26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God.”
38“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “Let it be.” Then the angel left her.
I’m not a student of angels. They flit, they appear, they’re gone. Because they are nebulous and because not much is known about them, they are the easiest divine targets onto which humans can project their religious wishes and whims. Thus, we have the purely human concocted concept of guardian angels. (Everyone who is alive at this moment has a guardian angel. Can you argue with that statement? Neither can I; all I can do is smile as politely as I can and ignore it.)
Gabriel was an archangel, an angel from the top of the hierarchical angelic heap. Archangels are given the big jobs biblically, and Gabriel drew one of the biggest jobs of all: telling Mary that she was going to have a baby. “And such a baby it will be!” (I’m thinking of Gabriel as kind of a Larry David, by the way)
But, just in case that upsets your comfortably established image of Gabriel, just below is part of an altarspiece painted by Fra Filipppo Lippi. He paints Gabriel and Mary in the setting of the European Middle Ages which is also absurd by about 1400 years and 1500 miles. But, of course, it somehow nicely “fits” our sensibilities about “Bible times”, yes? (Gabriel’s on the left. I know, he looks more like a housewife from next door but, then, who says archangels must look like Dwayne Johnson?)
“The Annunciation” by Fra Filippo Lippi, circa 1460
Perfectly trusted by God, chosen by God, and ready to serve God, Gabriel is a divine ideal, a man so perfect he cannot be allowed by men to be a man. For humans wanting to move toward divinity the angels serve as intermediaries- roadside parks on the way to the Grand Canyon! No matter how close we come to them, angels will be just a little bit beyond us. In the religious narrative, they are good goals: they are both approachable and beyond our reach.
But Gabriel, in all European art of this period, is always shown in his super-humanness as crouched or bowing in front of Mary! No, we cannot be like Gabriel no matter how hard we try, but Mary- it seems- is like Gabriel without trying at all! She simply is. “I am that I am,” could be her name, too. She didn’t need to aspire to worthiness, and she didn’t need to ritualize her way to godhood. She didn’t have to be good enough, righteous enough, or educated, pretty, or well-dressed enough. She just had to be. And then to be willing.
38” ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘Let it be.’ Then the angel left her.”
After Mary said that, what else was there for an archangel possibly to do but leave?