My Christmas story this year is an excerpt from my current project, a novel about angels. Usually we view the Annunciation from Mary’s point of view. But how would the angel Gabriel have experienced it? Read on.
I found Mary at home in her room. She was alone. What I remember especially is the stillness. Outside could be heard the normal bustle of village life. But here with her, within the envelope of her presence—perfect stillness. She wasn’t doing anything. Just sitting. Having drawn water, she had placed the jar nearby, and was seated on the bed. I wouldn’t have said she was resting; not even praying. Just sitting. Hands folded in her lap. Looking, but not at anything outside her. As though waiting. Watching. As if she knew what was coming.
For a few minutes, before appearing, I simply watched in return. Not her: I could not look at her. Truth to tell, I felt star-struck—and that without even comprehending who she was. Who she would be. Often we are in awe of humans, but this was … different. The commission I’d received—so strange! Never before or since have I been dispatched with a message the content of which was kept from me. Go to Miriam of Nazareth, He told me, and when you see The Dove, open your mouth and I will fill it.
Just once I looked into her eyes. They were oceans. Human eyes, yet pellucid as ours. I had to turn away. So I stared at her feet, nonplussed, but also transfixed by how beautiful they were. I had no idea what else to do, what to say, how to begin.
Have you noticed how angels are given some of the flattest lines in scripture? There was so much I would have loved to say. Here was this splendid girl, fourteen, womanly, but still a child at heart, plain-faced yet as lovely (and this confounded me) as The Dove who suddenly appeared overhead and descended, in slow, bright arcs, to come to a hovering rest above her.
It was time. I had to speak. And what do I say? Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women! It astounds me that these homespun words have become the most oft-repeated prayer upon Earth. Last count, I believe, was in the quadrillions. Yet to me, this salutation came out so wooden, stilted—as though I were a nervous teenager initiating a first date. I was nervous. And the poor girl—no wonder she was alarmed, wondering what sort of greeting this might be. Later she would respond to my message with ecstatic utterance. But not now. Now, clearly, she was deeply troubled. And her distress increased mine. So much hung on this meeting; Yahweh had stressed that.
And now here was The Holy Dove, white as light, so bright I had to look away, only to see His image reflected in the water of the jar. Brooding. So the moment was upon me; whatever I blurted out would be recorded forever. Naturally I had to say, Fear not!—our standard opener.
After that, I remember nothing. Yes, what I said is recorded in the first chapter of Luke, where I can read it for myself—and how tremendous it is! But I don’t recall saying a word of it. I know now why my mission was so secret, for I was the first being ever to speak aloud the name of Jesus! Only right that Mary hear it first. As for me, I was overshadowed. As Yahweh had promised, the Spirit took over and my words flowed. But Mary’s response I did hear, and it was perfect. Yahweh had chosen her, I understood, and she chose Him. A marriage! Clear as day, her complexion, eyes large as sky, her body humble as earth, trembling like first stirrings of acacia leaves at dawn, she replied, I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.
Those words—they pierced my soul like a rapier—as if I were being visited by an angel (and indeed, her face shone like one of ours)—as though I were the one receiving an Annunciation—I the one being impregnated.
And so I was. And so were we all, angels and humans. Mary’s one question—How can this be, since I am a virgin?—was my question too, as I sensed something shaken, awakened, at the root of my being. How can this be, since I am incapable of conceiving? But yes, from that day forth the whole cosmos, Heaven and Earth together, as one, became great with child.
(Photo: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner)