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The angel Gabriel is the best known of all the angels, and one of only two angels actually called by name in the Bible. Many people know that Gabriel is one of the Archangels, but what they don’t know is that the Archangels had formed, for a while, a band, who had a modestly successful touring career, playing in clubs and smaller venues around heaven.
At about the time of the birth of Jesus, Gabriel was in a bit of a rough patch because the band had recently broken up. Uriel and Raphael preferred to go fighting dragons with Michael, and were off in the far-flung reaches of heaven tracking them down. But Gabriel wanted to keep on making music, and so decided, with God’s permission of course, to pursue a solo career. Truth to tell, God was pleased with this outcome because he’d always thought Gabriel was a superior musician to the other three and would do better on his own.
So Gabriel spent time practicing his horn, and working with a vocal coach to develop his own approach to song interpretation, since he didn’t want to be just another Sinatra-wannabe. But before he could even begin to think about arranging his first gig, Gabriel was summoned by God and given a mission. It had to do with a decision God had made to send his Son down to earth.
The mission involved a two-pronged sortie that would involve a host of lesser angels as well, under the command of Gabriel, who would be sent to a field to notify shepherds of the news. The news was to be delivered in the traditional angelic way – in song, with lots of “Glorias” - so Gabriel was very comfortable with all the arrangements, although he had to admit that it seemed odd to single out a bunch of shepherds abiding in a field who’d be keeping watch over their flocks by night. But Gabriel, ever-faithful, was confident that God had his purposes, and that all would work out well.
Still, it gave him pause to think about the particulars of the plan. No one is as close to the secrets of the triune God as archangels, after all. No one has gotten as close as the four archangels to the reeling divine Presence: never static, but sometimes only imperceptibly moving; never sleeping, but sometimes deeply still; never distant, but sometimes inexplicably elusive; never divided, but always, mysteriously knowable as Three-in One. The mysteries of God that trouble men do not so much trouble angels, who have become accustomed to God’s ways.
But God’s plan to send his Son to earth, to be born of a human mother, in poverty and near obscurity, to let him grow up in a human family, to make human friends, to feel human feelings, to suffer human injuries, to know human limitations, to speak only in the limited ways that humans speak, to work with the commonest of men, to consort with the most questionable kinds of women, etc, etc. And to do all this without a retinue of angelic protection… All this seemed risky to Gabriel; it seemed a little too much like an idea that had come from the mind of Frank Capra, and not enough like a plan that had sprung from the fount of all wisdom. But it is not the business of angels to question God, nor is it their nature. So Gabriel received his instructions and began to go about his work.
And, of course, Gabriel knew about life on earth. He’d heard from the sentries who returned from their regular deployments at the gates of the Garden of Eden, how much the humans had blown it. How we had traded paradise for selfish indulgences, because we wanted to be able to make decisions for ourselves. To an angel, this thinking is pure foolishness, since angels cannot choose to love God or not, they are simply hard-wired to do it. And although it would be deeply un-angelic to actually look down their noses at anyone, the angels were a bit mystified at the regular human insistence on doing things our own way – it seems so childish to angels.
Yes, Gabriel knew that the world was a difficult place, nothing like it had been in the old and early days before the apple. And when he thought of this he was wistful for the company of his old companions, Michael, Uriel, and Raphael, and worried about them because he remembered that slaying dragons was not child’s play, even though to many it sounds like just that.
And he reflected that on his own mission he would have to be on top of his game, since humans were not famous for heeding God’s word, not well known at all for their compliant willingness to accept God’s plans. Not ready to bend to God’s intentions, no matter how loving those intentions are. Humans cling to the notion that they know best.
And God’s plan had an interesting feature that involved this young girl named Mary. Gabriel reviewed the scant dossier on her, which gave him not much to go on. Why had God chosen this girl? What made her so special? It was hard to say. And the note in Mary’s file about rumors of her so-called Immaculate Conception brought a smile to Gabriel’s lips, since he knew that such rumors were what you might call hard to prove. But he liked the look of this girl, and he had to concede that she seemed different to him, special somehow. And once again, he trusted God’s judgment.
It was not difficult to recruit a first-rate chorus of heavenly hosts, for amongst angels good tenors are not as hard to find as they are here on earth. Gabriel went to work on special melismatic arrangements of the Glorias they’d be singing, and after rehearsals he conducted regular study groups with the lesser angels to explain the entire plan to them. This phase of preparation was actually a bit more intense than you might imagine, since it took a while for all the angels to be convinced that this plan of God’s to be born in a manger, and raised as a child, dependent on his mother to nurse him, on his earthly father to protect him – that this plan was actually Good News.
