The first time we find the term “evangelization” in Scripture is in the Gospel of St. Luke, and the first evangelizer is the same angel who appeared to Daniel in the Old Testament: the archangel Gabriel. Gabriel appears as the messenger of the Most High, bearing the good news of salvation in two annunciations — one to Zechariah, fulfilling the hopes of Israel, and the second to Mary, the Mother of the Savior, surpassing them beyond all hope.
In the Gospel of Luke, we read that the priest Zechariah was called to serve his term in the Temple at Jerusalem, and by lot he was chosen to offer incense before the Holy of Holies. It was at that moment that the Lord God determined to send His holy angel to speak to Zechariah to reveal to him His plan for the unfolding of the history of salvation and the part he would play in the coming of the Messiah.
An angel of the Lord appeared, standing at the right side of the altar. Zechariah was filled with awe at the sight, and the angel spoke to him, his words and tone echoing both the power and the kindness with which he had spoken to Danie. As the angel continued his message, his words revealed not only the fulfillment of the divine plan but also the healing of the human family:
And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. (Luke 1:16–17)
Despite his own knowledge and the angel’s appearance, the old man gave in to doubt. The reply of the angel left no doubt that this was a divine message:
I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God: and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time. (Luke 1:19–20)
It was customary for the priest to give a blessing to the bystanders upon coming out of the holy place, but Zechariah could speak no words. The message of salvation remained within his heart and only by signs was he able to communicate to those around him that something great had happened.
In order to appreciate more deeply the message given to Mary at Nazareth by the angel Gabriel and ponder it in our prayer, we have to note the differences between these two apparitions, these two annunciations. Though St. Luke describes the angel as appearing to Zechariah in the Temple of the Lord, his description of the same angel’s coming to Mary is quite different. In fact, the Evangelist simply tells us:
In the sixth month the angel 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. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:26–28)
Though Zechariah is frightened by the appearance of the angel, Luke does not tell us that Mary is frightened at all by the angel coming to her. The Gospel does point out twice, however, that Mary is “troubled” by his words — when he addresses her as “full of grace” and then later when he reveals to her the mission for which she has been chosen by God.
Praying with Gabriel
There are several things we should study in this account that we may not have noticed before, no matter how many times we’ve meditated upon the words and prayed the Hail Mary and the Angelus. The dating (“sixth month”) may refer to Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Some commentators, though, think this also has a symbolic meaning. The prophet Haggai tells us that under the reign of King Darius, it was in the sixth month that the people of Israel began to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, “the house of the Lord” (Hag. 1:14–15). Now the angel has come to announce that the Lord Most High is preparing a new Ark for a New Covenant.
Mary is not afraid of the appearance of the angel. Throughout the Old Testament, when someone sees an angel for the first time, he or she is always struck with awe and and fear because the angel bears about him the authority and the glory of God. But Mary has no such reaction. The description of Gabriel’s visitation seems very ordinary. The angel comes into the house — not into a sacred and mysterious Holy of Holies, but into an ordinary home. He enters almost as if he were accustomed to doing so, a practice not commonly associated with the angels of the Most High God.
And the angel said to her, “Do not fear, Mary; for you have found favor before God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:31–33)
This is the most glorious message an angel has ever been given to deliver! It is the revelation of the Incarnation, the enfleshing of the Eternal Son of God, the joining of Creator and creation in a union of body, blood, soul, and divinity. It signifies the nuptials of Heaven and earth, the dawn of the everlasting wedding feast. It weaves together the essence of Who this Child-to-be-born is from all eternity and how He will be seen and known by generations yet unborn. Reread these words and think about how St. Gabriel felt when he spoke them for the first time, in the clarity of his angelic intellect. He awaits with angelic anticipation the response of the Woman at whom all Heaven marveled.
She is not struck dumb, as was Zechariah, but rather the angel answers her succinctly, “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 called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). He goes on to tell her that her cousin Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, is also with child, “for with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:36–37). He gives Mary a sign that she had not asked for and in the face of his words — harmonizing all that she had understood of God’s will for herself and Joseph, and so clear, so rich with the authority of God — Mary replies, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
In this act of loving, trusting faith, the Church has found a “word” that is ever fruitful for our spiritual lives. Whether we are male or female, young or old, we must learn to repeat this perfect Marian response to the divine will: “I am the servant of the Lord; may His will be done in me, through me, by me; now and always and forever.” Two Latin words are often used to sum up the Immaculata’s response and our “adoption” of them in our own spiritual life: Ecce (Behold) and Fiat (Be it done). Together with the word Magnificat, the opening phrase of Our Lady’s canticle to Elizabeth (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”), these three words form the inner structure of our imitation of Mary — obedience, trust, and thanksgiving.
When the Blessed Mother speaks these words, the Holy Spirit does indeed overshadow her and the Word is made Flesh in the tabernacle of her body. She becomes in that moment the Ark and Tabernacle of the New Covenant, the Bearer of God’s love. He would be Emmanuel, God Among Us, fulfilling the sign of the ancient Temple in His own flesh.
Gabriel falls down before her to adore God made man. He now sees the fulfillment of the angelic trial, for it is believed that the angels’ trial was precisely with regard to the coming of the Word as man — that the angels, and indeed all creation, would have to kneel in worship of Almighty God, God the Son in the form of man. The humility and fidelity of the angels was in view of this moment, and now it takes place, as the Word is made flesh within Mary — and Gabriel humbles himself before Him. Gabriel, therefore, is not only the first announcer of the good news of salvation when he speaks to Zechariah, but now he becomes the first adorer of Jesus Christ, God made man, living in Mary. This is a profound moment, not only for the history of salvation, but also for each of us.
In fact, many European churches built in the Middle Ages have images of the archangel Gabriel and of Our Lady on either side of the main doors. To enter the church, therefore, you must pass through the mystery of the Incarnation and be spiritually aware of the words of Gabriel and the loving response of Mary. And by so doing, you enter into the mystery of Christ’s life, expressed symbolically by the church building itself, and come at last to the altar of the glorified Christ, the Lord who reigns now in Heaven.
When we pray the Hail Mary or the Angelus, then, we are not simply reciting a prayer but are entering deeply into the mystery of God’s love. God stoops down to us through the humility and trust of Mary, the handmaid of the Lord. Meditating on the Annunciation can fill our hearts with a tremendous desire to love and to serve God so that Christ may take flesh in us. The accompaniment of the angels, especially our guardian angel, helps us to understand how the Word can take flesh in us.
This does not happen through incarnation, as happened with the Blessed Mother. Rather, each of us must learn to give to Christ our lives, our bodies, the talents of our minds and hearts, the works of our hands — all of ourselves. We must become like Mary, the servant of the Lord, and consecrate ourselves to Him. If we ask the archangel Gabriel, who bore this joyful news to the Blessed Mother, to assist us, particularly when we are in adoration of the Lord in the Eucharist or contemplating His mysteries in Our Lady’s Rosary, he can inspire us with some of the sentiments that he experienced — the wonder and awe, the fascination and the reverence toward God’s plan.
Let us ask the holy angel, then, to be with us and to exercise in us the same ministry that he showed to Mary — to announce the will of God to us clearly and to remove the obstacles that would impede God’s will from bearing fruit in us. Let us ask Gabriel to teach us how to accept the signs of God’s love, the indications of His power, and the fullness of the reality of Jesus’ Incarnation.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Fr. Horgan’s book, His Angels at Our Side: Understanding Their Power in Our Souls and the World. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.
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