Thoughts on the Forerunner of Christ: The Annunciation of John the Baptist. Part 2.

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(St. Matthew 1; St. Luke 1:26-80.)

The Galilee of the time of Jesus was not only of the richest fertility, cultivated to the utmost, and thickly covered with populous towns and villages, but the center of every known industry, and was part of the busy road of the world’s commerce.

Nor was it otherwise in Nazareth.

The great caravan route which led from Acco on the sea to Damascus divided at its commencement into three roads, one of which passed through Nazareth. Men of all nations, busy with another life than that of Israel,would appear in its streets; and through them thoughts, associations, and hopes connected with the great outside world be stirred. But, on the other hand, Nazareth was also one of the great centers of Jewish Temple-life.

The Priesthood was divided into twenty-four ‘courses,’ each of which, in turn, ministered in the Temple. The Priests of the ‘course’ which was to be on duty always gathered in certain towns, whence they went up in company to Jerusalem, while those of their number who were unable to go spent the week in fasting and prayer. Now Nazareth was one of these Priest-centers. Thus, to take the wider view, a double symbolic significance attached to Nazareth, since through it passed alike those who carried on the traffic of the world, and those who ministered in the Temple.

We may take it, that the people of Nazareth were like those of other little towns similarly circumstanced: with all the peculiarities of the impulsive, straight-spoken, hotblooded, brave, intensely national Galileans; with the deeper feelings and almost instinctive habits of thought and life, which were the outcome of long centuries of Old Testament training; but also with the petty interests and jealousies of such places, and with all the ceremonialism and punctilious self-assertion of Orientals. The cast of Judaism prevalent in Nazareth would, of course, be the same as in Galilee generally. We know, that there were marked divergences from the observances in that stronghold of Rabbinism, Judaea –indicating greater simplicity and freedom from the constant intrusion of traditional ordinances. The purity of betrothal in Galilee was less likely to be sullied, and weddings were more simple without the dubious institution of groomsmen, or ‘friends of the bridegroom. The bride was chosen, not as in Judea, where money was too often the motive, but as in Jerusalem, with chief regard to ‘a fair degree;’ and widows were (as in Jerusalem) more tenderly cared for.

Whatever view may be taken of the genealogies in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, there can be no question that both Joseph and Mary were of the royal lineage of David.

Most probably the two were nearly related, while Mary could also claim kinship with the Priesthood, being, no doubt on her mother’s side, a ‘blood-relative’ of Elisabeth, the Priest-wife of Zacharias. (Luke 1:36) Even this seems to imply that Mary’s family must shortly before have held higher rank, for only with such did custom sanction any alliance on the part of Priests. But at the time of their betrothal, both Joseph and Mary were extremely poor, as appears –not indeed from his being a carpenter, since a trade was regarded as almost a religious duty –but from the offering at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. (Luke 2:24)

Accordingly, their betrothal must have been of the simplest, and the dowry settled the smallest possible. From that moment Mary was the betrothed wife of Joseph; their relationship as sacred as if they had already been wedded. Any breach of it would be treated as adultery; nor could the bond be dissolved except, as after marriage, by regular divorce. Yet months might intervene between the betrothal and marriage.

Five months of Elisabeth’s sacred retirement had passed, when a strange messenger brought its first tidings to her kinswoman in far-off Galilee. It was not in the solemn grandeur of the Temple, between the golden altar of incense and the seven-branched candlestick, that the Angel Gabriel now appeared, but in the privacy of a humble home at Nazareth. And, although the awe of the Supernatural must unconsciously have fallen upon her, it was not so much the sudden appearance of the mysterious stranger in her retirement that startled the maiden, as the words of his greeting,implying unthought blessing. The ‘Peace to thee’ was, indeed, the well-known salutation, while the words ‘The Lord is with thee’ might waken remembrance of the Angelic call to great deliverance in the past. (Judges 6:12) But this designation of ‘highly favored’ came upon her with bewildering surprise, perhaps not so much from its contrast to the humbleness of her estate, as from the self-unconscious humility of her heart.

Accordingly, it is this story of special ‘favor,’ or grace, which the Angel traces in rapid outline, from the conception of the Virgin-Mother to the distinctive, Divinely-given Name, symbolic of the meaning of His coming; His absolute greatness; His acknowledgment as the Son of God; and the fulfillment in Him of the great Davidic hope,with its never-ceasing royalty, and its boundless-Kingdom.

In all this, however marvelous, there could be nothing strange to those who cherished in their hearts Israel’s great hope. Nor was there anything strange even in the naming of the yet unconceived Child. It sounds like a saying current among the people of old, this of the Rabbis, concerning the six whose names were given before their birth: Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, Solomon, Josiah, and ‘the Name of the Messiah, Whom may the Holy One, blessed be His Name, bring quickly, in our days!’

Thus, on the supposition of the readiness of her believing heart there would have been nothing that needed further light than the how of her own connection with the glorious announcement. And the words, which she spake, were not of trembling doubt, but rather those of inquiry, for the further guidance of a willing self-surrender. And now the Angel unfolded yet further promise of Divine favor, and so deepened her humility. For the idea of the activity of the Holy Ghost in all great events was quite familiar to Israel at the time, even though the individuation of the Holy Ghost may not have been fully apprehended. Only, they expected such influences to rest exclusively upon those who were either mighty, or rich, or wise. And of this twofold manifestation of miraculous ‘favor’ –that she, and as a Virgin, should be its subject –Gabriel, ‘the might of God,’ gave this unasked sign, in what had happened to her kinswoman Elisabeth.

