on the Archangel Gabriel
by John A. Hardon, S.J.
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The Archangel Gabriel
St. Luke first identifies the priest Zachary as doing his priestly work of offering sacrifice in the temple. He was a married man and childless. His wife's name was Elizabeth. As Zachary was in the temple about to offer sacrifice, as only the chosen priests were allowed to offer to God, and angel appeared to him, we are told, standing at the right side of the altar. (Over the centuries the Church has taught that at every sacrifice of the Mass, angels are present.) At first the angel said nothing, but on seeing the angel, Zachary was terrified. Note the familiar pattern. When angels appeared, people were frightened, only because they feared what the angels would tell them. Zachary's reaction was consistent with the pattern in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.
Zachary's fear was obvious. So the angel spoke. The archangel Gabriel tell him: Do not be afraid, Zachary, for your petition has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, and you shall call his name John. You shall have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no wine or strong drink. He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb. He shall bring back to God many of the children of Israel. He shall himself go before the Lord in the desert, and in the power of Elijah turn the house of the father's to their children and the unbelieving to the wisdom of the just to prepare for the Lord a perfect people (Lk 1:13-17)
This is part one of what Gabriel told Zachary. And as in the case of Tobias, so now Zachary, except that Tobias believed, Zachary doubted.
Zachary stirred up his courage to talk back to the angel. "Just a minute," he told Gabriel, "are you telling me, an old man, that my wife who has been barren over the years, that she, an aged woman, is going to conceive a child? Come now, you do not expect me to believe this, do you?"
The angel then said to him: "I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God. I have been sent to speak to you to bring you this good news. Behold, you shall be dumb and unable to speak until the day when these things shall come to pass because you have not believed my words. It will not be fulfilled until the time has come." So concludes the Biblical narrative that the Evangelist of angels, St. Luke, tells us about the appearance of Gabriel to Zachary.
If there is one thing we should know about God's revealed truth in Sacred Scripture, it is that it tells us not only what happened in the past; the Scriptures are speaking to us now. Gabriel's message to Zachary is being spoken to all of us. We have much tro learn.
As in the case of Raphael, so here in the speech given by Gabriel. Though the angel was speaking to one man, his words have lasting value until the end of time. We need to apply what we read in Sacred Scripture to ourselves.
We begin with the implications within our own lives. Again, the angel told Zachary not to be afraid, for "your petition has been granted." What is the angel telling Zachary? Elizabeth and Zachary had been praying for years that God might bless them with an offspring. Their prayers were finally being heard. Our deepest fears arise from our doubt in God's Providence. I repeat, our deepest fears are caused by our doubts in God's Providence. By Divine Providence we mean that God is constantly, every moment, providing for our needs.
Of what are we afraid? We might say we are afraid for ourselves. We know ourselves too well, but how we need to conquer our fears and to trust in the providing love of God! Our prayers - let's hear it - our prayers are always heard. God always hears; God know best when and how to answer our prayers. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer.
The angel promises Zachary a miracle. God does work miracles. We should expect miracles. Miracles give credibility to our faith. And let me be clear: to live a life of total fidelity in Jesus Christ in every state of life - whether married, single, religious, those separated from their spouses, priests, religious, or bishops - Jesus Christ will give us light for the mind and strength for the will to remain truly faithful to Him.
The angel is very specific. He tells Zachary that his wife will bear a son, and he will call him "John," which means "gift of God." The angels receive communication from God and direct what God tells them to tell us in very specific terms. This is part of the spirituality in which I was reared.
How we need to distinguish between angelic inspirations and demonic instigations! John the Baptist, the angel told Zachary, will be great before the Lord. Oh how the word greatness is not just misunderstood, but deceptively used in the world today. God wants us, in our own measure, to be great. True greatness consists in being chosen by God and being blessed with His grace. To be great is to have God's grace. Everyone else is not only not great, but unimportant and insignificant. Our greatness depends on the grace we have received from God.
The angel told Zachary that John would be sanctified and he would be, what shall we say, mortified. There is a close relationship between mortification and sanctification. John, the angel predicts, will drink no wine or strong drink. How we, in our affluent society, need to learn the need for living mortified lives! I never tire of telling people that most of the human race goes to bed hungry every night. In Calcutta I saw tens of thousands sleeping in the street, sleeping on the sidewalk, a whole vacant field covered with human bodies, lasting for the night. How we Americans better hear these words! We shall be sanctified in the measure that we are mortified.
