THE origin of the Gospels—the four histories which relate in detail the circumstances of the foundation of Christianity—will ever be an interesting study. Here we shall never know the exact truth of the compilation of these writings, the foundation-stones of all our hopes and fears; a reverent, scholarly speculation is all that can be offered to the student of the Divine memoirs. The speculation, however, probably in this case comes very near the truth.
After the Ascension and the events of the first Pentecost, which quickly followed their Master's return to heaven, the twelve and a few others who had walked in the company which followed Jesus during the years of his public ministry no doubt often met together and talked over the teaching and the acts of their risen and now glorified Master. As time passed on, a certain number of these acts, a certain number of the public and private discourses in the apostolic company, became adopted as the usual texts or subjects of the teaching and preaching in the assemblies large and small gathered together by the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the neighboring towns and villages, subsequently in other parts of the Holy Land, in Syria, and in more distant countries—in Africa and Italy. We may assume that the Holy Spirit aided the composition of these apostolic summaries by bringing to the memory of these holy men the more important of the words and acts of the Lord Jesus, spoken and done when in their midst.
That some such early authoritative summary existed among the first preachers of the faith we may positively assume,
Some twelve traditional sayings besides those related by the four, and those of no great importance, are all that we possess; no record of other miracles of any description have come down to us.
Years passed on. The precious treasure of the apostolic records, the simple memories of his words and acts preserved, and no doubt arranged in some order, were enough for the first preachers and teachers of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth.
There were, no doubt, many rough attempts to write these down on the part of apostles and their pupils. These are most probably the writings to which St. Luke alludes, without disparaging them, in his preface to his Gospel, in the words, "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us."
But something more accurate in the way of written memoirs was necessary for the Church, as the number of believers multiplied, and the original friends of the Master were one by one taken from their midst—the men who had seen the presence and heard the voice. When the first fervor of enthusiasm had passed away, or rather when the Church had so multiplied that, in the case of the great majority of its members who had only heard of Jesus, this fervor of enthusiasm had never been experienced at all, something of a critical spirit of inquiry sprang up in the various congregations. Who, for instance, was this Jesus of Nazareth, whom the apostles and their pupils preached? Whence came he? Who was that strange teacher John, who baptized him, and, so to speak, introduced him to Israel? Such natural questions necessitated the putting forth, on the part of the leaders of the new faith, documents at once comprehensive as well as authoritative.
Each of the four Gospels supplied an evident want of the early Church; each was the answer, on the part of responsible men, to the natural inquiry of some great section of believers.
The preface to the Gospel of St. Luke, with which we are at present concerned, with great clearness relates how its compiler, having availed himself of all the written and oral apostolic traditions then current in the Church, had personally, with careful and continuous research, traced up these various traditions to their very source, and, having arranged his many facts, presented the whole continuous story to a man of high rank in the Christian congregations, one Theophilus, a noble Greek or Roman, who may be taken as an example of a large class of inquiring earnest Christians of the years 70-90 a.d.
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand. The Greek in which St. Luke's Gospel is written is generally pure and classical, but the language of the little introduction (verse 1-4) is especially studied and polished, and contrasts singularly with the Hebrew character of the story of the nativity, which immediately follows. St, Luke here, in this studied introduction, follows the example of many of the great classical writers, Latin as well as Greek. Thucydides, Herodotus, Livy, for instance, paid special attention to the opening sentences of their histories. The many early efforts to produce a connected history of the life and work of the great Master Christ are not, as some have supposed, alluded to here with anything like censure, but are simply referred to as being incomplete, as written without order or arrangement. They most probably formed the basis of much of St. Luke's own Gospel. These primitive Gospels quickly disappeared from sight, as they evidently contained nothing more than what was embodied in the fuller and more systematic narratives of the "four." Of those things which are most surely believed among us. There was evidently no questioning in the Church of the first days about the truth of the story of the teaching and the mighty works of Jesus of Nazareth. It was the incompleteness of these first evangelists, rather than their inaccuracy, which induced St. Luke to take in hand a new Gospel.
Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses, and ministers of the Word. The general accuracy of the recitals contained in those early Gospels is here conceded, as the source of these primitive writings was the tradition delivered by the eye-witnesses of the acts of Jesus; among these eye-witnesses the apostles would, of course, hold the foremost place. The whole statement may be roughly paraphrased thus: "The narrative of the memorable events which have been accomplished in our midst many have undertaken to compose. These different narratives are in strict conformity with the apostles' tradition, which men who were themselves eye-witnesses of the great events, and subsequently ministers of the Word, handed down to us. Now, I have traced up all these traditions anew to their very sources, and propose rewriting them in consecutive order, that you, my lord Theophilus, may be fully convinced of the positive certainty of those great truths in which you have been instructed." Eye-witnesses, anal ministers of the Word; witnesses of the events of the public ministry of Jesus, from the baptism to the Ascension. These men, in great numbers, after Pentecost, became ministers and preachers of the Word.
Having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first; more accurately rendered, having followed up (or, investigated) step by step all things from their source. St. Luke, without depreciating the accounts of the life and work of Jesus then current in the Church, here sets out his reasons for undertaking a fresh compilation. His Gospel would differ from the early Gospels:
THE GOSPEL OF THE INFANCY. The critical reader of the Gospel in the original Greek is here startled by the abrupt change in the style of writing. The first four verses, which constitute the introduction, are written in pure classical language; the sentences are balanced, almost with a rhythmical accuracy. They are the words evidently of a highly cultured mind, well versed in Greek thought. But in the fifth verse, where the history of the eventful period really begins, all is changed. The narrative flows on clearly with a certain picturesqueness of imagery; the style is simple, easy, vivid; but at once the reader is sensible that he has passed out of the region of Greek and Western thought. The language is evidently a close translation from some Hebrew original; the imagery is exclusively Jewish, and the thoughts belong to the story of the chosen people. It is clear that this section of St. Luke's writing, which ends, however, with Luke 2:1-52, is not derived from apostolic tradition, but is the result of his own investigation into the origin of the faith of Christ, gathered probably from the lips of the virgin mother herself, or from one of the holy women belonging to her kinsfolk who had been with her from the beginning of the wondrous events. St. Luke reproduced, as faithfully as he could in a strange tongue, the revelations—some perhaps written, some no doubt oral, communicated to him, we reverently believe, by the blessed mother of Jesus herself. The story of these two chapters is what St. Luke evidently alludes to when, in his short preface (verse 3), he writes of his "perfect understanding in all things from the very first ( ἄνωθεν)."
The vision of Zacharias in the temple.
There was in the days of Herod, the King of Judaea. The Herod here alluded to was the one surnamed "the Great." The event here related took place towards the end of his reign. His dominions, besides Judaea, included Samaria, Galilee, and a large district of Peraea. This prince played a conspicuous part in the politics of his day. He was no Hebrew by birth, but an Idumaean, and he owed his position entirely to the favor of Rome, whose vassal he really was during his whole reign. The Roman senate had, on the recommendation of Antony and Octavius, granted to this prince the title of "King of Judaea." It was a strange, sad state of things. The land of promise was ruled over by an Idumaean adventurer, a creature of the great Italian Republic; the holy and beautiful house on Mount Zion was in the custody of an Edomite usurper; the high priest of the Mighty One of Jacob was raised up or deposed as the officials of Rome thought good. Truly the scepter had departed from Judah. A certain priest named Zacharias; usually spelt among the Hebrews, Zechariah; it means "Remembered of Jehovah," and was a favorite name among the chosen people. Of the course of Abia. ἐφημερία (course) signified originally "a daily service." It was subsequently used for a group of priests who exercised their priestly functions in the temple for a week, and then gave place to another group. From Eleazar and Ithamar, the two surviving sons of the first high priest Aaron, had descended twenty-four families. Among these King David distributed by lot the various tabernacle (subsequently temple) services, each family group, or course, officiating for eight days—from sabbath to sabbath. From the Babylonish exile, of these twenty-four families only four returned. With the idea of reproducing as nearly as possible the old state of things, these four were subdivided into twenty-four, the twenty-four bearing the original family names, and this succession of courses continued in force until the fall of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple, a.d. 70. According to Josephus, Zacharias was especially distinguished by belonging to the first of the twenty-four courses, or families. Of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth; identical with Elisheba, "One whose oath is to God." Both the husband and wife traced their lineage back to the first high priest—a coveted distinction in Israel.
And they were both righteous before God. "One of the oldest terms of high praise among the Jews (Genesis 6:9; Genesis 7:1; Genesis 18:23-28; Ezekiel 18:5-9, etc.). It is used also of Joseph (Matthew 1:1-25 : 19), and is defined in the following words in the most technical sense of strict legal observance, which it had acquired since the days of Maccabees. The true Jashar (upright man) was the ideal Jew. Thus Rashi calls the Book of Genesis 'The book of the upright, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob '" (Farrar).
And they had no child. This, as is well known, was a heavy calamity in a Hebrew home. In the childless house there was no hope of the long looked-for Messiah being born in it. It was not unfrequently looked on as a mark of the Divine displeasure, possibly as the punishment of some grave sin.
His lot was to burn incense; more accurately, he obtained by lot the duty of entering and offering incense. The office of burning incense gave the priest to whom this important lot fell the right of entering the holy place. It was the most coveted of all the priestly duties. The Talmud says the priest who obtained the right to perform this high duty was not permitted to draw the lot a second time in the same week, and as the whole number of priests at this time was very large—some say even as many as twenty thousand—Farrar conjectures that it would never happen to the same priest twice in his lifetime to enter that sacred spot.
And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. This would indicate that the day in question was a sabbath or some high day. Dean Plumptre suggests that, lost among that praying crowd, were, "we may well believe, the aged Simeon (Luke 2:25) and Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36), and many others who waited for redemption in Jerusalem."
And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord. Critics have especially found grave fault with this "Hebrew" portion of our Gospel, complaining that it needlessly introduces the marvelous, and brings uselessly into everyday life beings from another sphere. Godet well answers these criticisms by observing "that as Christianity was an entirely new beginning in history, the second and final creation of man, it was natural that an interposition on so grand a scale should be accompanied by a series of particular interpositions. It was even necessary; for how were the representatives of the ancient order of things, who had to cooperate in the new work, to be initiated into it, and their attachment won to it, except by this means? According to Scripture, we are surrounded by angels (2 Kings 6:17; Psalms 34:7), whom God employs to watch over us; but in our ordinary condition we want the sense necessary to perceive their presence—for that condition a peculiar receptivity is required. This condition was given to Zacharias. Origen ('Contra Censure') writes how, "in a church there are two assemblies—one of angels, the other of men,… angels are present at our prayers, and they pray with us and for us." Standing on the right side of the altar of incense. The angel stood between the altar and the shew-bread table. On entering the holy place, the officiating priest would have on his right the table with the shew-bread, on his left the great candlestick, and before him would be the golden altar, which stood at the end of the holy place, in front of the veil which separated this chamber and the dim, silent holy of holies.
He was troubled. This was ever the first effect produced by the sight of a spirit-visitant.
Thy prayer is heard. What was the nature of this prayer? The Greek word ( δεήσις) used here implies that some special supplication had been offered, and which the angel tells had been listened to at the throne of grace. The righteous old man had not, as some have thought, been praying for a son,—he had long resigned himself in this private sorrow to the will of his God; but we may well suppose that on that solemn occasion he prayed the unselfish patriotic prayer that the long looked for Messiah would hasten his coming. His name John; the shortened form for Jehochanan, "the grace of Jehovah." Under various diminutives, such as Jonah, it was a favorite Hebrew name.
Many shall rejoice at his birth. The gladness which his boy's birth was to bring with it was to be no mere private family rejoicing. The child of his old age, who was to be born, would be the occasion of a true national joy.
Great in the sight of the Lord. To the pious old Jewish priest the strange visitant's words would bear a deep signification. Zacharias would quickly catch the angel's thoughts. His son was not to be the Messiah of the people's hope, but was to be like one of those great ones loved of God, of whom the women of Israel sang on their solemn feast-days—one like Samson, only purer, or Samuel, or the yet greater Elijah. Could all this deep joy be true? Shall drink neither wine. The old curse then as now. God's heroes must be free from even the semblance of temptation. They must stamp their high lives, from the beginning, by the solemn vow of self-denial and abstinence. It is remarkable how many of the great deliverers and teachers of the chosen people were commanded from childhood to enroll themselves among the abstainers from all strong drink. Nor strong drink. The word δεήσις includes all kinds of fermented drink except that made from the grape; it was especially applied to palm wine.
And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. The state of the people at this period was indeed unhappy. The dominant Italian power had introduced into Syria and Palestine the vices and profligate life of Italy and Greece. The great Syrian city Antioch, for instance, in vice and sensuality, had gone far beyond her conqueror, and was perhaps at that time the most wicked city in the world. In the court of Herod, patriotism and true nobility were dead. The priests and scribes were for the most part deeply corrupted, and the poor shepherdless common folk only too readily followed the example of the rich and great. The boy who was to be born was to be a great preacher of righteousness; his glorious mission would be to turn many of these poor wanderers to the Lord their God.
In the spirit and power of Elias. There was a confident hope among the Jews, dating frown the days of the prophecy of Malachi, some four hundred years before the vision of Zacharias, that the days of Messiah would be heralded by an appearance of the Prophet Elijah. The selfsame expectation is still cherished by every pious Jew. To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. The usual explanation of these words of the angel, who uses here the language of Malachi (Malachi 4:5, Malachi 4:6), is that the result of the preaching of this new prophet, who is about to be raised up, will be to restore harmony to the broken and disturbed family life of Israel, whereas now the home life of the chosen race was split up—the fathers, perhaps, siding with the foreign or Roman faction, as represented by Herod and his friends; the sons, on the other hand, being Zealots attached to the national party, bitterly hostile to the Herodians. So also in one house some would belong to the Pharisee, others to the Sadducee, sect. These fatal divisions would, in many cases, be healed by the influence of the coming one. There is, however, another interpretation far deeper and more satisfactory; for nothing in the preaching of the Baptist, as far as we are aware, bore specially on the domestic dissensions of the people; it had a much wider range. The true sense of the angel's words here should be gathered from prophetic passages such as Isaiah 29:22, Isaiah 29:23, "Jacob shall no more be ashamed, neither shall his face wax pale, when he seeth ( יךִּ וֹתאֹרְבִ) his children become the work of my hands;" Isaiah 63:16, "Doubtless thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer!"—The patriarchs, the fathers of Israel, beholding from their abodes of rest the works and days of their degenerate children, mourned over their fall, and, to use earthly language, "were ashamed" of the conduct of their unworthy descendants. These would be glad and rejoice over the result of the preaching of the coming prophet. Godct well sums up the angel's words: "It will be John's mission then to reconstitute the moral unity of the people by restoring the broken relation between the patriarchs and their degenerate descendants."
Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man. There was something evidently blamable in this hesitation on the part of Zacharias to receive the angel's promise. It seems as though the radiant glory of the messenger, as he stood before the curtain of the silent sanctuary in his awful beauty, ought to have convinced the doubting old man of the truth of the strange message. The words of the angel, which follow, seem to imply this. What! do you doubt my message? "I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of the Eternal." Others in Old Testament story before—for instance, Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21) and Gideon ( 6:1-40)—had seen and listened to an angel, had at first doubted, but had received in consequence no rebuke, no punishment, for their want of faith. Zacharias was, however, condemned, we learn, to a long period of dumbness.
I am Gabriel. The meaning of the name Gabriel is "Hero of God," or "Mighty One of God." In the canonical books only two of the heavenly ones are mentioned by name. Gabriel (here and Daniel 8:16 and Daniel 9:21) and Michael, which signifies "Who is like God" (Jud Luke 1:9; Revelation 12:7; and in Daniel 10:13, Daniel 10:21; Daniel 12:1). Of these two blessed spirits whose names are revealed to us in the Word of God, their appointed work seems to be in connection with the human race and its enemies. Gabriel is the special messenger of good news. He comes to Daniel, and tells him of the restoration of Jerusalem; to Zacharias, and announces the birth of his son, and declares what his glorious office would consist in; to Mary of Nazareth, and foretells the nativity. Michael, on the other hand, appears as the warrior of God. In the Book of Daniel he wars with the enemies of the people of the Lord; in Jude and in the Revelation of St. John he is the victorious antagonist of Satan the enemy of the Eternal. The Jews have a striking saying that Gabriel flies with two wings, but Michael with only one; so God is swift in sending angels of peace and of joy, of which blessed company the archangel Gabriel is the representative, while the messengers of his wrath and punishment, among whom Michael holds a chief place, come slowly. That stand in the presence of God.
"One of the seven
Who in God's presence, nearest to his throne,
Stand ready at command, and are his eyes
That run through all the heavens, and down to the earth
Bear his swift commands, over moist and dry,
O'er sea and land."
Milton derived his knowledge of the seven from the apocryphal Book of Tobit, where in chapter 12:15 we read, "I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One." In the very ancient Book of Enoch we read of the names of the four great archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael.
And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. The Talmud tells us that even the high priest did not terry long in the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement. The same feeling of holy awe would induce the ministering priest of the day to perform his functions with no unnecessary delay, and to leave as soon as possible the holy place. The people praying in the court without were in the habit of waiting until the priest on duty came out of the sacred inner chamber, after which they were dismissed with the blessing. The unusual delay in the appearance of Zacharias puzzled and disturbed the worshippers.
When he came out, he could not speak unto them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple. Something in the face of the old man, as, unable to speak, he made signs to the congregation, told the awestruck people that the long delay and the loss of speech were owing to no sudden illness which had seized Zacharias. We know that, in the old days of the desert wanderings, the children of Israel could not bear to look on the face of Moses when he came down from the mount after dwelling for a brief space in the light of the glory of the Eternal. Zacharias had been face to face with one whose blessed lot it was to stand for ever in the presence of God. We may well suppose that there lingered on the old man's face, as he left the sanctuary, something which told the beholder of the presence just left.
And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months. Various reasons have been suggested for this retirement. It seems most probable that, amazed at the angelic announcement, the saintly woman went into perfect retirement and isolation for a considerable period, to prove well the words of the angel, and to consider how she best could do her part in the training of the expected child, who was to play so mighty a part in the history of her people.
The annunciation of the Virgin Mary.
The recital contained in this little section is peculiar to this Gospel of St. Luke. It lay outside what may be termed the apostolic tradition. It neither helps nor mars the moral or dogmatic teaching of the men trained in the school of Jesus of Nazareth. It simply answers a question that probably few of the converts of the first quarter of a century which succeeded the Resurrection morning cared to ask:
We do not suppose that the true story of the birth of Jesus Christ was any secret, any precious mystery in the Church of the first days. It was known doubtless to the leading teachers, known to many of their hearers, but it was evidently unused as a popular text for preaching. It probably was not among those "memoirs" of the apostles which were read and expounded in the first forty years in the public synagogues and in the quiet upper rooms of so many of the cities of Syria, and in not a few of the towns of Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Nor is the reason of this doubtful; the wondrous story of the child Jesus' birth would add little to the simple faith of the first believers in the Crucified.
Of miracles and works of wonder they had heard enough to convince them that, if these were true, surely never man had worked like this Man. They had heard, too, of the crowning, sign of the Resurrection. There were men in those first days, scattered abroad in all lands, who had seen these things, who knew that the Master had died on the cross, and who had seen him, touched him, and spoken to him after his resurrection. The mysterious miracle of the incarnation was not needed for the preaching of the first days.
But time went on, and naturally enough many of the thoughtful cultured men who had accepted the doctrine of the cross began to say—We ought to have the true story of the beginnings of these marvelous events authoritatively written down. Here and there we have heard something of the birth and childhood, why have we not the details authenticated? Men like Paul and Luke felt that such natural questionings should be answered. And hence it came to pass that, moved by the Holy Spirit—under, we believe, the direction of Paul—Luke went to the fountainhead, to the blessed mother herself, to those holy women some of whom we believe had borne her company from the beginning, and from her lips and their lips wrote down what she (or they) dictated, partly from memory, partly perhaps from memoranda which she and others had kept of that strange sweet time; and so these two chapters of the Third Gospel, of which the incarnation is the central narrative, were written down much in the original form in which Luke received it, the Greek simply translating the original Hebrew story. Around the words of the Gospel soon gathered a host of miraculous legends glorifying the blessed mother of the Lord. These are utterly unknown to Scripture, and should be quietly put aside. Strange speculations respecting her and the manner of the wondrous birth have been in all times, nay, still are favorite subjects of dispute among theologians. It is a pity to try and be wise beyond what is written. The believer will content himself with just receiving the quiet story of the holy maid as Mary the mother gave it to Luke or Paul, feeling assured that the same power of the Highest by which the crucified Jesus was raised from the tomb where he had lain for three days, was able to overshadow the virgin of Nazareth, was able to cause to be born of her that holy thing which was called the Son of God.
And in the sixth month; that is, after the vision of Zacharias in the temple. Unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth. These explanatory notes make it clear that St. Luke was writing for those who were strangers to Palestine. Such details were no doubt added by St. Luke to the oral or written Hebrew narrative upon which this section is entirely based. Under the Roman domination the land of promise was divided into Judaea, Samaria, Peraea, and Galilee. Galilee was the northern department, and comprised the old territory of the tribes of Zebulun, Naphtali, and Asher. From Josephus we learn that at this period the northern division was rich and populous, and covered with flourishing towns. Nazareth, which still exists as a large village of some three thousand inhabitants, under the name of En-Nazirah, is about twenty-four miles to the east of the Luke of Tiberius. It is well situate in a valley among the hills which rise to the north of the Esdraelon plain. From one of the grassy slopes which rise behind Nazareth, one of the noblest views is obtained. The snowy summits of Lebanon and Hennon close the prospect on the north; on the south the broad Esdraelon plain, with the mountains of Ephraim; Gilead and Tabor lie on the east; on the other side, the green uplands of Carmel are bathed by the blue waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The meaning of the name Nazareth has been the subject of much learned controversy. The more usually adopted derivation, however, refers the word to רצן, "a shoot or branch," which conveys, as Dean Plumptre remarks, something of the same meaning as our hurst or holm in English topography. Burckhardt, the traveler, believes the name was originslly used on account of the numerous shrubs which cover the ground in this locality.
To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; more accurately, betrothed. The formal ceremony of betrothal took place among the Jews in most cases a year prior to the marriage. The question has arisen whether the words, "of the house of David," refer to Joseph or to Mary. Grammatically, they would seem to belong to Joseph; but the fact of the Gospel being here so closely translated from a Hebrew (Aramaic) original. prevents us from laying down any strict linguistic rules which belong to the Greek language. "Who was Mary the virgin?" has been often asked. Luke 1:32 and Luke 1:69 would lose their point altogether unless we regard Luke as being persuaded that the young Hebrew girl was a descendant of David. In respect to the virgin's family, we read that she was a cousin or kinswoman of Elisabeth. This would at least ally her closely to the priestly race. Dean Plumptre quotes one out of the many ancient apocryphal legends current respecting Mary of Nazareth, deeming it worthy of mention as having left its impress on Christian art. "The name of the virgin's mother was Anne. Mary surpassed the maidens of her own age in wisdom. There were many who early sought her in marriage. The suitors agreed to decide their claims by laying their rods before the holy place, and seeing which budded. It was thus that Joseph became betrothed to her." The same scholar adds, "The absence of any mention of her parents in the Gospels suggests the thought that she was an orphan, and the whole narrative of the nativity presupposes poverty! The name Mary is the same as Miriam or Marah." (On the question of the genealogy recorded by St. Luke, see note on Luke 3:1-38. 23.)
Hail, thou that art highly favored. The plena gratia of the Vulgate, said and sung so often in the virgin's famous hymn, is an inaccurate rendering. Rather, "gratia cumulata," as it has been well rendered. "Having been much graced (by God)" is the literal translation of the Greek word. Blessed art thou among women. These words must be struck out; they do not exist in the older authorities.
