The first two chapters of Luke are full of incident: miraculous signs, messages being proclaimed, and a lot of movement. Mary hurries to see Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, the Shepherds to the manger and so on. Luke’s version of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and early life begin and end in the Temple at Jerusalem. There the annunciation of John the Baptist’s birth is made to his father Zechariah. There the child Jesus is presented, and the boy Jesus is found by Mary and Joseph.
This is no accident. Luke carefully puts together the stories, traditions, and episodes that have been related to him in such a way as to show who Jesus is: the one who establishes a new meeting place for God and his people in himself. But more of that later. Let’s get back to the Temple.
The Temple was the centre of religious life at the time of Jesus. The priests who controlled temple worship, were still powerful figures. It is here that Luke begins his narrative, his Tale of the Christ. It starts at the Altar of Incense, next to the curtain dividing that part of the Temple from the Holy of Holies.
It is here that Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, appears to Zechariah and announces the coming of the great prophet. To this, Zechariah expresses doubt and is silenced. His wife Elizabeth says nothing when she realises she is pregnant.
Zechariah’s being struck dumb was more than a punishment: it was a sign. The promise would be that Zechariah would regain his speech when John was born. Notice how Elizabeth his wife is silent too, keeping herself to herself.
These are the responses of pious people not atypical of the reactions of many in the Old Testament to ground breaking news; the Old Testament, the Old Covenant. Zechariah and Elizabeth belong to this world of sacrifice and silence. Good people, faithful, but they stand dumbfounded in the face of the intervention of God.
Contrast this with the Annunciation to Mary. First of all, there is the setting. Not the great Temple but a comparative backwater. Not the burning of incense in a ritual worship, but a young woman, betrothed to a man, awaiting her future to happen. And it does.
Mary too questions and expresses doubt, but the way her question is framed shows that she fully accepts that she is in the presence of the Divine, and that the consequences of the Angel’s message are real and immediate. Gabriel leaves, and so does Mary. She “sets out as quickly as she could,” to share the Good News. For her, the message needs to be shared: she is spurred into action.
This is a recurring theme in Luke, word followed by action. This is how the story of Jesus begins, and how it will continue in the Church. The good news is not something to be kept under wraps but shared with all.
Pause for thought
Often, people can’t wait to share the gossip or spread the worst about what’s happening. Our news bulletins are full of what’s going wrong. Seldom, do they tell us what’s going right. That is usually something the local press does. Is there something here? Does there need to be a sense of community that is both encouraged and is the condition for the good news?
Are we in a hurry to create community and share the Gospel?