24. The Angel Gabriel
In the Collect of the Mass which is appointed to be read on the feast of the Archangel Gabriel, Holy Church calls attention to the choice which God made of his glorious spirit, in preference to all the other angels, to announce the great mystery of the Incarnation. And certainly it was a singular privilege.
God had indeed sent His angels with messages to men on many notable occasions, but when, in the whole course of the ages, was there an embassy like that, whose purpose was to declare to the world that the blessed fullness of time had come at last, and that God’s own Son was about to take to Himself our human nature, and to begin the work of our redemption? Or when was there any one so worthy fo a message from on high as she who was full of grace, and blessed among women, and who had been chosen to be the Mother of God, and the future Queen of Heaven?
Is it not then most natural to conclude that Gabriel, the bearer of the joyful taking, must have been one of the mightiest and most glorious of all the blessed angels? Else why should he have been chosen for so sublime a mission, rather than others worthier than he?
His name is interpreted the “strength of God,” and hence it was most appropriate that the announcement of the accomplishment of our redemption through the mystery of the Word made flesh should come through him. For the Incarnate Word, Christ Jesus, is also the power of God, as well as the wisdom of God, according to the apostle, though, of course, in a higher and fuller sense, than any, even the loftiest, of His creatures.
We are not told that it was the Angel Gabriel who appeared in sleep in Joseph, and quieted his doubts about his virgin spouse, though this seems most likely, but on the other hand, we know that it was he who foretold to Zachary the birth of the Baptist, and revealed the name whereby the latter was to be called, and took from Zachary for a time the power of speech, because he had distrusted his word instead of accepting it with ready faith.
Again, it was the same glorious archangel who, some five centuries previously, had predicted to Daniel the precise time of the coming of the Saviour of mankind. Thus we see the Angel Gabriel closely associated with the great and consoling mystery of the Incarnation fo the Son of God – a fact, surely, which ought greatly to endear him to the hears of us all, while our devotion to him should have the effect of making us grow more and more in the knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer.
And who among the blessed spirits is honoured in the Church of Christ as is the Angel Gabriel? We learn to lisp his words at our mother’s knee, for the prayer which is dearest to us after the Our Father, and which, along with it, our lips are taught to utter even ere the light of reason dawns, is made up chiefly of the words spoken by the Angel Gabriel to Mary. It is also the dearest to Mary’s heart, reminding her, as it does, of that delightful interview with the Archangel, which brought such joy, with ineffable glory, to her, and such plenitude of salvation to us.
What delight, what accidental glory must come to the chosen spirit who, as God’s ambassador, first addressed those words of greeting to the ever blessed Virgin, when he hears his salutation repeated not only again and again in the liturgy of the Church, but millions upon millions of times every day by the simple faithful everywhere throughout the wide, wide world! We cannot honour Mary by devoutly reciting the prayer that is most pleasing to her without at the same time honouring the glorious Archangel who was God’s instrument in her exaltation.
There is, moreover, a familiar form of prayer, which is called the Angelus because in Latin it begins with that word, and which is recited by all devout Christians morning, noon and night, in memory of the mystery of our Lord’s Incarnation and Mary’s part in it. It consists of three Hail Marys, each introduced by a versicle and response, and the whole is usually concluded by the prayer, “Pour forth, we beseech thee,” etc.
This form of prayer, beginning with mention of the angel who brought the glad tidings to Mary, ends with a further allusion to him and to his message, and the second versicle and response contain Mary’s reply, addressed by her to the angel, who is, of course, the Archangel Gabriel.
It is hard to persuade oneself that this glorious being, so singularly honoured by Almight God, can belong to any but the highest order of blessed spirits, that is, the seraphim. And in fact he is ranked among them by eminent theologians, some even contending that he is the highest of all, although this runs counter to the common view, which assigns the most exalted place to Michael and acclaims him Prince of the heavenly host.
There are those, on the other hand, who hold strictly to the theory that the highest orders are made up of assisting angels, who are never sent on errands to mankind. Hence they infer that Gabriel, who was sent to Daniel, to Zachary, and to Mary, must be one of the inferior or ministering angels, among whom they are willing to grant him a lofty place, some reckoning him to be one of the archangels, others, one of the principalities, and perhaps the chief of these.
This view is held by theologians of the greatest repute, such as Saint Gregory, Saint Thomas, Saint Bonaventure, Suarez, etc. But there are others of scarcely less renown who maintain the opposite opinion, as for instance, the Master of the Sentences, Duns Scotus, Durandus, Gregory de Valencia, Molina, and Salmeron. Saint Bernard, too, although elsewhere he expresses himself otherwise, in commenting on the gospel narrative of the Annunciation, puts it forward as his opinion that Gabriel is not one of the lesser angels, and he argues to this effect from his name, which means, as we have already remarked, “the strength of God,” or something similar, and from the fact that he is sent directly by God Himself, and not through a higher angel acting as intermediary. It was his own excellence, Saint Bernard thinks, that won for him both the name he bears, and the office that was entrusted to him.
And surely, as Saint Gregory himself observes, “it was but proper that for this ministry the highest angel should come, seeing that he brought tidings of the greatest of all events.”
Cornelius a Lapide, one of the leading commentators on Holy Scripture, argues at some length in his exposition of Daniel 9:22 to show that Gabriel belongs to the order of the seraphim and is one of the foremost princes of the heavenly court. He cites, without fully assenting to them, the eight proofs, or rather congruities, adduced by Cardinal Mark Viguier in support of his contention that Gabriel is the first and highest of all the angels.
One of these is the apparent impossibility of the Incarnation, rendering it desirable, if not imperative, that the dignity and authority of the messenger announcing it should be such as to gain for it a readier credence Another is derived from the angel’s name. “Gabriel” means “the strength of God,” or “God has strengthened me,” or “God is my strength.” He is, then, the mightiest and the foremost of the angels – between him and God there is no intermediary. Finally, to pass over the other proofs, the Cardinal sums up his whole argument as follows: It was proper that for the greatest of God’s works, the greatest angel should be sent. But the Incarnation is the greatest of God’s works. Therefore, Gabriel, who was sent to annouce it, is the greatest of the angels.
As Cornelius a Lapide observes, however, a king does not always send his chief noble on an embassy to pope or emperor, but at times contents himself with despatching one of the highest rank, even though not the very highest.
Hence, without claiming for the Angel Gabriel the supremacy among all the blessed spirits, we include very strongly to the opnion that he is one of the highest of their number. And in support of this view, we shall add just one more argument to those already adduced. It is drawn from the unrivalled merit of the lowly Virgin to whom he came as an ambassador from God.
For if, over and above the extraordinary nature of the message of which the angel was the bearer, we consider the person of her to whom he bore the wondrous tidings; if we reflect that he was to deliver the message of the Most High to the most cherished of God’s creatures, who far surpassed in grace and dignity all the orders of blessed spirits, it does indeed seem that we must, perforce, rate very high among the ranks of the most exalted of the seraphim, that privileged bring whom God thus singled out for so enviable a distinction.
In concluding this chapter, it will not be out of place to recall the words of one of the hymns of the Church in praise of the glorious archangels. There is something grandiose both in the language itself and in the picture it suggests. For whatever precisely may be the allusion in the lines,
Angelus fortis Gabriel, ut hostes
Pellat antiquos, et amica coelo
Quae triumphator statuit per orbem
there can be no doubt that there is a grandeur and sublimity in the image of the angel coming to revisit the temples which, with the approval of heaven, he, like a conquering hero, has set up everywhere throughout the world.