In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27 NRSV)
What was the apparition of an angel like? Some years ago, there was a craze about angels. They appeared on the front of journals, on greeting cards, on wrapping paper, and on every conceivable decorative object. They were there to calm and console, to provide guidance and shelter from harm, to comfort and protect. They were soothing to the point of insipidity. There was nothing to suggest awe, nothing to remind us, as did the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in The Duino Elegies, “Every angel is terrifying.” Rilke is supported by the biblical witness where almost all angelic apparitions are accompanied by the utterance, “Fear not!”
Angels were messengers—in Jewish scripture, the word for an angel was melek, the same word used for messenger. They were God’s messengers, bearing God’s commands. The fear that they inspired was not terror but awe. Some idea of angelic awe is suggested by an incident in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. In this incident Mole and Rat come across the god Pan. Mole asks Rat whether he is afraid. Rat answers: “‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love, ‘Afraid! Of Him? O never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!’”
So the awe-inspiring angel Gabriel appears to the simple, teenage peasant girl, Mary. What this encounter was like we can only dimly guess. One thing we do know is that Mary was a young woman of deep spirituality, something that one has to be in order to recognize an angel. When the message had been delivered, Mary, after pondering it, bowed her head in humble obedience and said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 2:38). Of course, this yields another question: What if Mary had said no?
Give us grace, most loving God, to recognize your messengers, the angels, when they appear. Enable us through your mighty power to hear their message and, having heard it, to humbly accept and act upon it as did Mary; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.