The sign was at the same time a direction. The first, but also the ever-deepening desire in the heart of Mary, when the Angel left her, must have been to be away from Nazareth, and for the relief of opening her heart to a woman, in all things like-minded, who perhaps might speak blessed words to her. It is only what we would have expected, that ‘with haste’ she should have resorted to her kinswoman.

It could have been no ordinary welcome that would greet the Virgin-Mother. Elisabeth must have learned from her husband the destiny of their son, and hence the near Advent of the Messiah. But she could not have known either when, or of whom He would be born. When, by a sign not quite strange to Jewish expectancy, she recognized in her near kinswoman the Mother of her Lord, her salutation was that of a mother to a mother –the mother of the ‘preparer’ to the mother of Him for Whom he would prepare.

Three months had passed, and now the Virgin-Mother must return to Nazareth. Soon Elisabeth’s neighbors and kinsfolk would gather with sympathetic joy around a home which, as they thought, had experienced unexpected mercy. But Mary must not be exposed to the publicity of such meetings. However conscious of what had led to her condition, it must have been as the first sharp pang of the sword which was to pierce her soul,when she told it all to her betrothed. For only a direct Divine communication could have chased all questioning from his heart, and given him that assurance, which was needful in the future history of the Messiah.

Brief as the narrative is, we can read in the ‘thoughts’ of Joseph the anxious contending of feelings, the scarcely established, and yet delayed, resolve to ‘put her away,’ which could only be done by regular divorce; this one determination only standing out clearly, that, if it must be, her letter of divorce shall be handed to her privately, only in the presence of two witnesses. The humble Tsaddiq of Nazareth would not willingly make of her ‘a public exhibition of shame.’

The assurance, which Joseph could scarcely dare to hope for, was miraculously conveyed to him in a dream-vision.

All would now be clear; even the terms in which he was addressed (‘thou son of David’), so utterly unusual in ordinary circumstances, would prepare him for the Angel’s message. The naming of the unborn Messiah would accord with popular notions; the symbolism of such a name was deeply rooted in Jewish belief; while the explanation of Jehoshua or Jeshua (Jesus), as He Who would save His people (primarily,as he would understand it, Israel) from their sins, described at least one generally expected aspect of His Mission.

The fact that such an announcement came to him in a dream, would dispose Joseph all the more readily to receive it. ‘A good dream’ was one of the three things popularly regarded as marks of God’s favor. Thus Divinely set at rest, Joseph could no longer hesitate. The highest duty towards the Virgin-Mother and the unborn Jesus demanded an immediate marriage, which would afford not only outward, but moral protection to both.

Meanwhile the long-looked-for event had taken place in the home of Zacharias.

No domestic solemnity was so important or so joyous as that in which, by circumcision, the child had, as it were, laid upon it the yoke of the Law, with all of duty and privilege which this implied. It was, so tradition has it, as if the father had acted sacrificially as High-Priest, offering his child to God in gratitude and love; and it symbolized this deeper moral truth, that man must by his own act complete what God had first instituted.

We can scarcely be mistaken in supposing, that then, as now, a benediction was spoken before circumcision, and that the ceremony closed with the usual grace over the cup of wine, when the child received his name in a prayer, that probably did not much differ from this at present in use: ‘Our God, and the God of our fathers, raise up this child to his father and mother, and let his name be called in Israel Zacharias, the son of Zacharias.’ The prayer closed with the hope that the child might grow up, and successfully ‘attain to the Torah, the marriage, and good works.’

Of all this Zacharias was, though a deeply interested, yet a deaf and dumb witness. (From St. Luke 1:62 we gather that Zacharias was what the Rabbis understood by a Hebrew term signifying one deaf as well as dumb. Accordingly, he was communicated with by signs.) This only had he noticed, that, in the benediction in which the child’s name was inserted, the mother had interrupted the prayer. Without explaining her reason, she insisted that his name should not be that of his aged father, as in the peculiar circumstances might have been expected, but John (Jochanan).

A reference to the father only deepened the general astonishment, when he also gave the same name. But this was not the sole cause for marvel. For, forthwith the tongue of the dumb was loosed, and he, who could not utter the name of the child, now burst into praise of the name of the Lord. His last words had been those of unbelief, his first were those of praise; his last words had been a question of doubt, his first were a hymn of assurance. This hymn of the Priest closely follows, and, if the expression be allowable, spiritualizes a great part of the most ancient Jewish prayer: the so-called Eighteen Benedictions. Opening with the common form of blessing, his hymn struck, one by one, the deepest chords of that prayer.

But far and wide, as these marvelous tidings spread throughout the hill-country of Judea, fear fell on all –the fear also of a nameless hope:

‘What then shall this Child be? For the Hand of the Lord also was with Him!’

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Taken from, Jesus the Messiah
Written by, Alfred Edersheim