From Angels: A History
In general, in the Hebrew scriptures, when an angel speaks, the angel becomes transparent, as it were. The voice of the angel is the voice of the one who sends the angel, and the personality of the angel itself is not visible. It was only in late books such as Daniel that angels were given names. According to the book of Daniel, Gabriel is a figure having the appearance of a man who explains the meaning of Daniels’ vision. He comes in swift flight to give Daniel knowledge and understanding. The name Gabriel means mighty man of God (from the Hebrew Gabar, mighty) and has the connotation of a ruler or warrior.
The Archangel Gabriel is a popular figure who pops up in several other Jewish books and in the Talmud, but his fame stems from his role in the New Testament and in the Quran.
In the New Testament Gabriel appears first in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The angel gives his name, without even being asked: I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. Gabriel comes to announce the birth of John the Baptist. This story has close parallels to the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Issac. Like Sarah, Elizabeth has had no children and is now an old woman. Like Abraham, Zechariah is visited by an angel who tells him that his wife will bear a son. In the Hebrew story it is Sarah who does not believe the news, whereas in the New Testament it is Zechariah who does not believe. Because of this, Zechariah is struck dumb until after the baby is born.
This story, which is remarkable enough, is immediately eclipsed by another story that is the reason why the name of Gabriel is known in every country on Earth. After having spoken to Zechariah, Gabriel is sent to a young woman called Mary, to announce to her the birth of Jesus.
The announcement of the birth of Jesus is the beginning of the good news, which is the core of Christian belief. The story shows Jesus to be the promised savior, the Christ, who has come with a message not only for the Jewish people but for all people. While the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is strongly reminiscent of earlier stories in the Hebrew scriptures, the story of Mary is something new. This is also symbolized by the fact Zechariah and Elizabeth are old, while Mary is young.
The moment when the angel comes to Mary has captured the Christian imagination and generated sermons, poetry, music, and, not least, art. It is perhaps the most frequently depicted image of an angel. Mary is typically portrayed as a young girl, eyes cast downwards, hands across her breast slightly pointing inwards. This gesture suggests humility, as if to say, how can this be?, but it is not a picture of doubt but of acceptance: let what you have said be done to me. While Mary seems still, the figure of Gabriel in contrast is all activity, his hands are also crossed as a gesture of respect, but there is an urgency about the way the angel leans forward as though bursting to tell the news. The scene is sometimes portrayed as occurring in an enclosed garden, which symbolizes Mary’s virginity. The artist struggles to capture a mood that is at once perplexed, accepting, and joyous. For Christians this is a key moment in the history of salvation. It is the moment when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb and the Word was made flesh.
Many Christians are not aware of how many elements of the gospel story are repeated in the Quran. Both the story of the birth of John the Baptist and story of the birth of Jesus occur twice in the Quran. Zechariah is described as an old man without children. The bones have turned brittle in my body, and my hair is aflame with grey, he says. In response to this prayer, God sends his angels, who call to Zechariah while he stands praying in the sanctuary. Similarly, Zechariah is struck dumb as a sign, though this is not attributed to any lack of belief.
The angels then announce: O Mary, God gives you good news: a word from him whose name is “The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary. He will be prominent in this life and in the hereafter, and one of those closest to me.” In the second version of this story, it is just one angel who is sent to Mary in the form of a human being. This angel says: I am the messenger of your Lord, to grant you a pure son. In the Quran, as in the new Testament, it is made clear that Mary is a virgin and that Jesus is conceived by a miracle. In the Quran, the angel is not named explicitly as Gabriel, but is referred to as our spirit. In a number of places (e.g., Quran 26:193) the Quran seems to refer to Gabriel as God’s spirit or as the honest spirit, and it is the belief of Muslims that Gabriel appeared to Mary.
From an Islamic point-of-view, the culmination of Gabriel’s role is in revealing God’s word to the prophet Muhammad. Anyone who opposes Gabriel should know that he has brought down this (Quran) into your heart, in accordance with God’s will.
Gabriel thus appears explicitly in the scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He is the herald: the one who announces good news and reveals the hidden plan of God. The word angel means messenger, and among the angels Gabriel is the archetypal messenger. Christians from different churches and at different times have celebrated the feast of Gabriel on different days. The feast day of the annunciation, when the angel appeared to Mary, is on March 25 (nine months before Christmas!), and Gabriel was sometimes given a feast the day before (by Western Roman Catholics) or the day after (by Eastern Orthodox). These days it is common to celebrate the archangels together on September 29 (Roman Catholics) or November 8 (Orthodox). Gabriel is the patron saint of messengers, postal workers, and those who work in telecommunications.