By Amy Richter
As Mary started to sing, the archangel Gabriel smiled. Of all the things humans could do with their voices, singing was his favorite. It wasn’t that their singing was always perfect — far from it. Unlike the angel choirs, whose harmonies always blended perfectly, who never lost track of the tempo, who followed the conductor with unwavering attention. So many factors affected human song: dryness in the throat, cold and flu season, shyness, the ridiculous notion some humans believed, that only some people can sing, or should. But more than anything else, Gabriel had noticed, human singing was affected by emotion.
Humans were always feeling something, even if they kept those feelings stuffed down deep inside. Very often those feelings came out when they sang. Gabriel noticed that after a visit from him, people’s songs had a note of joy, a sparkle, a lift. He was especially impressed that humans could be terrified at one moment — “Don’t be afraid! Fear not!” was always the first thing he said when approaching them, just to keep them from fainting or shaking so hard at being encountered by an angel that they might miss what he had to tell them. And after hearing his news—always good—they could sing with such deep joy it brought him to tears.
Gabriel had been very busy recently. The Almighty One had tapped Gabriel on the shoulder one morning and told him to get ready, there were a lot of really important messages to be delivered. Crucial things were underway, and though it was God who was doing the planning, humans’ cooperation, their free acceptance of God’s plan, was of the utmost importance. These messages were of such great consequence, God was sending the Archangel Gabriel, highest-ranking of all heralds, to deliver the news.
About six months before the mission to Mary, God sent Gabriel to see a priest named Zechariah. Zechariah was an old man, married to an old woman named Elizabeth. They were righteous people, loved each other very much, kept all the commandments, but they had no children. Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed about this for years, asking, if it was God’s will, for God to let them have a child. Now Gabriel got the word from God: it’s time. Go tell Zechariah, “Your prayers have been heard and the answer is yes! Your wife will have a son and you will name him John.”
So Gabriel went. He started with his usual, “Do not be afraid,” then gave Zechariah the good news. “You’re going to have a son! Name him John!” Gabriel held his breath. You never knew how humans would respond.
“How can this be?” asked Zechariah. “Elizabeth and I are really old.”
Gabriel sighed. He couldn’t help it. He always got annoyed when humans prayed for something, then put up resistance when God answered their prayer. As if God didn’t know they were old. As if God could create the entire universe but couldn’t figure out how to create a baby in an old woman’s womb. Please. Gabriel rolled his angelic eyes and sparks of flame filled the room. He thought about opening a dialogue with Zechariah, seeing if he could help Zechariah better understand his reticence to receive good news. But then Gabriel thought better of it. Zechariah was a priest and should have known better, so Gabriel took a more direct approach.
“I am Gabriel,” he said. “I stand in the presence of God. God sent me to you with good news. But instead of jumping up and down for joy and saying thank you, you said, ‘No way! That’s impossible.’ So, before you say anything else stupid, I’m going to strike you silent. When the baby’s born and he’s named John, you’ll get your voice back.”
Zechariah tried to protest, but found all he could do was wave his arms.
Gabriel left, and, just as he said, Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, was with child. For nothing is impossible with God.
The next message Gabriel had to deliver was just as exciting. Gabriel loved delivering news about babies. This message, though, might be even more unexpected, because he knew the recipient had not been praying for a baby. Not yet, anyway.
He went to Mary’s house. “Fear not,” said Gabriel. “You have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary said to Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel paused. He could understand her bewilderment. If Elizabeth’s pregnancy showed God’s ability to do strange and wonderful things, a virgin giving birth took “impossible” to a whole new level. He thought about trying the “If God can created the universe, why can’t God make a single little baby?” approach.
Gabriel actually had a whole list of things he thought were amazing accomplishments in creation that show that God can do anything: the Grand Canyon, giraffes, the swirling, starry sky. Gabriel was often baffled when humans failed to believe that God could do great things when, if they just looked at the world around them, or looked in a mirror, they could stop using that human word “impossible.” Sure, there is a lot that for humans is impossible. But not for God.
But Gabriel didn’t want to waste any time and in the end decided this approach would be better. He said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Gabriel held his breath. Everything depended on what Mary said next. It was up to Mary. God would never proceed with this plan if Mary said no, if Mary said, “No way,” or “It’s impossible,” or “Not now.” Mary could tell him to go jump in a lake, stop kidding around, or go find somebody else. Gabriel noticed that his knees were knocking just a little bit. With his finely tuned archangel ears he could hear ranks of angels circling above saying in hushed breaths, “C’mon Mary, say yes!”
Then Mary said, ‘”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
She said yes! She said yes!
What she couldn’t hear was a heavenly chorus singing in perfect 64-part harmony, “She said yes!”
Gabriel turned to leave. He would be back in nine months to give some shepherds some really good news — so good, he would bring a whole angel choir with him. It would be spectacular. They had already begun rehearsals. But that was getting ahead of the story.
It was time to go, for now, but he didn’t go too far away. He wanted to stay close enough to see what Mary did next. He wasn’t surprised that she went to see Elizabeth, with whom she shared a secret that wasn’t one: that nothing is impossible for God. And whether one prays for a miracle or says yes when one is offered, the best response is “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
Gabriel smiled as Mary lifted her reedy voice and sang from deep within herself, a place already shared by a growing baby, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Gabriel knew that Mary was singing for every poor mother who had ever wondered if God really cared, for every hungry father who wondered if God would provide, for every person who had ever been afraid that God would give up on the world because people were so slow to believe or unwilling to participate in God’s plans to put all things right. Gabriel knew that more people would sing with joy if only more people would say, like Mary had, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter is a priest who serves as an Episcopal Volunteer in Mission.