When an angel stood in the Presence and heard the One speak, it was far less an audible experience and more an earthquake in the chest. If the angel had been made of things like flesh and bone, it would have been like the heart had split open and burst through the ribcage. Without such specifics, they could only relate to the experience in metaphor, but at least the One had created enough tremors in the galaxy to be able to compare it to a few of them.
Gabriel bowed, reverently, as well as anything can do when in the presence of a being that is all and nothing at once. Wordlessly, their whole self caved to the Creator.
“Zechariah has received your word,” Gabriel announced, the echoes of trumpets still ruffling through their golden wings. “Elizabeth will bear him a son.”
There was nothing exact in the response, only a generous patience. Gabriel’s wings drooped, perhaps imperceptibly, but still there was the recognition that not all had yet been spoken.
“He … questioned me,” Gabriel continued. “Challenged me. Would not believe.”
The silence that was the opposite of nothing received this, expectant.
“Is this — truly the way?” Gabriel asked. Their headwings immediately fluttered over their face in shame for questioning. “Of course it is — of course. I only ask …” Gabriel exposed one of many eyes. “Humans are so — frail, so fearful.”
The divine silence seemed to curve up at its edges, an unspoken question.
“I warned him not to doubt,” said Gabriel, with what could be related to a straightening spine. “I struck him mute.”
This was, and Gabriel knew it before it left their coal-black lips, the wrong answer. The room which was not a room exploded and imploded at once. Gabriel felt the compression and expulsion together, a simultaneous gasp and sigh. Four and a half billion years of creation, and there was nothing to compare such wrath to. It was not death, for the One had mercy, but neither was it freedom, for the One did not simply allow all things. Gabriel knelt, flightwings surrounding their body, headwings shuddering, even though the divine fury was gone as fast as it came. Slowly, the angel looked up from between two feathers.
“Perhaps … gentler, the next time,” said Gabriel.
The silence seemed to nod.
Angels, by design, do not breathe, but the mechanics which allow them to create sound comprehensible by something as weak as the human ear are too complex to begin describing. Suffice it to say, by human standards, before appearing in the woman’s room, Gabriel took a deep breath.
“Be not afraid!” they declared, in a multitude of clashing voices triumphant with their six-toned harmony. Their black eyes flashed blue, like lightning splitting a thunderous sky. Their three pairs of wings were a hurricane of feathers, purple and green and gold dancing terrifically with red tongues of fire. They had drawn their blazing sword, the full glory of God’s angelic message revealed.
The woman, dark and lovely with headscarf wrapped tight, hands on a grinding stone and wheat half finished, immediately fainted.
“Less fire next time,” Gabriel murmured in the Presence, and the One might have nodded, if the creator of an ever-expanding universe could be so limited as to have a single head to nod.
Gabriel attempted to appear inside the house, but found there was not enough room to stand. Three girl children were chasing a chicken, who had apparently responded to the terror of the wind outside by fleeing into the main room of the home. Skittering under the family bed, it looked up at a yet-unseen Gabriel with a judgmental expression, as if to say, “One winged creature at a time!”
The angel took her advice, and adjourned outside. There, the mother of the three shrieking daughters was tending to the other two family birds, shooing them away from the path towards the road. The rooster cocked its head to regard Gabriel, then bore his breast and cawed. The woman turned to scold him for crowing the hour at such a wrong time, and then stood stock-still, straw broom only barely stayed in her hand, her dark eyes wide and unblinking.
“Be not afraid,” said Gabriel, but invitationally this time, with dark hands spread wide in a welcome. They waited.
The woman still stared, unmoving. Two of the daughters shrieked again in glee, and her gaze flickered behind the angel to their simple house, and then back again. Was her grip on the broom tightening?
“Be not afraid,” said the angel again, “for among all women you are highly favored.”
Here, the angel expected Zechariah’s disbelief, or the last woman’s shock. They did not anticipate the strange gurgle which escaped the woman’s throat. It took a moment for Gabriel to realize it was laughter. Once the sound began, it overtook her, and she had to set her broom bristles hard into the dust and lean onto the handle to brace herself.
Finally, she composed herself. “Highly favored, so you say. And what blessing have you come to grace me with? Not death, it seems, which might be a blessing to some, but here I still am.”
If angels could frown, Gabriel would have entertained doing so. “You have found favor in the sight of the one you know as God, and you will conceive and bear a son.”
Her hand, so teasingly fierce on the broom, now fluttered to her chest. “A son.”
“A son!” Gabriel was overwhelmed. This was going far better than anticipated. “You will name him Joshua.”
“The Lord saves,” she murmured. “A good and honorable name.”
“And he will be called the son of the Most High,” Gabriel finished, breathless if angels had breath.
Her growing smile, streaked with relief and hope, faded fast. “The — son of the — ”
The angel had studied human reproduction, and felt they had a sufficient grip on its core concepts, but found in this moment that human language failed to capture what was to come. “The — yes. The Holy Spirit will visit you, and the one who you will bear will be holy, the Son of God.”
The woman’s hand decidedly tightened on her broom now. Not in defense–Gabriel was familiar, unfortunately, with a human grip on a weapon–but in resolution. “The … the son of God.” She shook her head. “Not my husband’s child.”
Gabriel winced, if angels could. “Yes, the son of God–not conceived by man.”
“And not to follow in his father’s footsteps, then?” Her eyes fell on the house behind the Gabriel again. “Not to learn his trade, and provide for his sisters, and for his parents in their old age?”
The angel, admittedly, had not been invited into those dimensions of the plan. But in the moment of her question, visions flashed before them: a son homeless and wandering, a father gone, a mother grieving at an early grave.