The angel goes on. John, Zachary is told, would be holy already in his mother's womb. We know exactly when and how this happened. Our Lady visited Elizabeth, and the moment that Mary's words sounded in Elizabeth's ears, as she told Our Lady, the child stirred in her womb with joy Why joy? He stirred with joy because he was sanctified with the grace of God.
Angels are messengers of God, but they are primarily messengers of God's grace. They are channels of God's grace. In the Church's tradition, we are told, God exercises His Providence. But in His ordinary Providence, He exercises His care for us through the angels, and they are channels of His grace.
Gabriel continues. He informs Zachary that John, already sanctified in his mother's womb, once he grows up, will convert many unbelieving and sinful Jews there in Palestine.
The angels are sent by God to bring back sinners and to convert stubborn unbelievers. But we must listen to the message. If the angels are messengers to us, we must have open ears. And unlike Zachary, we must believe. And believing, we must communicate to others
People must first be converted from sin, and then their minds will be opened to the revealed word of God. And that, the angel tells Zachary, will be the vocation of his son John. He will convert the sinners and bring them back from their evil ways. And then, in the measure they have given up their sinful lives, in that measure will their hearts be open to hear and listen to the world of God.
What a profound and frightening lesson this is to us! Our minds will only be as open to God's words as our hearts are sinless. How academically educated people can be, but if their hearts are estranged from God by sin, then their minds are blind, and their become agents of the evil spirit. That, the angel Gabriel tells Zachary, would be the principal mission of John: to be a forerunner in telling the Jews of Palestine, "You hypocrites, you brood of vipers, you sinners, be converted from your evil ways." And as the next generation grew, those who had indeed been converted from sin, they, and only they, had their minds open to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Zachary heard with his ears, but he did not believe. In fact, he objected. 'How shall I know this?' How stupid of Zachary! Here is an angel foretelling that his wife, who was aged and barren, would conceive. Why doubt the angel's word? After all, Elizabeth would either conceive or not. Once she conceived, then the angel's words would be fulfilled. The lesson for us: hear it, in the category of the Church's law: a heretic is one who denies what God has revealed, such as Christ's divinity, or the Real Presence, or the existence of heaven or hell. A heretic is also one who doubts what God has revealed.
The world in which we are living is a world of massive doubt. And the result is a world in profound misery. Only the humble acceptance of God's word, only faith, brings peace to the mind and joy to the heart.
It is pride, and pride is always behind doubt and denial. In our lives, the angels, our own guardian spirits, are always communicating God's words to us. The secret is to believe what we are being told. Those sincerely seeking to do God's will must trust that the idea in their minds and the impulses in their wills that bring them peace are from God. Trust God. God is the God of peace, and the Son of God became Man is the Prince of Peace. Only believers are at peace. Unbelievers are always troubled - troubled within and troubling everything they touch.
As a result of his doubt, Zachary was punished. He was punished by being deprived of his power of speech. What a lesson we should learn. If only the doubters, if only the dissenters, if only the heretics, the unbelievers were rendered speechless! Only those who should speak and be heard by others are those who believe. Zachary doubted and was punished by not being able to communicate to others. Only certitude should speak. Doubt should be silenced.
Gabriel tells Zachary that he was sent by God to bring good news, and that good news is the Gospel. Faith tells us that the Gospel is the conversion of sinners, the restoration of grace, and the reassurance of God's friendship. How grateful we should be for the good news which was first foretold to Zachary by the angel Gabriel, and announced on Christmas morning to the shepherds, the good news that the Merciful One has restored us to His friendship. We trust that we are in God's friendship. How we need to keep telling ourselves that nothing else in the world has any value; everything else is meaningless, except to be in the friendship of God. Everything in our lives has only as much value as it brings us the grace of God, preserves us in the grace of God, increases in us the grace of God, and enables us after receiving this grace, to share it with others. That is the good news foretold by Gabriel and fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
Mary, Mother of our Redeemer, the same archangel Gabriel whose words were doubted by Zachary, you, Mary, believed. Obtain for us something of your own deep faith in God's speaking to us, so that we firmly believe through His angels who He sends into our lives. Obtain for us, Queen of the angels, some of the deep joy of heart that comes from sharing in the mission of St. John the Baptist of bringing great joy to those who have strayed from God, that is, the Heart of your son. Amen.