She was troubled; more accurately, she was greatly troubled. Different to Zacharias, who evidently doubted in the mission of the angel, and who required some sign before he could believe, Mary simply wondered at the strangeness of what was about to happen. Her terror at the sudden appearance of the angel, who probably appearedto her as a young man clad in garments of a strange dazzling whiteness, is most natural.
JESUS; the ordinary Greek form, the well-known Hebrew Jehoshua, the shortened Joshua, "The Salvation of Jehovah."
The Son of the Highest. It is singular that this title, given by the angel to the yet unborn child, was the one given to the Redeemer by the evil spirit in the case of the poor possessed. Is this the title, or one of the titles, by which our Master is known in that greater world beyond our knowledge? The throne of his father David; clearly indicating that Mary herself was of royal lineage, although this is nowhere definitely stated (see Psalms 132:1-18 : 11). These words of the angel are as yet unfulfilled. They clearly speak of a restoration of Israel, still, as far as we can see, very distant. Nearly nineteen centuries have passed since Gabriel spoke of a restored throne of David, of a kingdom in Jacob to which should come no end. The people, through all the changing fortune of empires, have been indeed strangely kept distinct and separate, ready for the mighty change; but the eventful hour still tarries. It has been well observed how St. Luke's report of the angel's words here could never have been a forgery—as one school of critics asserts—of the second century. Would any writer in the second century, after the failure of Jesus among the Jews was well known, when the fall of Jerusalem had already taken place, have made an angel prophesy what is expressed here?
The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Again the angel makes use of the term "Highest" when alluding to the eternal Father. The expression of Gabriel, "the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee," reminds us of the opening words of Genesis, where the writer describes the dawn of life in creation in the words, "The Spirit of God moved [or, 'brooded'] over the face of the deep." "The Word was conceived in the womb of a woman, not after the manner of men, but by the singular, powerful, invisible, immediate operation of the Holy Ghost, whereby a virgin was, beyond the law of nature, enabled to conceive, and that which was conceived in her was originally and cmnpletcly sanctified" (art. 3., Bishop Pearson on the Creed).
Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. "God's message," writes Godet, "by the mouth of the angel was not a command. The part Mary had to fulfill made no demands on her. It only remained, therefore, for Mary to consent to the consequences of the Divine offer. She gives this consent in a word at once simple and sublime, which involved the most extraordinary act of faith that a woman ever consented to accomplish. Mary accepts the sacrifice of that which is dearer to a young maiden than her very life, and thereby becomes pre-eminently the heroine of Israel, the ideal daughter of Zion." Nor was the immediate trouble and sorrow which she foresaw would soon compass her round by any means the whole burden which submission to the angel's message would bring upon the shrinking Nazareth maiden. The lot proposed to her would bring probably in its wake unknown sufferings as well as untold blessedness. We may with all reverence think Mary already feeling the first piercings in her heart of that sharp sword which was one day to wound so deeply the mother of sorrows; yet in spite of all this, in full view of the present woe, which submission to the Divine will would forthwith bring upon her, with an unknown future of sorrow in the background, Mary submitted herself of her own free will to what she felt was the will and wish of her God.
Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste. Between the annunciation and this journey of Mary to visit her cousin Elisabeth, we must interpose the events narrated in St. Matthew's Gospel, viz. the natural suspicion of her betrothed future husband, Joseph. his action in the matter; and then the dream of Joseph, in which her innocence was vindicated. As we believe that St. Luke's story here was derived from Mary's own narrative, we can understand well that these details, related by St. Matthew, were scarcely touched upon, and the mother would hurry on to the real points of interest in that eventful past of hers. The hill country here alluded to is the elevated district of Judah, Benjamin, and Mount Ephraim, in contradistinction to the low maritime plain on the east—the old Philistia. Into a city of Juda. There is no such city known as "Juda." Some have supposed that the text is corrupt here, and that for "Yuda" we should read "Jutta," which, according to Joshua 15:55, was a priestly city in the hill country. There is a rabbinical tradition in the Talmud which places the residence of Zacharias at Hebron. It is very probable that Hebron, the great priestly city, is here signified.
Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit—that Spirit of prophecy, so often mentioned in the Old Testament—seizes her, and she salutes her young kinswoman, Mary, as the mother of the coming Messiah.
And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women (see 5:24). The words which clothed the thoughts in these ecstatic expressions of intense joy and thankfulness on the part of the two favored women, Mary and Elisabeth, are in great measure drawn from hymn and song contained in the Old Testament Scriptures. The song of Hannah, the hymn of Deborah, many of the psalms, the songs of the Canticles, the more glorious of the prophetic utterances, had been ever familiar to both these true women of the people; and they could find no language so fitting as the words of these loved national songs to express the intense joy, the deep awe and gratitude of their hearts. Think what must have been the feeling of the two—the one finding herself the chosen out of all the thousands of Israel, after so many centuries of weary waiting, to be the mother of the Messiah; the other, long after any reasonable hope of any offspring at all had faded away, to be the mother of Messiah's chosen friend, his herald, and his preacher, the mighty forerunner of the King of whom the prophets had written!