The woman stared up into what might have been angelic eyes. Her shoulders slumped, her lips parting, but no words could express what could be heard ringing in her heart.
The angel was used to understanding silence.
She blinked, and Gabriel was gone.
This house was glorious, if anything human can be. Columns of cut marble, drapery of rich purple, luxurious couches for the guests to lounge on. And guests there were, waiting just outside for the man and woman of the house to welcome them.
Gabriel manifested in a shadowy nook, where the moonlight from tall windows had failed to fall. The woman was crossing the room, laurel leaves woven into her braided hair, golden earrings catching the light from the fire of the angel’s wings. But she did not see the flickering flames, or the black-blue eyes, or anything else about Gabriel. She walked right past them without perceiving, and met her husband at the double-barred door, and shouted for the servants to open it wide.
Gabriel, taking their leave, watched the house fade around them. For the few moments still present to earth, they could see a small knot of people, a family of some configuration, making their unsteady way down the road. They were haggard and poor, and in the oil lamps of the house their poverty was even more stark. They were hungry, and they had been sent away empty.
They would find, that evening, bread in their bags they did not remember buying, and that tasted better than anything they had ever dreamed of eating. But Gabriel would be long gone.
Angels do not feel exhaustion, as a rule, but the line between metaphor and experience was feeling frayed ever more thin. Gabriel stood in the Presence, wings flickering with light, but drooping with flagging resolution.
The One said nothing, and everything.
Gabriel stood straighter, their manifestation a rejection of everything they’d just received. They shook their head, as if that would clear it, but the vision remained sure: a peasant girl, hair loosely bound back, still living in her parents’ home.
“She’s– barely more than a child…” the angel whispered. And in a flash, Gabriel saw the past and present of thousands of children, able in youth and faith to do what their parents, bound by fear and past commitment, could never bear to do.
The girl was just as Gabriel had seen her: a woman’s height but a girl’s softness, with the pinch of recent hunger still in her cheeks. She was tending a wild rosebush, nimble fingers binding its one struggling bloom to an upright reed, that it might flourish and spread wide in tomorrow’s sun. Gabriel stood, silent, watching what felt like their last chance.
“Greetings, favored one,” the angel murmured. The girl stood, as if she had been expecting company, but when she turned, her eyes were dark with surprise.
The angel and the girl stood there, regarding each other, both feeling the weight of the moment, neither fully understanding.
Gabriel spoke again: “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”
A furrow creased her dark brow, and fear descended to sit across her face. Gabriel nearly started, and remembered to compose themselves. “Don’t be afraid, Miriam,” they tried, hoping against hope that this time it would work.
She was clearly troubled, but did not move, and did not speak.
The angel was accustomed to silence, and plowed on, afraid of making the same mistakes again. “You have found favor with God. So now, you will conceive, and give birth to a son. You will name him Joshua, but he will be called the son of the Most High. The One you call Lord and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
If angels could breathe, Gabriel would have been breathless. Was that enough? Had she understood? Who could, really? Gabriel stood in the presence of the One and was made as messenger to humanity, and they could not begin to understand. How would this — this child?
Her frown resolved into words, and she spoke. “How can this be, when I am a virgin?”
Relieved, Gabriel sighed more than spoke the words. “The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will cover you. The one to be born will be holy, and be called the son of the one you know as God.”
The girl received this, her eyes falling away. Gabriel watched her turning the words over in her mind like a smooth stone in her hand. She was unsure, to be certain, but not unbelieving.
“Your relative, Elizabeth,” Gabriel offered, “is now to have a child, even in her old age. She is now in her sixth month.”
The girl’s head raised quickly, and a smile passed across her face. Gabriel chose not to mention the situation with Zechariah. If the angel knew anything of women and family, Miriam would be shortly on her way to Elizabeth’s side, and the two of them could sort the stories out. To Miriam’s smile, Gabriel only said: “Nothing will be impossible with the one you call God.”
Miriam’s eyes dropped again. On her face, the angel saw play out, one by one, every human emotion they’d come to know. Joy. Fear. Hope, at what was to come. Grief, at what would be given up. Worry, at what would be faced. In her eyes, Gabriel watched the deep self-reflection of a thousand prophets before her, issued invitations they had never expected.
She raised her face, and looked directly at the angel. Her arms were rested by her sides, but palms turning up, a receiving and an offering together.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” She did not nod, but the whole of the universe nodded with her. “Let it happen to me as you have said.”
Angels, strictly speaking, do not fly from earth to heaven, but are in one and then in the other, without the encumberance of physical travel. Gabriel, at this moment, regretted it. They would have benefitted from a good long flight to rehearse what they would say.
In the Presence, they reported as much as they could. Miriam of Nazareth, a young girl, engaged but yet unmarried, had questioned and had said yes. The son of God would now be born into the world. The One who had made–well, everything, would now be made of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen. The One who was beyond language would now cry, and babble, and learn to speak. The One who had laid the foundations of the earth would now learn to cut stone and carve wood, to build doorframes and tables. The One who had freed the Israelites from Egypt would now be crushed under the oppression of Rome. The One who had led the chosen people in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night would now squint in the harsh desert sun and stub his toes in the dark.
Gabriel watched, as if they might see some part of the Presence splinter off and fly towards earth like a white dove. This was ludicrous, of course, and they saw nothing of the sort, but it would have comforted them to think they understood some part of how all this would happen.
“Did it — have to be this way?” the angel asked, through one fluttering headwing. They should not question, and they knew it, but the words tumbled forth regardless. “You know the hearts of all whom you have made. Why send me to all these other women, when you knew they would say no?”
The Presence gave no answer, only the wideness of possibility in humanity.
Gabriel received this, though nowhere as graciously as Miriam had.