A sermonic reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 21, 2014, Gordon C. Stewart.
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Mary has every reason to fear the appearance of Gabriel. Every demure depiction to the contrary, the Angel Gabriel’s “annunciation” to Mary is no private affair. It’s a public matter of the first order. According to tradition’s lore, Gabriel is the archangel commissioned to destroy the offspring of the rebellious angels and human women. (see below). Mary shrinks back.
“Do not be afraid,” says Gabriel.
Why should she not be afraid? This is not just any angel.
This is the Angel Gabriel, whose trumpet will summon the people, sweep away the occupation forces that substitute their rule for the Kingdom of love and delight. This is an angel of revolution. The Archangel of conflict who inspires both hope and fear.
”Do not be afraid!”
El Greco’s painting of the Annunciation illustrates the problem of textual interpretation. Gabriel’s appearance is not frightening. It’s feminine. Even to the point of appearing perhaps pregnant himself. The great masters did not paint an angel messenger as male, even when his name is Gabriel or Michael, the only two angels named in Holy Scripture.
Gabriel in Hebrew means “God is my Warrior”. Gabriel is a warrior angel, announcing to Mary that she too is to become a warrior, a mother whose birth-giving will lead to conflict with the Empire and the religious authorities who collaborate with it.
As described by New Testament scholar Carol Newsom, any annunciation by Gabriel inspires fear.
In the Book of Daniel, Gabriel is preeminently an angel of eschatological revelation. He is sent to Daniel to explain a vision of ‘the time appointed for the end’ (Dan. 8:15-26)…. Gabriel’s functions are more varied in I Enoch. In the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1- 36) he is listed as ‘the one of the holy angels who is in charge of paradise and the dragons and the cherubim (20:2). He is commissioned to destroy the offspring of the rebellious angels and human women (10:9-10)….
In the War Scrolls from Qumran (IQM) the names of 4 archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Sariel, and Raphael, are written on the shields of the 4 towers of the army. The positioning of the 4 archangels around the throne of God or other sacred space has a long subsequent history in both Jewish and Christian tradition…. [Carol Newsom, “Gabriel.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2]
So why does Gabriel look the way he does in the art museums and literature of Christian interpretation? Why does Gabriel look so benign? And why does Mary look so calm, perhaps even demure, as in El Greco’s Annunciation?
The Jesus story has been neutered. The End Time has been re-interpreted by the Constantinian Church as a paradise beyond time, a state of afterlife, not this life. In no way political. In no way economic. In no way conflictual. Peaceful. Serene. Calm. Quiet. Passive. “Let it be to me according to your word.” Never disquieting. Never disrupting. Never revolutionary.
Gabriel has been transformed, neutered, rendered harmless by the Constantine religion whose adherents can no longer see the conflict between Christ, or his mother, Mary, and his father, Joseph, with the systems of unbridled greed and poverty under which they live. The Gabriel spoken of in most pulpits is not the Angel Gabriel that came to Mary.
We’ve re-created Gabriel in our own image. But though we may tame him in our hearts, our paintings and our sermons, we can erase neither the need to be afraid nor his invitation to fear not. Gabriel’s finger points at us, asking whether we will rally to the trumpet sound, the sound of his coming. We can repaint the young girl Mary as an icon of passive obedience and tranquility. But it will be a different Mary than the courageous one painted by the Gospel of Luke, the one who sings the Magnificat.
Luke and his Mary know that “Do not be afraid!” makes no sense unless there really is something to fear, and that we cannot overcome fear unless we hear Gabriel’s word of favor, “Hail, O favored one! The LORD is with you. Blessed are you among women…You shall conceive….”Do not be afraid…. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’
“Then the angel departed from her” for parts unknown to make his visits down through the ages, making the impossible possible. Word has it he appeared last week in Washington, D.C. and Havana, Cuba to turn the impossible into the possible, a new Order being born from the old.
If you listen with faith, you might hear him. If you look, you will see him.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 22, 2015