The angels realized that although no one knows the secrets of God the way they do, even they had something to learn about God’s love. And as they talked with Gabriel about it, they could almost feel the depth of God’s love for these difficult creatures he had made on earth, just a little lower than the angels, but enough to make a difference. They could sense that tingling sensation of God’s love being made manifest that they had felt so many times before. And when they began to picture in their angelic imaginations the infant child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, they found that they were eager to sing long, legato Glorias, and they began to think it was a shame that they’d only be singing for a bunch of shepherds.
And then Gabriel told them about Mary, and when they saw her picture, it wasn’t just that she was beautiful, there was something else that made them envious of Gabriel, that he alone would make the annunciation to her, while they’d still have nine months of rehearsals until they were off to sing to shepherds. They could sense, from Gabriel’s description of Mary that she was, as he said, full of grace. And they knew that this was a rare thing in any of God’s creatures – even among angels. For to many had God given a measure of grace, now and then more apparent; but racking their minds they could hardly think of another creature whom God had filled with grace, and certainly no one had ever been so highly favored as to be chosen to be visited by the Holy Spirit, overshadowed by the Most High, and to give birth to the very Son of God. So when they talked of Mary among themselves, they spoke in softer, reverent tones, and they all wished that they could go with Gabriel on that fateful day.
But only Gabriel was to go to see Mary. And he had been working on his speech, in order to say the most with the fewest possible words (angels being almost the exact opposite of preachers), and he had it down nicely, he thought, as the day approached.
And in the sixth month, following the directive given to him by God, the angel Gabriel set out to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to visit this young virgin named Mary, who was espoused to a man whose name was Joseph.
Having winged his way to Nazareth, Gabriel arrived at Mary’s home, and so as not to frighten her, came to the door and knocked.
“Hail, Mary!” Gabriel said when she answered, “the Lord is with thee!”
And despite her confusion, Mary invited this unusual and handsome creature in, and offered him tea.
“Fear not,” said Gabriel, using a customary angelic greeting, because people were so often frightened by the appearance of angels.
But Mary was not frightened at all. Perplexed, to be sure, but not frightened.
And Gabriel delivered his message, including the instruction that the child should be called Jesus. And he explained about the Holy Spirit and the overshadowing. He told Mary that her child would be the Son of God, and he told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and he finished with a little rhetorical flourish that he was rather proud of: “For nothing will be impossible with God!” he said.
And Mary, as if to demonstrate that she, indeed, was full of grace, uttered that most graceful response, “Behold,” she said, “the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”
And the scriptures tell us that then the angel departed from Mary.
But, in fact, another exchange took place between the virgin and the angel before he left.
You remember that Gabriel is a musician. And he had come prepared, on this mission, not only with a song of his own, but with a song he had written for Mary to sing. He knew that she was young and uneducated, but he guessed that even if she was untrained, she probably had a pretty voice, as girls her age so often do.
So he’d written this song for her, and he wanted to teach it to her before he went: a song for her to sing during the months of her pregnancy, a song to sing to her newborn son, a song to sing as she rocked him to sleep. A simple song was all she needed. And he reached into the folds of his robes to pull out a little parchment onto which he had inscribed the words, and to find his horn, to teach her the melody.
As he did so, he explained to Mary that he’d written a song for her. And although it seems astounding to decline the gift of a song from an angel – and even Mary, herself, could hardly believe the words that came out of her mouth as she said “No thank you” to Gabriel - it is true that she declined the gift of his song.
She explained to Gabriel that she had a song of her own: that with his arrival she had felt it forming deep in her soul.
And Gabriel, being a dignified angel, bore her refusal with dignity, and turned to Mary, and asked her to sing her song for him.
But again Mary declined, explaining to Gabriel that her song was a song not of the angels but of us men and women, who are, we have to admit, a little lower than the angels. And Mary thought it right to reserve her song to be sung for the first time for her cousin, the happy news of whose pregnancy Gabriel had just brought to Mary.
And Gabriel thought this an excellent idea, and was a bit amazed at the astounding grace of this virgin girl. He bowed to her before departing, so that he, for a moment, was a little lower than she. And he asked her, as he bowed, if she would tell him at least how the song begins.
And she bent to his ear and whispered the soft first notes of her song to him:
Magnificat anima mea:
My soul doth magnify the Lord!
And Gabriel smiled a broad angelic smile, and he stood upright to regain his composure, and he unfurled his elegant wings, and as his heart raced he departed from the young virgin, amazed that for the first time since the beginning of time he had heard a song that could rival any song of the angels, which was fitting, since it accompanied good news that rivaled any news ever before delivered by an angel: that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, that unto all mankind a child will be born and he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 December 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia