The Gospel of Saint Luke opens with a news flash from the Archangel Gabriel for Zechariah the priest, and Mary – Theotokos – the new Ark of the Covenant.
Prisoners, including me, have no access at all to the online world. Though Wednesday is post day on These Stone Walls, I usually don’t get to see my finished posts until the following Saturday when printed copies arrive in the mail. So I was surprised one Saturday night when some prisoners where I live asked if they could read my posts. Then a few from other units asked for them in the prison library where I work.
Some titles became popular just by word of mouth. The third most often requested TSW post in the library is “A Day Without Yesterday,” my post about Father Georges Lemaitre and Albert Einstein. The second most requested is “Did Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” Prisoners love the science/religion debate. But by far the most popular TSW post is “Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed.” And as a result of it, dozens of prisoners have asked me for copies of the prayer to Saint Michael. I’m told it’s being put up on cell walls all over the prison.
Remember “Jack Bauer Lost The Unit On Caprica,” my post about my favorite TV shows? In the otherwise vast wasteland of American television, we’re overdue for some angelic drama. For five years in the 1980s, Michael Landon and Victor French mediated the sordid details of the human condition in Highway to Heaven. The series was created and produced by Michael Landon who thought TV audiences deserved a reminder of the value of faith, hope, and mercy as we face the gritty task of living. Highway to Heaven ended in 1989, but lived on in re-runs for another decade. Then in the 1990s, Della Reese and Roma Downey portrayed “Tess and Monica,” angelic mediators in Touched by an Angel which also produced a decade of re-runs.
SPIRITUAL BATTLE ON A COSMIC SCALE
The angels of TV-land usually worked out solutions to the drama of being human within each episode’s allotted sixty minutes. That’s not so with the angels of Scripture. Most came not with a quick fix to human madness, but with a message for coping, for giving hope, for assuring a believer, or, in the case of the Angel of the Annunciation, for announcing some really big news on a cosmic scale – like salvation! What the angels of Scripture do and say has deep theological symbolism and significance, and in trying times interest in angels seems to thrive. The Archangel Gabriel dominates the Nativity Story of Saint Luke’s Gospel, but who is he and what is the meaning of his message?
We first meet Gabriel five centuries before the Birth of Christ in the Book of Daniel. The Hebrew name, “Gabri’El” has two meanings: “God is my strength,” and “God is my warrior.” As revealed in “Angelic Justice,” the Hebrew name Micha-El means “Who is like God?” The symbolic meaning of these names is portrayed vividly as Gabriel relates to Daniel the cosmic struggle in which he and Michael are engaged:
“Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand, and humbled yourself before God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me. So I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to befall your people in the latter days . . . But I will tell you what is inscribed in the Book of Truth: there is none who contends at my side against these except Michael.” (Daniel 10:12-14, 21).
In the Talmud, the body of rabbinic teaching, Gabriel is understood to be one of the three angels who appeared to Abraham to begin salvation history, and later led Abraham out of the fire into which Nimrod cast him. The Talmud also attributes to Gabriel the rescue of Lot from Sodom. In Christian apocalyptic tradition, Gabriel is the “Prince of Fire” who will prevail in battle over Leviathan at the end of days. Centuries after the Canon of Old and New Testament Scripture was defined, Gabriel appears also in the Qu’ran as a noble messenger.
In Jewish folklore, Gabriel was in the role of best man at the marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I found that a strange idea at first, but then it dawned on me: Who else were they going to ask? In later rabbinic Judaism, Gabriel watches over man at night during sleep, so he is invoked in the bedside “Shema” which observant Jews must recite at bedtime in a benediction called the Keri’at Shema al ha_Mitah:
“In the name of the God of Israel, may Michael be on my right hand, Gabriel on my left hand, Uriel before me, behind me Raphael, and above my head, the Divine Presence. Blessed is he who places webs of sleep upon my eyes and brings slumber to my eyelids. May it be your will to lay me down and awaken me in peace. Blessed are You, God, who illuminates the entire world with his glory.”
“History is not a haphazard series of events. Whatever the dark headlines – terrorist attacks, natural disasters, economic upheavals - we’re in the hands of a loving and all-powerful God. Earthly regimes will rise and fall, and good people will suffer. But . . . at an hour no one knows, God will bring evil to an end and establish His eternal kingdom.”
EAST OF EDEN
The Book of Tobit identifies the Archangel Raphael as one of seven angels who stand in the Presence of God. Scripture and the Hebrew Apocryphal books identify four by name: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. The other three are not named for us. In rabbinic tradition, these four named angels stand by the Celestial Throne of God at the four compass points, and Gabriel stands to God’s left. From our perspective, this places Gabriel to the East of God, a position of great theological significance for the fall and redemption of man.
