Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B) (24 December 2023)

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B) (24 December 2023)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26–38 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


This passage is unique to Luke. He links Jesus with John: Jesus is conceived “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – see 1:36 – and it is the same heavenly messenger – Gabriel – who announces the birth of both children – see 1:19 and 1:26.

Whereas, Luke focuses on Mary in his infancy narrative, Matthew focuses on Joseph. However, the following details are shared by both:

  1. Jesus’ birth is related to the reign of Herod (Luke 1:5; Matt 2:1)
  2. Mary, his mother to be, is a virgin engaged to Joseph, but they have not yet come to live together (Luke 1:27, 34; 2:5; Matt 1:18)
  3. Joseph is of the house of David (Luke 1:27; 2:4; Matt 1:16, 20).
  4. An angel from heaven announces the coming birth of Jesus (Luke 1:28–30; Matt 1:20–21)
  5. Jesus is recognized himself to be a son of David (Luke 1:32; Matt 1:1)
  6. His conception is to take place through the holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20)
  7. Joseph is not involved in the conception (Luke 1:34; Matt 1:18–25)
  8. The name “Jesus” is imposed by heaven prior to his birth (Luke 1:31; Matt 1:21)
  9. The angel identifies Jesus as “Savior” (Luke 2:11; Matt 1:21)
  10. Jesus is born after Mary and Joseph come to live together (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 1:24–25)
  11. Jesus is born at Bethlehem (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 2:1)
  12. Jesus settles, with Mary and Joseph, in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39, 51; Matt 2:22–23 (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 307.)

The differences between Luke’s account and Matthew’s account, present us with some unanswerable questions. Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “If this sort of imitative historiography is at work in assimilating the account of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to that of Ishmael, Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, it may raise a question about the historical value of the account itself. This is not an easy question to answer. It should be recalled that Matthew—independently of Luke—knows of a tradition about a heavenly announcement of the birth of Jesus, prior to the living together of Mary and Joseph, and about a virginal conception involving the holy Spirit. There are significant differences between the stories, however, that have to be considered: in Matthew the announcement comes to Joseph, presumably in Bethlehem (in that infancy narrative we learn about Nazareth only in 2:23); in Luke it comes to Mary, in Nazareth. Matthew has little of the stereotyped OT pattern of birth-announcement; Luke has made use of it. That means that both evangelists, having picked up elements of the tradition, have freely cast them in their own molds—one in terms of dreams, the other in an OT birth-announcement pattern. What really happened? We shall never know. Writers like J.-P. Audet (RB 63 [1956] 355) and J. McHugh (Mother of Jesus, 128) have toyed with the idea that the announcement to Mary may be Luke’s way of presenting an account of an interior, spiritual experience, to which no bystander could have been witness. That is possible. In this matter the important thing is to attend to the message about the child that is made known, whether one can establish the historicity of the details of the account or not. Just as the angelic message of a wondrous birth made known the character and special role of John to his father Zechariah, so too does the announcement of the even more wondrous birth of Jesus to Mary reveal his identity and role. This is the purpose of the episodes and the reason for the Lucan parallelism.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 335-336.)


virgin: There are three other words Luke could have used to describe Mary – pais, meaning “girl” (used by Luke in 8:51), paidiskē, meaning “little girl, maid” (used by Luke in 12:45), or korasion, “maiden”. Instead he uses parthenos, “the normal understanding of which is ‘virgin’” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 343). This in turn matches Mary’s words reported in 1:34: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Literally: “How can this be, since I have no husband?”)

engaged to a man: Joseph Fitzmyer explains: “In Palestine of the time the marriage of a young girl took place in two acts: (a) the engagement (Hebrew ʾērûsîn = Latin sponsalia) or formal exchange of agreement to marry in the presence of witnesses (cf. Mal 2:14) and the paying of the mōhar, ‘bride price’; (b) the marriage proper (Hebrew niśśûʾîn) or the ‘taking’ of the girl to the man’s home (see Matt 1:18; 25:1–13). The engagement gave the groom legal rights over the girl, who could already be called his ‘wife’ (gynē, see Matt 1:20, 24). It could only be broken by his divorcing her, and any violation of his marital rights by her was regarded as adultery. After the engagement the girl usually continued to live in her family home for about a year before being taken to her husband’s home” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 343-344).

“Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you.”: The more normal greeting would have been Shalom, “peace”. Luke, in using the Greek word, chaire, is probably making reference to the messianic prophecy in Zephaniah 3:14 where it is used in the Septuagint version. There, the NRSV translates: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” The translation here in the NRSV of Luke’s chaire – “Greetings” – is probably not strong enough.

“The Lord is with you”: The Greek word Kyrios – translated as “Lord” – is an obvious reference to Yahweh. The promise of Yahweh to be with His people, is a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “The Lord is with you! This is a frequently used OT phrase, but it occurs as a greeting only in two places in the OT, Ruth 2:4 and Judg 6:12. In both cases it lacks a verb, as here in Luke. The phrase in Ruth 2:4 has been understood as a wish, ‘May the Lord be with you!’ (so RSV, NAB, NEB), whereas in Judg 6:12 it is rather a declaration (so RSV, NAB, NEB). The appearance of the angel of the Lord to Gideon in the latter passage and the similarity of greeting there to what one finds in Luke suggests that the phrase be understood here too as a declaration. Moreover, it supplies a better explanation for Mary’s perplexity in the following verse. In the OT the phrase often expresses Yahweh’s help and assistance and carries a military connotation. Obviously, kyrios here is to be understood of Yahweh.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 346)

Being perplexed

In today’s Gospel – Luke 1:26-38 – the Angel Gabriel greets Mary: “‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’” Mary’s reaction is very significant: “She was much perplexed”. The New Revised Standard Version uses the English words “much perplexed” to translate the Greek word, dietaracthē. Other translations of this text use even stronger language, such as “greatly troubled”, “deeply disturbed” and “startled”. Whatever the best translation might be, we are reminded that our encounters with the living God will not always be as we would like and perhaps expect – peaceful, comforting, enjoyable, and comprehensible. We may, in fact, be “much perplexed”, “greatly troubled”, “deeply disturbed” or simply “startled”. But – and this may be the insight offered by Mary – such experiences can be moments of grace. Far from suggesting the absence of God, they might be announcing God’s Presence!

There must have been other moments in which Mary would have been similarly distressed. For example, when they found the child Jesus in the temple (2:48 & 51) and when she came, with other members of the family, looking for him, Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). Nothing would have been more distressing than the sight of her son hanging on the cross.

Mary’s reaction has some practical implications for our understanding the Christian life and our particular call to holiness. Each moment and each task, each event and each person, is a messenger – an angel – of God. Living is annunciation! The call to wake up, stay awake, and keep alert, is very practical. Listening and hearing, paying attention, and becoming aware, are everything! The fullness of our humanity emerges as gift, not conquest. St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) writes: “God is the efficient and final cause of our love. He offers the opportunity, creates the affection, and consummates the desire” (On Loving God, VII:22). We are not called to stoicism but to life in Christ.

Our experiences of being perplexed, troubled, disturbed, or startled – whatever seems to be the cause – are growing pains. They are potentially moments of learning, purification, and transformation. Like the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis or the seed breaking through the soil, so we come to birth daily. We are always be-coming and be-longing.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:8-11).

Fr Michael Whelan SM – Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B) 24 December 2023