As we continue to ponder Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, let’s try taking a broader, more panoramic look.
In our first article, we saw how Luke wrote his infancy narrative years after Jesus died and rose. During those intervening years, Luke spent a lot of time reflecting on the way Jesus’ coming was the fulfillment of so much that was already present in the Hebrew Bible. As Luke pondered this, he became determined to show how God’s plan unfolded over time and reached its culmination in Jesus. This means that it was not by chance that Luke looked to the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Elijah and used their words and images to describe Jesus and his mission.
While these prophets did not know every detail about Jesus, Luke used Spirit-inspired hindsight to see how their words helped set the stage for the miracle of Christmas. Let’s look at three ways he did this. First, Luke showed how Jesus is the answer to Israel’s dream of a perfect king—the perfection of everything that King David stood for. Second, let’s look at how Luke emphasizes that Jesus’ kingdom will last forever, unlike David’s kingdom, which faded not long after his son, Solomon’s, death. And third, let’s look at how Luke portrays Mary as the ark of the new covenant, the new tabernacle of the presence of God.
A New David. Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which was also the birthplace of King David. He also points out that Joseph "was of the house and family of David" (Luke 2:4). Luke felt it was critical to highlight this connection between Jesus and David. This link to the house of David helped the early church see that Jesus was a king, coming from a kingly lineage.
Early on in David’s reign, he was visited by the prophet Nathan, who told him: "When your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. It is he who shall build a house for my name. And I will make his royal throne firm forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. . . . Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever" (2 Samuel 7:12-14, 16).
According to Luke, when the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, he told her: "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:31-33).
Can you see the parallel that Luke is making between the promises that Nathan made to David and Gabriel’s promise to Mary? Jesus is the heir to David. He is the One who will be an eternal king whose throne "shall stand firm forever" (2 Samuel 7:16).
A New Kingdom. Another point to ponder has to do with the word "great." In the Old Testament, this word was used with a special religious emphasis. For instance, God told Abram: "I will make of you a great nation" (Genesis 12:2). In the Old Testament, the word "great" was often used in a special way to describe God (Deuteronomy 10:17; Psalm 96:4; 145:3; 147:5; Malachi 1:11). So some commentators have said that when Gabriel tells Mary that her son will be "great," he is emphasizing that Jesus is from God, and in fact is the Son of God.
St. Paul calls Jesus "the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God" (1 Timothy 1:17). The Book of Revelation speaks of One who sits on the throne in heaven while his subjects praise him saying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty" (Revelation 4:8). We know this is Jesus. After all, he told Pilate: "My kingdom does not belong to this world. . . . I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (John 18:36,37).
All these verses tell us that Jesus has come to inaugurate a new kingdom—a fulfillment of everything people had hoped for in David’s reign. But unlike David’s kingdom, Jesus’ reign does not belong "to this world." It is a heavenly kingdom, filled with every grace and blessing. It is a kingdom where suffering and fear and even death are banished forever. It is a kingdom where purity and unity and holiness reign, and where sadness, deception, and isolation have no place.
It can be so easy to get caught up in this present world and devote all our energies to making our home here. But the truth is, we are destined for another home and another kingdom. It is right to want to make this world a better place. It is also right to want to enjoy the good things that this world has to offer. But Jesus wants to teach us how to enjoy this world, even as we prepare ourselves for the next world. He wants to teach us, too, how to shape this world so that it comes to mirror his everlasting kingdom more and more.
A New Tabernacle. Another connection that Luke makes between Jesus’ birth and the Old Testament has to do with Mary. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced God’s plan to make her the Mother of God, he told Mary: "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" (Luke 1:35).
These words sound a lot like the description of the meeting tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant in the Book of Exodus. According to Exodus, after Moses set up the tent according to God’s commands, "the cloud covered the meeting tent, and the glory of the Lord filled the Dwelling" (Exodus 40:34). It was God himself dwelling within the Ark of the Covenant, dwelling among the people!
Picking up from this imagery, Luke describes Mary as the new tabernacle of the Lord, the new Ark of the Covenant. This is why we believe that Mary was conceived without original sin. How could a sin-filled tabernacle house the Lord? The dwelling place for God had to be pure, free from any imperfection. And so Mary was.
A little further in his story, Luke tells us about Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. "When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth . . . cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’" (Luke 1:41-42). Again, the Old Testament connections are rich.
The reaction of Elizabeth’s unborn child reminds us of the way King David leapt and danced for joy as he brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14-15). And just before this triumphant procession, David asked, "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" Just as Elizabeth asked, "How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43).
These connections that Luke makes between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant are his way of telling us that Mary has a special place in God’s plan. She is the tabernacle of the Lord in a unique way, bringing the presence of Jesus to all who are open to him. But it is also Luke’s way of telling us that Jesus is with us and that we can feel his presence. Just as he lived inside of Mary’s womb for nine months, he lives in our hearts. Each of us is a living tabernacle of the Lord. What’s more, just as Elizabeth’s baby, John, leapt in the womb when Mary and Jesus came, so too can we be filled with joy at the presence of our Lord. God has come to live among us! We can be set free from sin! We have every reason to rejoice!
Every Promise Is Fulfilled. As we celebrate the season of Advent, let’s allow Luke’s beautiful infancy narrative to convince us that Jesus is the Son of God, the fulfillment of every promise contained in the Old Testament.
King David wondered, "How can the ark come to me?" Likewise, Elizabeth wondered, "Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord would come to me?" We can ask the same question. Why would God come to a people who are so weak and sinful? Why would he come to a disobedient and ungrateful race? Because he loves us with boundless love, and he wants to heal and restore us.
During this special season, Jesus is asking us: "Do you see me in the tabernacle—both in the tabernacle of the Eucharist and in the tabernacle of your heart? If you do, you will know my joy. You will know I am the Lord of the universe. You will fall on your knees and adore me. I am your King, and my kingdom will last forever."