BNG is pleased to partner with Baker Publishing Group and Perkins School of Theology at SMU to present a twice-weekly Advent reflection series written by Jack Levison. The reflections will be published every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the season.
Surprises mount in Luke’s story of wondrous births. So does bewilderment. This time, it is not an old married man but a young single woman who is baffled by an angel’s words.
The angel Gabriel visits Mary, announces her pregnancy, then responds to her question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” with still another pronouncement: “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 holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Mary is doubly bewildered: at the start by being told she is favored (Luke 1:28, 30), then by being told she will conceive a son.
“It is difficult to know what a Galilean peasant girl would have understood about sex and conception.”
It is difficult to know what a Galilean peasant girl would have understood about sex and conception, but this much we do know: In the annals of ancient physiology, the man had the power of conception, since pneuma — spirit-breath — vitalized his sperm. The woman’s uterus, in essence, was little more than a receptacle, a vessel, for his vitality.
The angel might have said, along the lines of ancient biology, “A pneuma will enter you and create a son inside you.” Now that a Galilean girl might have understood.
Mary understands enough to know that this is not what the angel is saying: Joseph’s pneuma-sperm will become vital in her. That is why she asks, “How can this happen, since I don’t know a man?” (Luke 1:34, my translation).
Something else is being promised — or threatened— here. Mary, young and unsophisticated as she is, knows this full well.
This explosive conversation between angel and virgin has cast a spell over centuries of Christian thought. But is it a conversation about the virgin birth? Not necessarily. Gabriel does not say, “The holy spirit will come upon you … and you will be pregnant.” Gabriel does say, “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 holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
“The pronouncement, understood in this way, is less about the mechanics of Mary’s pregnancy than about the character of her Son.”
The pronouncement, understood in this way, is less about the mechanics of Mary’s pregnancy than about the character of her Son. The therefore that links the first and second halves of the promise connects the Holy Spirit with the holiness of the child and the power of the Most High with the Son of God. The Holy Spirit will not cause Mary to become pregnant; the Spirit will ensure that her child will be holy. Holy Spirit, holy son.
We have seen this move before. When the angel talked to Zechariah about his soon-to-be son, nearly everything in the promise, a kaleidoscope of Old Testament phrases, was about that son. The focus was not upon conception; the accent did not fall upon a miraculous birth. That is why, when Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesies later, he does not wax eloquent about the conception or birth of John the Baptist, as marvelous and miraculous as they may be, but about God’s decisive action in the world, about raising up a Savior, about remembering promises and covenants and oaths, about making space for a people who will worship in holiness and justice all their days.
His son, Zechariah knows, will be pivotal to this grand plan, so he concludes his prophecy with a word to his son that is, as we have learned to expect, chock-a-block full of Old Testament hopes and dreams: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).
Luke does not paint a picture of Zechariah adoringly rubbing Elizabeth’s distended belly. It is not the conception of the boy that matters so much as the impact he will have as a prophet preparing the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3), breaking the dawn (Isaiah 58:8), bringing light to those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:7), doing the hard labor of God’s work. There is not an ounce of soppiness, a whiff of sentimentality, in Zechariah’s prophecy — as if Luke is daring us to romanticize this pregnancy, which is itself pregnant with political impact.
Jack Levison holds the W.J.A. Power Chair of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He is known for his groundbreaking work on the Holy Spirit and topics both biblical and theological. This column is excerpted from his book An Unconventional God. Used here with permission of Baker Publishing, © 2020.
Also in this Advent series: