I do not trust angels. They are capricious, arbitrary, impulsive, and mercurial. If Gabriel is any example they are also officious and apt to lash out if slighted. I doubt they are instructed very well on how to behave with humans. I don’t like them, the biblical sort anyway.
But try reading about angels found at the I Believe in Angels web site, or BeliefNet, or Angels Online. The stories offered are about angels falling into a category best described as “unfailingly helpful,” guardian Boy Scouts out to do a good turn. There was the angel in the car lot, caught in a photograph benignly hovering over a new car owner. There was “The Angel That Honked My Mother’s Car Horn” and thereby saved a life with a loud, strategically timed warning blast. There is even a meditative ritual designed to introduce one’s self (and one’s needs) to Gabriel, called “Archangel of the West.” There’s another for summoning Raphael, “Archangel of the East.”
But angels—especially biblical angels—should come with warning labels. Take Gabriel in the gospel according to St. Luke. There is no nice way to put it: his announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah is a public-relations disaster. Zechariah is tending his duties as a priest, offering incense in the sanctuary when Gabriel pops in to the right of the altar. Zechariah is understandably startled and overcome with fear, but Gabriel makes the pro forma “do not be afraid” announcement and forges ahead with his news: Zechariah’s prayer has been answered; his wife Elizabeth will bear a son; he shall be named John; this son will prepare a people that shall be fit for the Lord; and all the rest.
Zechariah—still stunned, one would guess—manages to squeak out a not unreasonable question given the circumstances. “How can I be sure of this; I’m an old man and my wife is well on in years?” Mind you, this is more or less the same question Abraham posed to the three “men” at Mamre when they told him Sarah would bear a son. Sarah even laughed out loud at it, but nothing happened to either of them. That’s because Gabriel wasn’t there. Zechariah isn’t so lucky.
Gabriel reacts to Zechariah’s question, shall we say, harshly. “I am Gabriel!” he declares—I can hear some thunderously sputtering outrage in there. “I stand in attendance upon God,” as if that’s supposed to clear it all up. “I was sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.”
Those three declarations, each beginning with “I,” is a summary of the archangelic attitude Zechariah encounters. Gabriel takes offense. He believes his position, his importance, has been challenged and, declaring that his own word has been doubted, Gabriel testily shuts Zechariah up: nine months without speech until John is born. (Something may be said for a husband who knows to keep his mouth shut during the wife’s pregnancy, but it’s a lesson best learned without angelic interference, I think.) The whole deal here is Gabriel and Gabriel’s pride.
Fast-forward six months and Gabriel shows up in Nazareth. He takes Mary through a Zechariah-like spiel, dropping off another “do not be afraid,” and then waits to hear what Mary has to say. What is Mary’s reaction? “How can this be; I am still a virgin?” And nothing happens to her.
You tell me what possible difference there is between Zechariah’s question and Mary’s. Zechariah’s “how can I be sure” expresses no lesser or greater degree of doubt than Mary’s “how can this be.” I’m not even certain either one necessarily expresses any doubt at all. Both could be understood as just, oh, logistical inquiries. Yet for Mary, Gabriel exhibits some consideration and patiently gives her with three reasons why it will be so.
What accounts for Gabriel’s change in demeanor? If there were some lines to read between, I’d say God maybe sent him off to a sensitivity training seminar. I wait for the day when a lost Gnostic gospel turns up with an account of God’s post-Zechariah debriefing with Gabriel: “I don’t care if she talks back, you be nice to her. That Zechariah thing made me look bad.”
Yet there’s something about undisciplined angels that should produce just a little bit of a thrill. Nowadays, starting with Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, angels have become domesticated wussies. They are tame, even adorable. Yet I do not recall a single instance in scripture where someone encountering an angel points at it and declares, “Oh, how cute.” No, as much as I may prefer to avoid them—something I think I have managed so far—I also prefer my angels a little like Gabriel, a whole lot scary, always unpredictable, and thoroughly untamed.
I am not likely to personally summon an angel for any reason. Avoid them, I say, and I sure don’t want one living next door. Mine is a primitive, primal prejudice against the “other,” I admit. But it is hardly without reason, so I won’t even bother trying to disguise it by telling you that some of my best friends are angels. None of my best friends are angels.
A pastor of the North American Lutheran Church Russell E. Saltzman is the author of The Pastor’s Page and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
I Believe in Angels