In Luke chapter 1, at the dawn of the New Testament era, we find the story of two birth announcements — John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s. There are no pregnancy tests, social media posts, cakes, or gender reveal parties, but the manner by which the announcements come prepares us for what this new era would be like; indeed, it helps us come to terms with how the Bible often portrays narratives in a dualistic and competing kind of way.
The story consists of Elizabeth and Mary both receiving an angelic pronouncement that they were pregnant. Elizabeth was barren and Mary was a virgin, so the news is met with bewilderment and joy. It’s yet another time in the Bible when God overcomes the obstacles of age, infertility, despair, and now virginity, which makes sense on the cusp of the New Testament since, at the core, the gospel is about life coming from nothing. Onward to Easter!
But what really strikes me about these birth narratives is how they differ – how they duel. In fact, in a lot of ways, the distinctions between the two are more important than the similarities. In John the Baptist’s case, it actually isn’t Elizabeth who first gets the news, but her husband Zechariah, a priest who served in the temple. After Gabriel the angel says, “Hey, you’re super old wife is going to get pregnant!” he’s (justifiably) skeptical. And this is where the otherwise-joyful moment takes a turn for the sour. Because of his disbelief, Zechariah is stricken mute and won’t be able to talk until John is born.
It’s hard to not empathize with the guy, isn’t it? — at least for everyone who has struggled to trust God for things before. My wife and I, after our first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, had a hard time believing that there were brighter days ahead. But a curse of silence? Really Gabe? Not even a second chance? Nor a little understanding that maybe it’s going to be hard for a lifelong barren couple to believe they’re pregnant? Perhaps, though, this is the point. Readers of the Old Testament don’t need too much convincing that sin, the rote inability human beings have to obey or trust in God comes with consequences, many times immediate and unpleasant.
But that’s what makes Mary’s story so surprising:
She said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered 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 called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:34-35).
Notice anything — oh, I don’t know — blatantly unfair about that? The one million dollar question here is why isn’t Mary punished for her own form of disbelief? Her words “How will this be?” are almost a verbatim copy of Zechariah’s (Lk 1:18-20), and yet she isn’t struck mute. She’s just doled out more grace in the form of a promise. It’s as if these two announcements are operating by a completely different set of rules.
The answer to this apparent contradiction (and angelic flippancy) has to do with how these two couples and these two sons represent two different biblical covenants or ways of relating with God.
Zechariah, on the one hand, is a priest who is inside the temple when he is made mute. Not only does he represent the old covenant “professionally” (as a Levitical priest), but he is also experiencing the full weight of what the law did to Israel and the watching world, that is, cursed those who couldn’t keep it. Notice the conditionalism: keep the law, or else; believe God, or else; have perfect faith, or else.
Mary, on the other hand, is different. She’s a Judahite and represents the new covenant of grace. She represents that the long-awaited time when God would forget our sins is now here. Her son Jesus would be associated with enemy love, not speedy condemnation. No more muteness or Tower of Babel-like punishment. Just reconciliation with God through his shed blood forever.
In the end, like so many things in life and in theology, there’s a bad news-good news lesson for us here. Zechariah’s lack of faith mirrors ours. He’s an emblem of how all of us are crushed by heightened expectations, unkeepable standards, and various forms of failure each and every day.
But Mary is a picture of us hearing the gospel. She’s a picture of the curse of the law being replaced with Jesus’s loving restraint, even his willingness to be struck mute himself, like a sheep silent before its shearers, that we might live. To borrow a word from the angel, this gospel “overshadows” anything and everything we do — the good and the bad. That’s what’s so unique about it. Contrary to so many of the world’s mantras, life is actually better when it’s less about us and what we do and more about God and what he has done. It’s better when his love not only covers our sins but also takes the focus off of our goodness so that we can truly find freedom in the grace that is given unconditionally and in spite of our stubbornly persistent faithlessness.