When I was five years old I played the Archangel Gabriel in a school nativity. At the time, I didn’t realise I was playing a monster. Because that’s what Gabriel is. He’s a beast from another world, unexpected, dizzying, whorling earths around him in confusion: a fiery question-mark of Elsewhere. (Of all the artists over the centuries to capture this scene, it is only Botticelli who suggests the danger of this angel: is he bowing respectfully to the Virgin, or coiling like a celestial snake, readying for the pounce?)
He greets Mary and tells her the Lord is with her. ‘But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be’. Gabriel’s presence is unsettling, his words unnerving; this is not the rosy-cheeked stuff of Christmas cards. He tells her she will be the mother of God. Her response in the New Revised Standard Version is very civilized: ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ But, given the context, one might legitimately understand here a barely disguised ‘What the fuck?!’
Gabriel continues his onslaught of mysteries, like a loving gunslinger from an alien world. He informs her that her friend, Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, is also pregnant: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God.’
Mary could say no. She could turn and shun this speaking meteor. He is not of her world, he has no claims upon her – she owes him nothing. But she doesn’t say no. She says ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ ‘Here am I’. Those three little words that made creation sing. She stared holy terror in the face and assumed its prophecies willingly. She opened up her very body to the totality of that which she was not, because in the words of an angel she heard echoes of an unattended nearness.
‘Then the angel departed from her’. The burning question descended back into the deepness of things, leaving Mary alone in the dark to ponder her reflection in the infinite.
And then to Elizabeth’s, her friend, to share and celebrate the strangeness of strangers and the birth of something new.