From: All God’s Angels
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. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
In one of his sermons, a third-century bishop known as Saint Gregory the Miracle-Worker imagines the Annunciation from the angel Gabriel’s point-of-view. He imagines God directing Gabriel to approach Mary gently: “Do not disturb or trouble the soul of the Virgin. Greet her first with the voice of gladness and address her, ‘Hail, O favored one.'” The great archangel is filled with awe and wonder at the news he is about to deliver. Gregory says that Gabriel, on receiving God’s instruction, thinks to himself:
What has just been said is beyond comprehension, he who is dreaded by the Cherubim, he who cannot be looked on by the Seraphim, he who is incomprehensible to all the Heavenly powers – is he saying that he will be connected in this way to a virgin? Is he announcing that he will come in person? Is he who condemned Eve eager to give Eve’s daughter such honor? This is certainly a fearful mystery.
Of all the angelic messages we encounter in the Bible, the announcement to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God is certainly the most wonderful, and the most mysterious. Saint Gregory helps us to hear it in a fresh way, news as startling to the hosts of Heaven as to Mary. We can picture Gabriel and Mary sharing a divine secret that gives them both deep pause… and then deep joy.
In the famous fresco of the annunciation painted by fifteenth-century monk and master Fra Angelico, the scene of Gabriel’s visitation to Mary stands side-by-side with the scene of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden. The artist has taken his inspiration from the paradoxical connection between the curse suffered by Adam and Eve and the blessing brought by our Redeemer, a connection so aptly expressed in the words of the Exsultet, an ancient hymn for Easter.
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.
O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
The artist pictures an angel presiding over the sorrowing Adam and Eve as they seem to limp out of Paradise. Their legs move as heavily as their hearts. At the center of the image the angel Gabriel makes a gentle bow to the Virgin Mary, who returns the humble gesture. They bend to one another, the maiden acknowledging the presence of God’s messenger, the angel acknowledging the presence of God’s Mother. A meeting of lowliness with lowliness, one servant speaking to another. This is the moment – and, once again, an angel stands in the center of it all – when Adam and Eve’s expulsion begins to be reversed. Gabriel calls out, Ave (Hail), and Mary answers, Fiat (Let it be), and as their exchange echoes through Heaven, the Cherubim are motioned away from the gate, and the door to paradise begins to swing again upon its ancient hinges.