And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? But the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:41) raised Elisabeth's thoughts yet higher. Not only did she bless the mother of the coming Messiah, but the Spirit opened her eyes to see who that coming Messiah really was. Very vague indeed was the conception of the coming Messiah in Israel. The truth was, perhaps, revealed, and in rapt moments received by men like Isaiah and Ezekiel; and now and again men like David; Daniel wrote down visions and revelations respecting the Coming One, the true purport of which vision they scarcely grasped. Generally the Messianic idea among the people pictured a hero greater than Saul, a conqueror more successful than David, a sovereign more magnificent than Solomon. They pictured ever the glorious arm sustaining the coming Hero-King; but few, if any, dreamed of the "glorious arm" belonging to their future Deliverer. But here the Spirit in a moment revealed to the happy wife of the priest Zacharias that the Babe to be born of her young kinswoman was not only the promised Messiah, but was the awful Son of the Highest! Think, reader, what these simple words we are considering signify! Why am I so favored "that the mother of my Lord should come to me"? "The contrast leaves no room for doubt," well argues Dean Plumptre, "that she used the word 'Lord' in its highest sense. 'Great' as her own son was to be (verse 15) in the sight of the Lord, here was the mother of One yet greater, even of the Lord himself."
The hymn of Mary, commonly called the Magnificat.
And Mary said. There is a great contrast between the behavior of the two women when they met in Elisabeth's house. The elder was full of a new strange ecstatic joy. "She was filled with the Holy Ghost" (Luke 1:42), and spoke her words of lofty congratulation with "a loud voice" (Luke 1:42). Mary, on the other hand, was not conscious evidently, on this occasion, of any special presence of the Holy Spirit. Since the hour of the annunciation and her own meek faithful acceptance of the Lord's purpose, she had been dwelling, so to speak, under the immediate influence of the Spirit of the Lord. Her cousin's inspiration seems to have been momentary and transitory, while hers, during that strange blessed season which immediately preceded the Incarnation, was enduring. Hence the quiet introduction to her hymn, "And Mary said." It is, of course, possible that she had committed the beautiful thoughts to writing; but perhaps, in giving them to Luke or Paul, she needed no parchment scroll, but softly repeated to the chronicler of the Divine story the old song in which she had first told her deep imaginings to Elisabeth, and afterwards often had murmur the same bright words of joy and faith over the holy Babe as he lay in his cradle at Bethlehem, in Egypt, or in Nazareth. The "Virgin's Hymn" for nearly fourteen centuries has been used in the public liturgies of Christendom. We find it first in the ethics of Lauds in the Rule of St. Caesarius of Aries.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. This is the first of the four divisions of the Magnificat. In it she speaks of herself, and her deep feelings of adoration and of holy joy, and of intense glad surprise. It is a prayer, but the highest kind of prayer, for it asks for nothing—it simply breathes adoration and thankfulness. We may imagine the angels praying thus. They have all that created beings, however exalted, can desire in the beatific vision which they perpetually enjoy; and yet they pray continually, but only after this manner. The joy of her spirit, notice, is based on the fact of the revelation that he, God, was, too, her Savior; and, of course, not hers only: her great joy was in the thought of the salvation of the suffering, sinning world around her. Then she passes into simple wonderment that she should have been chosen as the instrument of the boundless goodness of God. She had nothing to recommend her only her low estate. Though royally descended, she only occupied a position among the humblest Hebrew maidens, and yet, owing to God's favor, she will be deemed blessed by countless unborn generations.
Luke 1:49, Luke 1:50
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. In this strophe, the second division of the hymn of praise, she glorifies three of the principal Divine attributes—God's power, his holiness, and his mercy. His power or might, alluding to the words of the angel (verse 85), "The power of the Highest shall overshadow thee." Surely in all the records of the Lord's works since the world's creation, his might had been never shown as it was now about to be manifest in her. His holiness had been displayed to her in the way in which the mighty acts of ineffable love had been carried out. His mercy: this attribute of God came home with intense power to the heart of the Jewish girl, into which God's protecting Spirit was shining with so clear a light. She saw something of the great redemption mystery which was then in so strange a way developing itself.
He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath soattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. From adoration, Mary's hymn proceeds to celebrate the mighty results effected by the Divine pity. As so often in thee prophetic strains, the speaker or writer speaks or writes as though the future had become the past; so Mary here describes the Messianic reversal of man's conception of what is great and little, as though the unborn Babe had already lived and done his strange mighty work in the world. The "glorious arm" which, in old days, had wrought such mighty things for Israel, she recognized as belonging to the coming Deliverer (Luke 1:51). His chosen instruments would be those of whom the world thought little, like herself. The proud and mighty would be put down; the men of low degree, and poor and humble, would be exalted. The hungry would be filled; and they who were rich only in this world's goods would have no share in the new kingdom—they would be sent empty away. How strangely had the virgin of Nazareth caught the thought, almost the very words, of the famous sermon her Divine Son, some thirty years later, preached on the mountain-side near Gennesaret!
