By Damien Feeney
What is not widely known about Phidippides is that before he ran the distance for which he is famous — the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens — to proclaim a victory that changed the course of world history, he had in fact already run from Marathon to Sparta and back — a futile round trip of 280 miles — to enlist the assistance of the Spartans in the fight against the Persians. Having returned without the help they needed, he then put on his armor and fought in an army that was outnumbered four to one. Then he ran to Athens with news of a most unlikely victory. Legend has it that, having delivered the message, he dropped dead of exhaustion. I’m not surprised.
Being a messenger has got better, it has to be said. From horseback, to Wells Fargo, from the Pillar Boxes of Anthony Trollope to the Dispatch Riders of two World Wars, from the telegrams of the Royal Mail to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, to Morse code and Marconi, telex, email, SMS and MMS, Facebook, Instagram, and, I am told, WhatsApp on an iPhone which, my children tell me, is a must-have. Our messages today are instantaneous.
When England won the Rugby Union World Cup in 2003, I was so thrilled that I started to scan the Australian Press online to see how they had reported it. There was one report which was outstanding — fair, balanced, and gracious in defeat. I sent email to the journalist concerned in Sydney, Australia, thanking him for what he had written. I was amazed to receive a reply — the whole exchange took approximately four minutes, traveling halfway round the world and back.
And we are inclined to forget that the most successfully communicated message of all — that of God’s plan of salvation for us all — had none of these means of communication. God first spoke through humans – through prophets, who taught the people of Israel to yearn for the day when a Messiah would be born to them. And when the time for this drew near, it was to Gabriel that God entrusted the message which would change all existence — the message that God was to become incarnate, become a tiny fetus in the womb of a young teenage girl — Miriam of Nazareth, who we know as Mary.
This was the way God chose to act, to change the course of our lives. Principally, of course, by becoming human, by entering the world he had created, by sharing our lives and discovering what being a human person was actually like. But the way he made this desire known was through Gabriel, his angelic messenger who had to communicate this plan in such a way that Mary would say “Yes” to God.
Gabriel appeared, and spoke, and what a message! Poor Mary. I suspect that, faithful and holy as she was, it had all come as a bit of a shock. Many people have speculated about what Mary was doing when she first became aware of the presence of Gabriel, but the gospel of Luke doesn’t tell us. What it does tell us is that after he had greeted her, Mary was “much perplexed.” I’d like to suggest that this was probably the understatement of the year. How would you or I react to seeing and hearing an angel? We’d be frightened out of our skins. Which is why Gabriel’s second word to Mary is a gentle one: “Do not be afraid.” No, there is no need to fear, Mary, because the thing for which your people have waited these centuries for is to happen, and it is to happen through you. You are to be the mother of Jesus, the mother of God himself.
Gabriel permits Mary one question: How? How could I be with child? And Gabriel speaks — speaks of God’s action and activity in her life, the way in which she will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, for whom no thing is impossible – and she receives news of her relative, Elizabeth, who even now is carrying a child although she was considered too old — the child who we now know as John the Baptist. And Mary says “Yes” to God. ‘Let it be with me according to your word.
The message was conveyed to Mary in such a way as to bring about the answer “yes.” Not that Gabriel had in any way sugar-coated it to make it sound more appealing — for Mary would know the great risk that was involved to her for being party to all this, since adulteresses could quite easily be stoned outside the city walls — but she had said ‘yes’ to what was being asked of her.
For Gabriel, the job was done. It could indeed be as God had planned it. And so, Gabriel for us is a sign of a successful, fruitful messenger — one who speaks the truth, and whose message is understood so that God’s will is done. That’s not a bad summary of Gabriel’s angelic vocation. It’s also a point of great inspiration for us, gathered in the presence of Jesus Christ, the one made known by the message of an angel.
More than anything at this time faithful Christian woman and men are called to be as Gabriel was – messengers of this Good News, messengers who speak the truth to others, messengers who bear fruit for God by telling others that they have nothing to fear, that they are loved utterly by God, and that because of Jesus Christ, they too, like us, can live, here and now, as citizens of heaven. In order to do that we, too, have to remember the words of Gabriel, “Do not be afraid.” Talking about our faith is something some of us find difficult. Perhaps we worry about what people will think of us. But St. Paul reminds the Church in Rome of the importance of this — their very souls are at stake. Paul says, very bluntly, “For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”
If we do not speak, others will not hear. If others do not hear, they will not respond. It’s as simple as that. Without Gabriel’s words to Mary, how could that young girl possibly have responded to the will of God in her life? But Gabriel did speak, and Mary did respond, and that might be what happens that next time you are asked about, or have a chance to speak about, your faith in Jesus Christ. Do not be afraid. You are backed up by everyone here — we are right behind you! Then there are the 2.18 billion other Christians on the planet. Right with you. And the Saints, angels, archangels, the whole company of heaven, Mary, Queen of the Angels, her wonderful son, who will be particularly pleased, in perfect union with his Father and the Holy Spirit, who knows a thing or two about getting the message across.
Oh, and Gabriel. Gabriel’s right with you. Do not be afraid.
The Rev. Damian Feeney is an interim minister in the Diocese of Wolverhampton, England.