When the archangel Gabriel landed in Nazareth 2,000 years ago to meet the woman who would become the Mother of God, as told in the New Testament, his greetings included necessary words of assurance: “Be not afraid.”
Despite myriad artistic depictions through the ages that show Gabriel looking like the most serene of creatures, Mary may have been shocked out of her wits by his presence. Being a Jew of her times, she would have known about the angels of the Old Testament, and so would have had good reason to fear. Angels were serious business in those days, even terrifying. They often carried flaming swords or their faces appeared to emit lightning. They were not the feathery sweet angels of today that hang from Christmas trees or appear in school plays. They certainly were not “Smiley the Angel,” an image that puts wings on the ubiquitous “smiley face” logo.
Indeed, only months before, a relation of Mary’s was struck dumb for having the audacity to doubt Gabriel’s words. So after greeting Mary with, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women,” the angel of the Lord needed to reassure her that all would be well.
“If you read early depictions of angels, they are complicated, frightening and wondrous beings that are extremely difficult to explain,” says Danielle Trussoni, author of the New York Times notable book Angelology.