Luke 1:54, Luke 1:55
He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. Her hymn dies down into a strain of gratitude for the eternal faithfulness to the cause of the chosen people. Had not God in very truth remembered his ancient promise? From one of their daughters, still speaking of the future as of the past, Messiah had been born—a greater Deliverer, too, than the most sanguine Hebrew patriot had ever dreamed of.
John, afterwards called the Baptist, the son of Zacharias and Elisabeth, is born. The Benedictus.
How the Lord had showed great mercy upon her. No doubt the vision of Zacharias in the temple, and his subsequent dumbness, had excited no little inquiry. That the reproach of Elisabeth should be taken away, no doubt few really believed. The birth of her son, however, set a seal upon the reality of the priest's vision. The rejoicings of her family were due to more than the birth of her boy. The story of the angel's message, coupled with the unnsual birth, set men thinking and asking what then would be the destiny of this child. Could it be that he was the promised Messiah?
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. This was always, among the Hebrew people, a solemn day of rejoicing; it resembled in some particulars our baptismal gatherings. Relatives were invited to be present, as witnesses that the child had been formally incorporated into the covenant. It was, too, the time when the name which the newly born was to bear through life was given him.
Not so; but he shall be called John. It is clear (from verse 62) that the old priest was afflicted with deafness as well as with dumbness. At the naming ceremony, the stricken Zacharias, who was patiently awaiting the hour when his God should restore to him his lost powers, made no effort to express his will. He had already in the past months, no doubt, written down for Elisabeth the name of the boy that was to be born. She interrupts the ceremony with her wishes. The guests are surprised, and make signs to the father. He at once writes on his tablets, "His name is John." The name had been already given. The word "John" signifies "the grace of Jehovah."
A writing-table; better, a writing-tablet. The tablets in use generally at the time were usually made of wood, covered with a thin coating of wax; on the soft layer of wax the words were written with an iron stylus.
And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. This, the first hour of his recovered power, was without doubt the occasion of his giving utterance to the inspired hymn (the Benedictus) which is recorded at length a few verses further on (Luke 1:68-79). It. was the outcome, no doubt, of his silent communing with the Spirit during the long months of his affliction.
And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. The inspired utterance of the old priest, so long dumb, in his beautiful hymn of praise, completed as it were the strange cycle of strange events which had happened in the priestly family.
And the hand of the Lord was with him. This kind of pause in the history is one of the peculiarities of St. Luke's style. We meet with it several times in the gospel story and in the history of the Acts. They are vivid pictures in a few words of what happened to an individual, to a family, or to a cause, during often a long. course of years. Here the story of the childhood of the great pioneer of Christ is briefly sketched out; in it all, and through it all, there was one guiding hand—the Lord's. The expression, "hand of the Lord," was peculiarly a Hebrew thought—one of the vivid anthropomorphic idioms which, as has been aptly remarked, they could use more boldly than other nations, because they had clearer thoughts of God as not made after the similitude of men (Deuteronomy 4:12). Maimonides, the great Jewish writer of the twelfth century, in his 'Yad Hachazakah,' says, "And there was under his feet (Exodus 24:10); written with the finger of God (Exodus 31:18); the hand of the Lord (Exodus 9:3); the eyes of the Lord (Deuteronomy 11:12); the ears of the Lord (Numbers 11:18). All these are used with reference to the intellectual capacity of the sons of men, who can comprehend only corporeal beings; so that the Law spoke in the language of the sons of men, and all these are expressions merely, just as, If I whet my glittering sword (Deuteronomy 32:41); for has he, then, a sword? or does he slay with a sword? Certainly not: this is only a figure; and thus all are figures" ('Yad,' Acts 1:8).
His father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying. The inspired hymn which follows—thought out, no doubt, with the Holy Spirit's help in the course of the long enforced seclusion which his first want of faith had brought upon him—holds a prominent place in all Western liturgics. Like the Magnificat, it is believed to have been first introduced into the public worship of the Church about the middle of the sixth century by St. Csesarius of Aries. It may be briefly summarized as a thanksgiving for the arrival of the times of Messiah.
Luke 1:68, Luke 1:69
He hath visited and redeemed,… and hath raised up. The tenses of the verbs used in these expressions show that in Zacharias's mind, when he uttered the words of his hymn, the Incarnation, and the glorious deliverance commenced in that stupendous act of mercy, belonged to the past. He hath visited; that is, after some four hundred years of silence and absence, the Holy One of Israel had again come to his people. About four centuries had passed since the voice of Malachi, the last of the prophets, had been heard. An horn of salvation. A metaphor not unknown in classical writings (see Ovid, 'Art. Am.,' 1.239; Her., 'Od.,' 3. 21. 18), and a much-used figure in Hebrew literature (see, among other passages, Ezekiel 29:2; Lamentations 2:3; Psalms 132:17; 1 Samuel 2:10). The reference is not to the horns of the alta