Have you ever been an Advent angel? That’s when you draw a person’s name out of a hat and then, without revealing your identity, find ways to help and support them during Advent—by praying for their needs, performing secret acts of kindness, giving small gifts, and just generally doing them good.
It’s a pleasant custom, but behind it lies an awesome reality. “When the fullness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4), God sent the real Advent Angel with a commission to do good on a cosmic scale. He is Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation. His message to Mary was the revelation of God’s wondrous plan to save the human race by becoming one of us.
During Advent, we prepare for Jesus’ birth by turning our attention to Mary and Joseph and everyone else who first heard the “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). It’s well worth giving some attention to the angel who played the crucial role of first announcing it.
Looking at Gabriel and his appearances to different people, we can glimpse something of God’s great love for us. We see how God continues to do us good by sending his angels to care for us and smooth our way to him. And all of this can help us to draw closer to God during Advent and beyond.
Daniel: Touched by an Angel. Gabriel is a messenger—all angels are. This is what the word for angel means in both Hebrew and Greek. His first assignment is to a man you’ll sympathize with if you’ve ever felt worried about your future or the fate of the world.
That would be Daniel, a Jewish exile with an important position in the Babylonian court five centuries before Jesus’ birth. Prayerful, courageous, and faithful to God, Daniel has the gift of interpreting the mysteries of God’s plan hidden in people’s dreams (Daniel 2, 4). But he becomes terrified and powerless to understand some nightmarish visions of his own that speak of dark times for God’s people (Daniel 7–8, 10).
Gabriel eagerly accepts his mission to Daniel, coming to him “in rapid flight” (Daniel 9:21) and appearing to him three times. He enthusiastically conveys God’s approval. “You are beloved,” he assures Daniel more than once (9:23; 10:11,19). And with a gentle touch, he strengthens the trembling human to stand before his angelic glory and receive the insight he seeks.
Essentially, the message that Gabriel brings Daniel is the one we need ourselves as we face turmoil in our own day: History is not a haphazard series of events. Whatever the dark headlines—terrorist attacks, natural disasters, economic upheavals—we’re in the hands of a loving and all-powerful God. Earthly regimes will rise and fall, and good people will suffer. But this is sure: At an hour no one knows, God will bring evil to an end and establish his eternal kingdom.
Daniel couldn’t foresee just how God’s kingdom would break into the world. But with the gifts that Gabriel brought him, he could live in peace and patient endurance, with a secure hope for the future. “Fear not, beloved,” Gabriel assured him, “you are safe. Take courage and be strong” (Daniel 10:19).
Angels don’t retire, and Gabriel is still an eager messenger. Why shouldn’t we turn to him when we’re anxious about how something will work out—for us or our family, for the church or the world? We keep St. Michael the Archangel busy with our prayers for protection against the devil. Why not ask St. Gabriel to enlighten our darkness with a glimmer of understanding and a touch of God’s love?
Zechariah: Rebuked by an Angel. Angels see things from God’s point of view. Unlike us, they aren’t fooled by a person’s pious exterior or impressed by high position. Otherwise, Gabriel might have gone easier on the next person he visits, Zechariah, the future father of John the Baptist.
Gabriel himself is in a holy inner circle; he is one of “the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12:15). And Zechariah is a priest who serves at the Temple, where God reveals his glory on earth. When Gabriel comes to him, he is offering the evening incense just one doorway away from the Holy of Holies, which is entered by the high priest only once a year. Zechariah is as close to God’s presence as almost any mortal can get!
But this isn’t an old boys̵#8217; club, and Zechariah doesn’t escape Gabriel’s penetrating gaze. The priest’s response to the birth announcement—“How shall I know this?”—may sound like a reasonable question (Luke 1:18). But intimate association with the Searcher of Minds and Hearts enables Gabriel to spot the unbelief that motivates the questioner.
Suddenly, the angel who was so gentle and encouraging with Daniel turns severe. No praise, no “beloveds,” but a stern “I am Gabriel, who stand before God” (Luke 1:19). It’s not me you’re disbelieving, Gabriel implies, it’s the Master I serve, who authorized me to speak to you.
Does Gabriel then strike out at Zechariah or abandon him to his unbelief? That would be out of character. What he does instead should encourage us to trust the angels as our guides to a deeper life with God. Wisely, Gabriel pronounces a punishment that provides an opportunity for conversion: “You will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place” (Luke 1:20).
The nine-month silent retreat brings Zechariah to a change of heart. After naming his infant son John, he breaks into a joyous prophecy about “the tender mercy of our God” and his plan “to shine on those who sit in darkness.” (Luke 1:78-79). Zechariah is a new man! And Gabriel, undoubtedly, is looking on with delight.
Mary: Praised by an Angel. Quite rightly, Advent and Christmas meditations often invite us to reflect on the humility of Christ, who put aside his glory to become flesh and dwell among us. But have you ever thought about the angels as models of humility?
Consider Gabriel’s visit to Mary. It takes place far from the Temple in Jerusalem, in an insignificant little town. He is sent to a young woman who stands way outside the circles of power and prestige. Still, Gabriel hastens to Nazareth with the same readiness he displayed in his missions to influential men. His eagerness here prompts us to ask: “Do I undertake humble, hidden works as enthusiastically as those that showcase my abilities and make me feel important?”
Mary’s neighbors see her as an ordinary person doing ordinary things, like drawing water and making hummus. What Gabriel sees is a woman who “comes forth like the dawn, as beautiful as the moon, as resplendent as the sun, as awe-inspiring as bannered troops” (Song of Songs 6:10). Mary reflects God perfectly, and the angel affirms it: Wow! Awesome! “Hail, favored one!” (Luke 1:28).
As Gabriel receives Mary’s wholehearted yes, he knows that this young woman is on track to becoming the Queen of Angels. Are we as quick to recognize, praise, and advance God’s work in others—especially if we think they are likely to surpass us?
The Shepherds: Energized by an Angel. Gabriel and all the angels “are in the service of your salvation,” wrote Origen, a third-century teacher of the church. In one homily, he imagines them in heaven, embracing this role at the moment of Jesus’ birth: “They say among themselves, ‘If he has put on mortal flesh, how can we remain doing nothing? Come, angels, let us all descend from heaven!’”
Gabriel isn’t named in the story of the Bethlehem shepherds who saw the angels descend in a blaze of light and sing out the “good news of great joy.” But it’s reasonable to suppose that he is “the angel of the Lord” who speaks the message and leads the chorus. Again, for Gabriel it’s another assignment to an unlikely place. Appearing over a field of sleeping sheep would be like a heavenly manifestation over the parking lot of a truck stop.
But what a response! Taking Gabriel at his word, the shepherds put aside fear and open their hearts to joy. Then they imitate the angels in two ways: They praise God, repeating the “glory!” of the heavenly choir (Luke 2:14,20), and they spread the news of Jesus’ birth (2:17). Together with the angels, these unlikely guys become the first evangelists in Luke’s Gospel.
If they did it, so can we! And to help us in our mission, the Church offers us a special Solemn Blessing at all the Masses for Christmas:
God sent his angels to shepherds
to herald the great joy of our Savior’s birth.
May he fill you with joy
and make you heralds of his gospel.
Let’s receive that blessing with open hearts. Let’s remember that Gabriel and all the Christmas angels are present at every Mass, singing the Gloria alongside us and helping us to worship God with everything we’ve got. And let’s call on them to help us as we go forth to love and serve the Lord—and to be one another’s Advent angels all year long.
Louise Perrotta is an editor for The Word Among Us.