The birth narratives the gospels of Matthew and Luke each begin with the appearance of an angel. These supernatural interventions herald an extraordinary event that is about to happen: the birth of the Redeemer. Luke tells us of two visitations of the archangel Gabriel, one to the priest Zechariah and the other to Mary. They sound similar but have different results. Therein is the key to understanding and appreciating the significance of the birth of Christ.

   Gabriel tells Zechariah that, despite her advanced age, his wife Elizabeth will conceive and bear a son who will prepare a way for the Lord. Zechariah responds: “How am I to know this?”    Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a son who will be called “Son of the most High.” Mary is confused and responds, “How can this be?”

   I have always felt a bit sorry for Zechariah. His response seems so similar to Mary’s yet he incurs Gabriel’s anger while Mary is praised. Although I acknowledge that Luke was divinely inspired, I wish he had better clarified the difference in the two responses (as well as clarified what Mary meant with her “how can this be?” response. Pope Benedict admits in his Infancy Narratives that there is no clear explanation.)

   As we know, Gabriel scolds Zechariah for his answer and he is struck speechless “until the day these things take place.” (Luke 1:20), whereas Gabriel celebrates with Mary, first explaining that it is by the Holy Spirit that she will conceive, and then declaring that her child “will be called, holy, the Son of God.” Luke 1:35. Whv the vast difference in Gabriel’s response?

   The answer comes to us from a review of all the events in the birth narratives, putting Gabriel’s visitations in context. The Incarnation, most visibly announced to us by the birth of Jesus, is the most profound event in history. Whether it is true is the fundamental question for the human race. Did God really become Man or is the story a fable? This question tests our belief. Do we believe that this happened, that God entered our world for our sakes? Do we really believe or just vaguely assent? do we believe so completely that it makes all the difference in how we live?

   Zechariah’s failure was one of belief. With a supernatural being standing in front of him, he questions the believability of the archangel’s assertion. Thus, to preserve the integrity of his message, Gabriel disciplines Zechariah. He is unable to speak until he proclaims that the baby, now born as Gabriel had predicted, is to be named John.  By this time, he gets it, he believes, and his speech returns. Zechariah is so much like us – trying to believe but falling short.

   Mary visits Elizabeth to celebrate their miraculous pregnancies. One can picture an amazed Zechariah taking in the Visitation, these two women celebrating the works of the Lord.  Elizabeth, as they greet each other, proclaims to Mary, “blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Luke 1:45. Mary believed. She accepted that the message was true. Her ultimate answer was, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

   And Joseph also believed. Matthew begins his infancy narrative with a confused and dismayed Joseph, about to divorce the pregnant Mary, receiving a message from an angel in a dream. The angel told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and that it was through the Holy Spirit (not adultery) that she was pregnant. Joseph accepts the message from a dream, did not doubt it, and did as the angel instructed. Matt 1:18-21.

   The Magi believed. Mysterious non-Jewish men far distant from Bethlehem see a sign and follow it overland for hundreds of miles to see and present gifts to the child Jesus (Matt 2:1-12). They may be the most confounding “believers” in the birth narratives. The commitment they made to travel so far to a place unknown and to acknowledge that this baby would be a king is hard to fathom. They likely understood little of the significance of the events, but they made the journey not on a whim or a guess, but on a belief.

   The shepherds believed.  They were privileged to behold a spectacular vision of angels in the nighttime sky, singing, praising God, and proclaiming to them the good news of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. (Luke 2:6-14) They rush to the site of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and later spread the extraordinary news. They believed that it was indeed extraordinary even though what they saw was a poor couple and a baby in a manger. (Luke 2:16-18)

   Simeon and Anna believed, two holy and expectant people in the temple at the time Jesus’s parents presented him, a first-born male, to be consecrated according to the Jewish law. They had the advantage of the prophetic grace of the Holy Spirit, yet they were open to that grace, alert for sight of the promised Messiah, and filled with joy at his sight.

   A lesson for us emerges in these accounts of the people in the birth narratives. We are challenged to believe. Really to believe. To stake our lives on the belief that the events of the Incarnation are true, and the most spectacular news in history, and for us personally. It is noteworthy that in the gospels, Jesus, over and again, in various circumstances, exhorts and challenges those around him to believe. To believe in him, to believe in the coming of the Kingdom, to believe in the mercy and redemption of God, to believe that our lives do have meaning.

  On this Epiphany weekend, that, for those of us who are Christians, is our challenge. For many of us, the Christmas season is magical whether or not we are Christians – the lights and colors, the carols and festivities, time to be together with loved ones. And even a genuine sense that we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Our call as Christians is to believe, to truly believe, not merely bask in the glow of a fuzzy assent to a heart-warming “story.” Mary, Joseph, the Magi, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, all believed that these events of the Incarnation were of extraordinary importance. They accepted the prophetic words given to them and acted on them. Like them, that is our call as well. Believe!

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