In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, 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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘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.’ – Luke 1:26-37 NRSV
Advent, being a time of preparation, uses the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary as a sort of kickoff to the season. Even in churches where Advent isn’t celebrated, Gabriel’s visit is part of every single children’s pageant that conflates the annunciation and birth stories with angels, shepherds and wise men all together. It was no different in the church in which I grew up. The annual Christmas pageant, given on a Sunday night a week or two before Christmas (so all the kids could participate, including the ones who would be off to visit relatives during Christmas itself), was sort of a highlight.
Kids didn’t often get to be more than general people-in-the-pews and so the Christmas pageant was one chance to really strut their stuff, in a manner of speaking. Of course, there was competition; every girl wanted to be Mary and every boy Joseph. Nobody in their fairly right mind would entrust kids with a real infant, so somebody had to provide a very baby-like doll to be Jesus. The roles of the innkeeper, the head shepherd and one king were usually reserved for the kids who wouldn’t freeze up when they had to say something and the rest of the kids were divided by gender into the remaining roles of shepherds and kings (boys) and angels (girls). One of the really BIG roles was that of Gabriel who probably had as much to say as any of the other characters, only Gabriel had only one long (for a kid) speech. It was a plum of a role, and for more years than I can count, I was it.
It didn’t hurt that I had blond hair that could be curled under in a page boy hairdo for the occasion (the only time of year I wore it that way) like the medieval European paintings showed, and it didn’t hurt that I didn’t mind talking in church — audibly this time instead of just providing a whispered buzz in the back pew like usual. The hardest part of the whole role was keeping my arm raised in the air the whole time I was on stage. Still, you have to make some sacrifices for your art, so they say.
Mama had made me a costume, a white robe with gold tinsel around the neckband, crossed over my chest and wrapped around my waist. I even had a halo of tinsel wrapped on a sort of rigged headgear made from what I remember as something that used to be a coat hanger. The big deal was, though, that I had wings, official looking wings. Substantial, silver tinsel-edged wings that were tied on the same way as the tinsel on my costume (and which the tinsel covered very nicely) and looked rather impressive, I thought. And I had those wings all year. They lived in what we called the feed room of our garage behind the house where we stored dog food and Mama’s jellies, jams and pickles. They lay there with the pickles and preserves, waiting for the next year and the next performance. No other kid in York County, I’m sure, had a pair of wings in their garage. Sometimes it seemed like a curse, but hey, once a year I got to shine.
I knew about Gabriel’s role in the annunciation, of course. I can (and did) recite the whole script to prove it. What I’ve learned since has made me more aware of what big wings I had tried to fill. Not just the angel of the annunciation, Gabriel was either an angel or an archangel, depending on the source of information. The name meant “Man of God” or “God’s Might” or “God’s Power,” again depending on which source you use. Gabriel was God’s messenger and has appeared in all three of the Abrahamic religions. In the Jewish scriptures, Gabriel is the angel who appeared to Daniel to interpret visions Daniel had been given but had been unable to understand. In midrash literature, Gabriel is one of the four angels standing at the four corners of God’s throne and who attend God directly while other angels constantly sing praises. Gabriel is also said to have been a sponsor at the wedding of Adam and Eve and a rescuer of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace. Gabriel fights Israel’s enemies while Michael is the guardian of Israel as a nation. For Muslims, Gabriel was the angel who spoke the Qur’an to Muhammad, and was one of the party who visited Abraham in his tent before going to Sodom and Gomorrah to rescue Lot. And then there is the Christian view of Gabriel as the messenger to Mary.
Maybe if I’d been more aware of all Gabriel was supposed to do and have done, I’d have approached the role a bit differently, but as a kid, it was a plum role in an annual Christmas pageant. It was a time to shine, literally and figuratively. And I was the kid with the wings in the garage.