It is hard to imagine what a human being feels in the presence of a holy angel. Many who had the experience say that is something akin to melting, all strength abandons the body when the terrible reality of original sin meets the absolute perfection of a spiritual being. Well, this angel was standing to the right of the altar and Zechariah knew what that meant. A judgment, a command was about to be pronounced and that came directly from the right hand of the Hashem, the Blessed Creator Himself.
Zechariah did not even imagine that the decree he was about to hear concerned his very family. He was going to father a child at an age when most men of his generation were preparing to die.
And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Just like in many angelical apparitions in history this angel tells the priest not to be afraid. The prayers of his youth were heard and now, at the right time of God, he was going to be the father of the greatest prophet of Israel. See Matthew 11:11.
Zechariah’s son was going to be a man dedicated to God, made perfect for his mission “from his mother’s womb” to prepare Israel for the arrival of the Messiah. But then Zechariah makes a mistake. Perhaps this was too good to be true but he should have known better than to ask the angel for a guarantee. He was seeing a messenger of God, in the Holy Temple, to the right of the Holy Altar of Incense. Could anything but the pure truth be uttered in such circumstances? But poor Zechariah was just human. We are like him and know how many times all the promises of Heaven and Earth are not enough to reassure a broken heart that has been waiting a long time for the blessings of God. Zechariah the priest failed to say “amen,” that Hebrew word that comes from emunah, the perfect trust, the confidence that comes from total unconditional belief in our Creator.
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
By the time Luke registered those words both Zechariah and his son John were long gone. The story came most likely through Mary’s family. Zechariah must have told the story to his wife and family so many times! I imagine him saying, “What was I thinking? Why did I have to open my big mouth and ask Hashem for assurances! How foolish of me!”
And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
There is a profound lesson here: those who have even minor doubts, even doubts that come from a heart like Zechariah’s overwhelmed by happiness, cannot announce the Good News. We must remember that, we are not paid reporters; we are not mere conveyors of information. We are believers, we live inside a miracle and we are to give witness with our whole being of an extraordinary encounter with the supernatural. We have to have faith and say “amen” to every little or great utterance. Many decades later another man of God was sent home blind for not getting the message right. St Paul learned from the experience and counseled the Church with wise words: “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances.” (Thessalonians 5:20)
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Of course the angel was right. Elizabeth conceived a baby and concealed the happy news until she could not hide it any longer. Who would have believed her before she had the exterior evidence of a perfect pregnancy? There is another lesson there: we must let the truth of the Gospel mature inside us before we let it out. Our audience has to be ready to believe also.
All of this is happening and now the family of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and her betrothed Joseph know that something is afoot. The time for the arrival of the Messiah is on the final countdown, many are already looking for signs but that blessed family is filled with excitement because of what has happened to Elizabeth and the news that something very similar is happening also to young Mary on the other side of the mountains separating Judea from Galilee.
Now we have two women, one way past the age of her last natural chance to be with child and one who is barely a woman, so young that she has to wait for a while before marrying Joseph. The Bible presents us with these “counterpoints” often. It is not hard to see that these two women represent two ages in contrast, one about to end and one about to begin. The age of the Law is coming to fruition in the perfection of John the son of Zechariah. The age of Mercy is about to be born from the blessed womb of Mary of Nazareth.
“Take away my reproach”
Compare the expression of Elizabeth to that of Rachel in Genesis 30:22-24.
Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!”
There is a mysterious echo of the Gospel here. Rachel is the wife of Jacob who has to wait many years to be married and then wait even more to be a mother. First Jacob must work seven years to earn the right to marry the older sister Leah and then another seven years to earn the right to marry Rachel whom he really loves. Then Rachel has to wait a long time and watch her sister have four sons of her own (Levi and Judah, the main tribes of Israel come from Leah) until she finally has a son, Joseph whose very name is his mother plea to God for one more son. It is after that son of Rachel that Joseph, the putative father of Jesus, was named. Through the ages Rachel and Leah the matriarchs of Israel seem to join their voices to ask for a Son, the Messiah that will “take away the reproach” from a nation that could not bring God’s Kingdom into existence. Mary, named after Moses’ sister Miriam (Meriem,) is the woman God has chosen to save not only the nation of Israel but the whole world through her offspring.
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On December 8 we are going to celebrate the day of the Immaculate Conception. These days the world seems to be fraught with danger and unspeakable acts of violence and hate. Yet we present to the world the banner of Mary. Miraculous events will soon happen just like when the angel appeared to Zecharaiah. We should not be afraid and wait for the moment when Mary makes herself visible to all before her Son turns His attention to the affairs of this world.
A tiny part of my mission was to write this article so you are aware of Our Blessed Mother’s interest in you and every human being alive today. Let us join in praying the Novena of the Immaculate Conception, asking Our Mother for peace in the world, and the prompt return of Her Son, Jesus.