Angels: A Six Part Series

Part IV: The Angel Gabriel

We first see the angel Gabriel in the book of Daniel. He protects Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael from the flames of the furnace of Nebuchaneezer.

The angel of the Lord went down into the furnace with Azariah and his companions, drove the fiery flames out of the furnace, and made the inside as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it. The fire in no way touched them or caused them pain or harm (Dn 3, 49-50).

Note the correlation between the presence of angels and the praise of God, a correlation evident throughout the entire Scriptures.

They walked about in the flames, singing to God and blessing the Lord. In the fire Azariah stood up and prayed aloud: 'Blessed are you, and praiseworthy, O Lord, the God of our fathers, and glorious forever is your name. For you are just in all you have done; all your deeds are faultless, all your ways right, and all your judgments proper (Dn 3, 24-27).

In the presence of angels, we are inclined to utter the praises of God; for the angels have a direct vision of God, and the heat of the divine love exudes from their very person, as the heat of a piece of wood taken from a fire will communicate itself to whatever is near it. Human persons seem to be drawn into the spirit of their praise and receive a portion of their joy.

The universe itself is profoundly religious; for the universe is a liturgy that constantly sings the praises of God, and it was only in the presence of the angel Gabriel that the three of them were awakened to this liturgy.

You heavens, bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever. All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever. All you hosts of the Lord, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Sun and moon, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Stars of heaven, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever..." (Dn 3, 59-63).

These praises continue for another sixty-two verses. Perhaps it isn't unreasonable to suggest that the entire cosmos is awakened to the praises of God through the very presence of angels. After all, Cardinal Newman writes:

I say of the angels, "Every breath of air and ray of light and heat, every beautiful prospect is, as it were, the skirts of their garments, the waving of the robes of those whose faces see God." Again, I ask what would be the thoughts of a man who, "when examining a flower, or a herb, or a pebble, or a ray of light, which he treats as something so beneath him in the scale of existence, suddenly discovered that he was in the presence of some powerful being who was hidden behind the visible things he was inspecting, who, though concealing his wise hand, was giving them their beauty, grace, and perfection, as being God's instrument for the purpose, nay, whose robe and ornaments those objects were, which he was so eager to analyze?" and I therefore remark that "we may say with grateful and simple hearts with the Three Holy Children, "O all ye works of the Lord...bless ye the Lord, praise Him, and magnify Him for ever."' (Apologia pro Vita Sua, III: History of My Religious Opinions, 1833)

We learn from Daniel that Gabriel is the angel of strength and consolation. He is the angel of the Incarnation, the angel of joy and mercy, the angel whose appearance heralds extraordinarily good news. For it was Gabriel who announced the defeat of the kingdom of darkness through the "weakness" of the cross:

But when he rises against the prince of princes, he shall be broken without a hand being raised.... Everlasting justice will be introduced, vision and prophecy ratified, and a most holy will be anointed. (Dn 8, 25)

In chapter ten, Daniel describes his vision of Gabriel, a description highly metaphorical. Firstly, "His body was like chrysolite" (6). Transparency seems to be a characteristic of angelic apparition. What is transparent does not block the transmission of light. In this way, crystal represents a kind of selflessness. Gabriel was full of the divine radiance. He is penetrated with light, and so he can illuminate.

"His face shone like lightning, and his eyes were like fiery torches" (6). Of all the parts of the body, it is the face and eyes that reveal most fully the true character of a person. Gabriel is so near to God, who is a consuming fire (Heb 12, 29), that his "eyes" have become transformed into the object they behold. Gabriel's face is aglow with fire, a symbol of the divine love.

"His arms and feet looked like burnished bronze, and his voice sounded like the roar of a multitude" (6). All these point to the strength of the angel, and the sound of his voice implies his "supra-human" nature, or preternatural nature. The superiority of an angel over ordinary human beings is exceeding. An angel is more powerful than a human army, and inconceivably more intelligent than the most brilliant of human intellects. Man's intellect is weak, sluggish and historical, subject to time and in a sense encumbered by matter and sensation. What students routinely do in mathematics classes today, for example, took centuries of hard labour for the most brilliant human minds to discover and develop. And the most profound philosophical concepts that were the result of centuries of intellectual labour -- which, when finally known, are in fact quite simple -- take decades for an intelligent human person to appreciate and understand. Even the knowledge of history takes years to acquire, and it requires a great deal of reflection on that knowledge in order to benefit from it. That is why human persons are constantly repeating history's errors. But an angel is not subject to the passing of time. Their knowledge does not begin with sensation in order to end in intellection. Their knowledge is intellection from the beginning. The angel is created with its intelligible species, and so it knows all that it knows from the very beginning of its existence.

Daniel's vision of Gabriel symbolically represents his intelligence, holiness (transparency), and strength. This vision was so overpowering that it drained Daniel of all his strength; for "he turned the color of death" (8). His heart was struck with fear. If the vision of one angel was able to render Daniel -- a just man and beloved of God -- powerless and almost lifeless, what would the vision of a multitude of angels effect? "When I heard the sound of his voice, I fell face forward in a faint" (9). It is reasonable to hold that no human person could behold such a sight without being given a special grace to withstand the vision. It was Gabriel's touch that strengthened Daniel.

The one who looked like a man touched me again and strengthened me, saying, "Fear not, beloved, you are safe; take courage and be strong." When he spoke to me, I grew strong and said, "Speak, my lord, for you have strengthened me". (Dn 18-20)

Because "Gabriel" means "strength of God", it is reasonable to assume that it was Gabriel who came to Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane: "And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him" (Lk 22, 43).

Zechariah saw Gabriel, and his vision was troubling as well. He was standing at the right of the altar of incense, which represents the angelic office of presenting the prayers of the saints to God; like incense, the prayers of the faithful rise, and they do so by virtue of the angelic ascension to the presence of God (Cf. Rv 8, 4).

Gabriel's message to Zechariah begins, as always, with "Do not be afraid." And he announces good news: "Your prayer has been heard: You will have joy" (Lk 1, 13-14). John will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb, thanks to Mary's visit (Lk 1, 41-42). He explains that John will go before Christ in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the disobedient to righteousness, to prepare a people fit for the Lord. In this John imitates the angels of the nations, who prepare a people for conversion (Cf. Danielou, The Angels and Their Mission. c.1).

The news Gabriel announces is extraordinarily good, a gospel in the true sense of the word. But Gabriel immediately detects the weakness of Zechariah's faith: "How shall I know this?" He has forgotten the precedents in his own history, such as Sarah and Abraham. The presence of the angel is not enough for Zechariah, and so in punishment for his decision not to believe, he is struck dumb until the child is born.

Consider the difference between Zechariah's response and that of Mary. Gabriel addresses her not by name, but by title: "full of grace." Mary is not only full of grace intensively, but also extensively. She was full of grace from the instant of her existence in the womb. And yet she too is troubled by the vision of the angel. Gabriel responds characteristically, "Do not be afraid..." and he announces the Good News: "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1, 31-33). But Mary does not ask: "How shall I know this?" Rather, she asks: "How can this be, since I know not man?" She does not doubt the truth of his words. On the contrary, she seeks to be illumined. After the angel's explanation, she immediately adds: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 1, 38).

Next Page: Part V: The Angel Michael
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