In a post last February, “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden,” I described the symbolism of “East of Eden,” a title made famous by the great American writer, John Steinbeck, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for it in 1962. I don’t mean to brag (well, maybe a little!) but a now retired English professor at a very prestigious U.S. prep school left a comment on “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden” comparing it to Steinbeck’s work. This has absolutely nothing to do with the Archangel Gabriel, but I’ve been waiting for a subtle chance to mention it again! (ahem!) But seriously, in the Genesis account of the fall of man, Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden to the East (Genesis 3:24). It was both a punishment and a deterrent when they disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:
“‘Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good from evil; and now, lest he put out his hand and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever,’ therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and to the east of the Garden of Eden he placed a Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every which way, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” (Gen.3: 22-24)
A generation later, after the murder of his brother Abel, Cain too “went away from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod, East of Eden.” (Genesis 4:16). The land of Nod seems to take its name from the Hebrew “nad” which means “to wander,” and Cain described his fate in just that way: “from thy face I shall be hidden; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:14). The entire subsequent history of Israel is the history of that wandering East of Eden. I wonder if it is also just coincidence that the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the only source of the story of the Magi, has the Magi seeing the Star of Bethlehem “in the east” and following it out of the east.
AN IMMACULATE RECEPTION
In rabbinic lore, Gabriel stands in the Presence of God to the left of God’s throne, a position of great significance for his role in the Annunciation to Mary. Gabriel thus stands in God’s Presence to the East, and from that perspective in St. Luke’s Nativity Story, Gabriel brings tidings of comfort and joy to a waiting world in spiritual exile East of Eden.
The Archangel’s first appearance is to Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. Zechariah is told that he and his wife are about to become the parents of John the Baptist. The announcement does not sink in easily because, like Abraham and Sarah at the beginning of Salvation History, they are rather on in years. Zechariah is about to burn incense in the temple, as close to the Holy of Holies a human being can get, when the archangel Gabriel appears with news:
“Fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife, ‘Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John . . . and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God and will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah . . .’” (Luke 1:12-15).
This news isn’t easily accepted by Zechariah, a man of deep spiritual awareness revered for his access to the Holy of Holies and his connection to God. Zechariah doubts the message, and questions the messenger. It would be a mistake to read the Archangel Gabriel’s response in a casual tone. Hear it with thunder in the background and the Temple’s stone floor trembling slightly under Zechariah’s feet:
“I am Gabriel who stand in the Presence of God . . . and behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass.”
I’ve always felt great sympathy for Zechariah. I imagined him having to make an urgent visit to the Temple men’s room after this, followed by the shock of being unable to intone the Temple prayers.
Zechariah was accustomed to great deference from people of faith, and now he is scared speechless. I, too, would have asked for proof. For a cynic, and especially a sometimes arrogant one, good news is not easily taken at face value. Then six months later “Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1: 26-27). This encounter was far different from the previous one, and it opens with what has become one of the most common prayers of popular devotion.
Gabriel said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” His words became the Scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that and centuries of “census fidelium” the consensus of the faithful who revere her as “Theotokos,” the God-Bearer. Mary, like Zechariah, also questions Gabriel about the astonishing news. “How can this be since I have not known man?” There is none of the thunderous rebuke given to Zechariah, however. Saint Luke intends to place Gabriel in the presence of his greater, a position from which even the Archangel demonstrates great reverence and deference.
It has been a point of contention with non-Catholics and dissenters for centuries, but the matter seems so clear. There’s a difference between worship and reverence, and what the Church bears for Mary is the deepest form of reverence. It’s a reverence that came naturally even to the Archangel Gabriel who sees himself as being in her presence rather than the other way around. God and God alone is worshiped, but the reverence bestowed upon Mary was found in only one other place on Earth. That place was the Ark of the Covenant, in Hebrew, the “Aron Al-Berith,” the Holy of Holies which housed the Tablets of the Old Covenant. It was described in 1 Kings 8: 1-11, but the story of Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary draws on elements from the Second Book of Samuel.
These elements are drawn by Saint Luke as he describes Mary’s haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. In 2 Samuel 6:2, David visits this very same place to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. Upon Mary’s entry into Elizabeth’s room in Saint Luke’s account, the unborn John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb. This is reminiscent of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6:16.
For readers “with eyes to see and ears to hear,” Saint Luke presents an account of God entering into human history in terms quite familiar to the old friends of God. God himself expressed in the Genesis account of the fall of man that man has attempted to “become like one of us” through disobedience. Now the reverse has occurred. God has become one of us to lead us out of the East, and off the path to eternal darkness and death.
In Advent, and especially today the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we honor with the deepest reverence Mary, Theotokos, the Bearer of God and the new Ark of the Covenant. Mary, whose response to the Archangel Gabriel was simple assent:
“Let it be done to me according to your word.” “Then the Dawn from On High broke upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet on the way to peace.” (Luke 1:78-79).
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
O Come, O Key of David come,
And open wide our Heavenly home.
Make safe the way that sets us free,
And close the path to misery.
(Veni Emmanuel, 12th Century, vs 1 & 5)
Editor’s Note: Several of you have expressed a desire to join Fr. MacRae in a Spiritual Communion. He celebrates a private Mass in his prison cell on Sunday evenings between 11 pm and midnight. You’re invited to join in a Holy Hour during that time if you’re able.