Summary: What do the first two principles of biblical interpretation teach us about the Annunciation story?
Solemnity of the Annunciation 2012
When we pray together our profession of faith in a moment, the Missal instructs us to kneel for a moment (if we can) when we say that of the Son, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” John’s Gospel says it best: the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us. So it is very appropriate that as we strike some of the most practical passages in the Pope’s exhortation, Verbum Domini, we celebrate the moment in Nazareth when the Word became human, when He condescended to become a servant of us poor slaves to our own mortality and weakness.
Last week we considered the story of Joseph and Mary with Jesus in the Temple as he entered adolescence. We looked at the first principle of Biblical interpretation–interpreting with an eye to the unity of Sacred Scripture. On this feast day, we get a second chance to do this. Here we see Isaiah, utterly frustrated with the King of Judah, Ahaz. Ahaz is facing a dual crisis. He abandoned the God of David to worship foreign gods and the gods of the land. He had even murdered his first-born son and heir as a sacrifice to one of these demons, and had been unable to produce a successor heir. Moreover, his double-dealing in foreign policy had resulted in a coalition that was trying to attack him and depose him, thus destroying the Davidic dynasty. Isaiah has told him to be firm in the face of this trouble, that God would save him if he would only turn to him and seek a divine sign. He refuses Isaiah’s request. He wants to do things his own way–the sin of willful pride. So Isaiah forces the issue. The new queen will get pregnant and bear a son, an heir, and a good one, Hezekiah.
But, if we consider the unity of Scripture, this verse also looks forward to our Gospel passage. Abijah, the mother of Hezekiah, was but a type of the real virgin who will bear a Savior. Mary is the true virgin-mother, and the angel, both Matthew and Luke testify, goes to her precisely because she is a virgin of faith. Mary, unlike Ahaz, believes God’s Word, and thus conceives God’s Word. The great spiritual teachers tell us that Mary conceived Jesus in her heart before she did so in her body. That means she committed herself to always doing God’s will, no matter what the cost. In that, she imaged the divine condescension that Jesus lived. The Son of God did the will of the Father, even though it meant His own death.
We can also learn from this story the second truth about biblical interpretation: it must take into account the living tradition of the whole Church. Consider the first passage. Jews and skeptical exegetes use the original text to denigrate the idea that Isaiah is in some way prophesying the virgin birth of Jesus. But please remember that the Jewish Talmud is quite clear about their understanding of Mary’s pregnancy–and it’s not something I can repeat in a homily. They point out that the word “virgin” is Jerome’s translation from the Greek parthenos, rather than from the original Hebrew almah, which means “young woman of marriageable age.” They insist that there is nothing here that implies the virgin birth of Jesus.
But if we follow the Church’s hermeneutic, her method of interpreting the Word of God, we must acknowledge that, from the beginning, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Bride of the Holy Spirit, was a foundation stone of the Faith. The whole point of both origin narratives, in Luke and Matthew, is to show that Jesus is the Son of God and the son of Mary, that no human father was involved. In the biology of the ancients, Mary would have been the nurturing environment for the physical and moral development of Her Son–there was no human seed. In our biology, we would affirm Mary’s role, but add that all the DNA came from her, by a miraculous action of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Creator of man could certainly change one of her X chromosomes into a Y by a simple biochemical truncation.
The author of Hebrews, however, helps us to see the significance of the whole series of stories we contemplate today. Ahaz, like Adam and Eve, Cain, Jacob, even David, and certainly everyone in this church, spent way too much time doing things his own way, sinning, turning aside from God’s will. The whole life of Jesus–and His virgin Mother–was an acting out of the words–Behold, I come to do your will, O God. As we celebrate this feast, and as we conclude these last two weeks of Lent, let’s resolve to make these words of the Word of God our constant refrain–you didn’t want sacrifices and offerings, so I give you the only thing you want. Behold, O God, I come to do your will. Whatever the inconvenience, by your grace I will do your will.