I want to compare two different passages from Luke 1. The first is the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist by the angel Gabriel. This is Luke 1:5-22,
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
There are just a few features I want to highlight:
- Zechariah was chosen here to be the high priest. This was done by lot, so that God would choose. It’s the same formula followed in choosing Judas’ replacement, suggestive of the Apostles’ roles as priests (Acts 1:26).
- Zechariah is in a place of honor, as the high priest. In Acts 23, the high priest Ananias orders Paul be slapped in the face. Paul responds by saying, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (Acts 23:3), but upon learning that the priest was the high priest, he immediately apologizes, and calls him the ruler of the people, quoting Exodus 22:28 (Acts 23:5).
- Only the high priest was permitted to go into the inner sanctum of the Temple. The rest of the people, even the other priests, must wait outside. Even when they start to worry that Zechariah has been in too long, they can do nothing but wait. The reason for this is that the Holy of Holies, the Glory of the Lord Himself, is in the inner sanctum.
- When Zechariah doesn’t believe Gabriel, Gabriel’s rebuke is essentially that while Zechariah stands before the Holy of Holies once a year, he (Gabriel) stands before God always. Even though he is standing before Zechariah, he speaks of himself in the present tense as standing before God. Gabriel seems outraged that Zechariah (whose own authority derived from standing before God once a year) doesn’t humble himself before Gabriel, who stands before God always.
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.”
Again, a few features:
- Gabriel is using a deferential greeting when he says, chairō, “Hail.” It’s the one that Judas uses when he’s pretending to defer to Christ as Rabbi (Matthew 26:49), and the one that the Romans use sarcastically when mocking Christ as King (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:18; John 19:3). With Zechariah, Gabriel begins by telling him not to be afraid. With Mary, he first venerates Her, then tells Her not to be afraid.*
- Note what Gabriel ties this deferential greeting to: (1) the Lord is with Mary, and (2) She’s the most blessed amongst women. The second of these refers to the graces God gave Mary, preserving Her from sin – it’s why She’s more blessed than even Eve, who was also created without sin. But the first of these reasons is what concerns us here.
- If the high priest Zechariah outranks the other priests because he stands in the presence of God once a year, and Gabriel outranks Zechariah because he stands in the presence of God always, Mary is superior to them both, in that God the Son is to dwell within Her, to take His Saving Flesh and Blood from Hers, to be tied by the umbilical cord to Her, and so forth. To stand in the Presence of God is massively inferior to physically Communing with Him the way that Mother and Son do.
- This core understanding, that the commingling is superior to simply being in one another’s company is the logic behind not only the unitive act of marital sex (Genesis 2:24), but also behind the Eucharist (1 Cor. 10:17) and the Lamb’s Supper in Heaven (Revelation 19:9).