When I was a kid, a medium-sized sticky note, if we had had sticky notes, could have held a hand-written compilation of all I thought I knew about spiritual things. One of those few tidbits of eternal truth was that if you were good, you got to go to heaven when you die and become an angel, wings and all. I learned this vital piece of theology at the movies. I don’t know which movie it was, or why a reasonably well-behaved kid like me was forced to watch it, but I remembered a scene quite clearly. Someone in the story had died, and amid a disgusting display of grown-ups crying and hugging and slobbering all over one another, some guy got a faraway look on his face, lifted his eyes toward the ceiling and said, “Heaven has a brand new angel now.” I figured that if they said stuff like that in an actual movie in front of everybody, it must be true. I discovered much later that the Hollywood folks were wrong about that. Shocking.
Truth is, you and I will never become angels, and neither we nor any of our neighbors are ever going to morph into some other aberration of humanity, in spite of the contradictory evidence roaming about on college campuses. With all its ups and downs, we’re inescapably stuck with being human. We were born human, we live human, we will die human, and what’s left will be classified as human remains. Now the glorious piece of truth that follows is that we will ultimately be resurrected, not as angels, but as human beings.
Now with that in mind, picture with me the scene where Mary meets Gabriel. It probably took place in a small house, like those commonplace among the poorer citizens of Nazareth at that time. It would have seemed crude by our standards, cramped, austere, and void of anything suggesting that the introduction of the greatest event in the history of the planet was about to take place. There was just the two of them face to face, Gabriel and Mary, no audience and no other participants. We engage that scene with an imagination conditioned by Star Wars and other fictitious productions over the years where alien interactions with humans is ‘no-big-deal,’ but in the real world, it’s a pretty big deal. The meeting Luke described was an inter-galactic exchange, and there was only one human being involved.
I don’t know exactly how to picture Gabriel, but we can dismiss any images of Yoda. Angels generally looked human, though they aren’t, and we can give up that silly notion about wings. Seraphim and cherubim have those, not angels. Whatever his appearance, I think it’s pretty clear that Mary didn’t need to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” Gabriel was a radically different species of being, and the contrast between the two of them was stark beyond belief. To say they were worlds apart wouldn’t begin to describe it. If they compared resumes, the difference in their experiences, accomplishments and abilities would exhaust hyperbole. Gabriel introduced himself to Zachariah as one who stands “in the presence of God.” Mary on the other hand, only stood in the presence of her family and some livestock, and any comparison in terms of sheer strength and power on any level would be pure comedy.
What must that have been like for her? The shock, the astonishment, the fear, the questions, and the total lack of any way to relate to what she was hearing and seeing must have been almost paralyzing. That’s obvious, but let’s not overlook what it might have been like for Gabriel, and maybe take a second look at what it means to be human.
The sense of astonishment in the room might not have been Mary’s alone. Though Gabriel was likely present when God created the world, this was different. If the heavenly beings had a curiosity meter, I think watching that original beginning would have kept it in the red zone for the entire six days, and especially so when the final piece was put in place. There must have been a collective gasp when God breathed His very breath into that molded dust and a totally new kind of being rose up—a ‘human’, a creature ‘like’ God Himself. No being with the inherent capabilities of this one had ever existed, and nothing like it ever would, an entity with eternal capability, and the potential to be at once the most gloriously good and most dangerously evil thing ever made. How tragic it must have been to watch them fall.
Sadly, our view of what we are can be so colored by our weaknesses and failures that we often demean this amazing thing that God created. When life’s demands push us too hard, we’re prone to say things like, “Gimme a break! I’m only human.” Gabriel may have had a different view of what the term meant to be human. With all of his angelic power and privilege, and all of his accomplishments, he could never achieve the status Mary had, or become what she was. To him, she was something beyond glorious, the highest exhibition of God’s creative genius, so frail and weak, but able to incorporate God’s very presence and power within that small ‘human’ frame. Gabriel might hold an exalted position in the very presence of God, but he would never be able to have what this girl was able to have. He would never know what it meant to have God become a living part of him.
“Born of woman,” Paul said of Jesus (Gal. 4:4).
‘Born human,’ he might well have added. It’s astounding to contemplate what Christmas looked like to Gabriel. We could look at everything Jesus did and honestly say, God, in a human being, did that. Perhaps he knew, as he beheld the diminutive creature before him, that although sin had perverted the magnificent thing she was, God was about to correct all that, and heaven itself would scarcely be able to contain the glory that would follow. That magnificent union of God and human beings that the angels sang about that Christmas night is still here—Jesus brought it with Him, and dispenses it here and now.
© 2015 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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