Luke’s Nativity Story begins earlier than Matthew’s, with the priest Zechariah, whose aged wife Elizabeth hasn’t been able to conceive a child. One day, while carrying out his duties, “an angel from the Lord” appeared, and told him that his wife would bear a child, who must be called John – “a great servant of the Lord”.
Luke based his story on 1st Samuel, where Hannah was similarly unable to conceive. At last, however, her prayers were heard, and she gave birth to Samuel, an ‘all-rounder’ – priest, prophet, judge and military leader. Hannah gave utterance to an ‘inspired’ hymn of praise, just like the mothers of John and Jesus in Luke’s adaptation of this tale.
Luke’s story of the ‘miraculous’ birth of John to aged parents, though not a ‘virgin’ birth, prepares his readers for the even more miraculous event yet to come. When Mary asks the Angel Gabriel, how she can have a child when not yet married, he tells her about Elizabeth (whom Luke says is a relative of hers) as proof that, “Nothing is impossible for God”.
Luke has Mary pay a visit to her relative, which enables him to reinforce this ‘link’ between John and Jesus. When Elizabeth welcomed Mary, “her baby moved within her”, in recognition of the arrival of the one John would later declare to be “greater than” himself. Nowhere else in the New Testament is there any indication of a ‘family relationship’ between John and Jesus, but it gives additional ‘human interest’ to Luke’s story.
When Zechariah is told that his wife will have a baby, he asks, reasonably enough, “How will I know this is going to happen? My wife and I are both very old?” This is regarded as unbelief, however, and he is unable to say another word until his son is born, and only then when he’s indicated that his name must be John. On the contrary, however, when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she is to have a child, and when she also asks a question, “How can this happen? I am not married”, this isn’t considered unbelief. Mary is given time to add, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it happen as you have said”.
What these combined stories of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary also allow Luke to do, is to find a place for a number of pieces of poetry, which are placed on the lips of these three, as utterances ‘inspired’ by God. By way of an enclosing framework, after Jesus’ birth and 40 day presentation in the Temple, a man named Simeon is again the mouthpiece for a poem of gratitude and praise to God. By this means, we have been given the “Benedictus”, the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” to which a variety of composers have set some suitably beautiful and moving music. So well done Luke, a skilled and imaginatively creative writer!
Just to entice you to listen to it all, here is the splendid opening of Bach’s “Magnificat” …..