In the Old Testament, the standard protocol for angelic appearances is as follows:
1. The angel appears.
The human to whom he appears either
a) does not realize he is an angel and so behaves as he would toward a fellow human being (that is, he makes the angel a nice meal and is hospitable—usually resulting in blessing; or else, like the residents of Sodom, practices such forms of inhospitality as attempted homosexual gang rape, resulting in unpleasantness for the humans); or
b) the human realizes from the get go that he is speaking to an angel and promptly melts into a puddle of terror. This prompts the angel to issue the standard angelic greeting “Fear not!” followed by sundry efforts to get the human to pull himself back together, buck up, and pay attention since the angel (whose very title means “messenger”) is trying to deliver the Lord’s message to the sniveling terrified human who is trembling with terror at the encounter with this superhuman spiritual creature. After some preliminary “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips!” self-reproaches or a few “Wait! I am unworthy! Send my brother Aaron!” attempts to dodge the message or some “Could you give me a sign… or two… or three because I’m really unsure of myself” stabs at putting things off, the human is sufficiently talked back down from his terror to be able to listen to the angel and begin stumbling through the mission he has been chosen for.
It’s that background that lies behind the astonishing story of the Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to the Blessed Virgin. For in Luke, what we see is the Archangel humbled before the human, while the human is, well, not afraid of him. She regards the angel with the same eyes as one who seems to be used to staring into the sun. It’s like she’s done this all her life. It’s as though she knows the One who sent him so well that she’s not dazzled by the presence of this lesser spiritual being. It’s like Gabriel isn’t kidding when he says, “The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). So we do not get from Mary the normal breast-beating over her sinfulness. Indeed, it’s as though she’s not conscious of any sin on her part and feels nothing to be ashamed or abashed about. She is, to be sure, surprised and a bit fearful at the message, but not at the messenger.
Gabriel, for his part, does not greet her with the standard issue “Fear not!” (a reasonable call since she is not afraid of him). Instead, he says, “Hail!” Like “Amen,” “Hail” is a distinctly premodern word. We use it as a joke when we pantomime our kowtows to politicians we find ridiculous and puffed up or when we cheer exaggeratedly for a sports star. We would regard somebody who used it in ordinary conversation as we would somebody who said “thou” or wore Shakespearean garb. That’s because we live in a ruthlessly egalitarian age which has abandoned the snobbery and overt class consciousness of antiquity at the cost of the courtesy and courtliness of antiquity.
Heaven preserves the courtesy without the snobbery. And so the angel Gabriel, a creature vastly superior to humans in the natural order, bows to a young peasant Jewish girl and speaks with the utmost reverence and courtesy in language reserved for greeting a monarch or Emperor. Normally, you said (if you were a Roman) “Hail, Caesar!” But Gabriel bows himself before a teenager in patched clothes from some ditchwater town in a forgotten backwater of Caesar’s great empire and addresses her as royalty. This superhuman being who has perhaps existed since before the Big Bang, who witnessed the breakup of Pangaea, the age of the dinosaurs, the formation of the Himalayas and the long slow anguish of the human race since the Fall has come to this little shack of sticks and stones in Nazareth to declare to this delicate thing of water, protein and spirit that she is to give to Gabriel’s God what Gabriel will never have: the flesh and blood of a man. And, even more astonishingly, she consents—without three years of continual training like Peter, without getting knocked off a horse like Paul, without any of the long preliminary hesitations and backpedalings that characterize Moses, Gideon, Isaiah or even her cousin Zechariah. She hits the ground running: ready, willing and able to say, “Be it unto me according to thy word!”
The name of this girl—for girl she was and scarcely a woman—was Mary. It’s a name with a long and honorable pedigree in the Jewish tradition, harking back to Moses’ sister Miriam and to Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, an ancestor of David. Curiously, it means “bitter”, which is not the sort of thing upscale American parents are looking for as they peruse the baby books for English-sounding power names like “Madison” and “Tiffany” and dream of a daughter with a $500 suit, a cell phone glued to her ear, high cheek bones, severe glasses, a tough corporate handshake, and the sexual prowess to melt the heart of a competitor just enough so that he won’t see the hostile takeover till the barracuda’s jaws snap shut.
These are, after all, the things we celebrate these days in all the commanding heights of culture from NY to DC to LA. And they are a million miles from the weakness and vulnerability of a woman whose life was destined, by divine prophecy, to be bitter indeed. This is one of the reasons deranged feminism hates Mary so much. Mary’s self-surrendering virginity says, “It’s about love, not power.” To the power addict who can only conceive of a world neatly divided between the cunning and the stupid, Mary’s way is the way of death. So, for instance, Simone de Beauvoir recoils from such surrender when she writes of Mary:
For the first time in history the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin—it is the rehabilitation of woman through the accomplishment of her defeat.
For surrender is death, according to the world. And so the world produces men and women who distill the worship of power down to truly bitter dregs, to gain the whole world while losing their own souls. But Mary’s surrender to God leads to the mystery of total dependence on God—and the paradox of happiness through the bitter cross. The Son before whom she kneels is not some selfish boor of this fallen world, but the second Adam who undergoes a defeat far more profound than her own self-surrender so that he may exalt her to a glory above all other creatures. In him and him alone, power and love are reconciled and we find not servility crushed by domination, but humility crowned with glory.
That’s why Gabriel bows to her. For, as Padre Pio said, angels envy us in this alone: that they cannot suffer with Christ as we can. Mary is hailed because the strange favor of God is with her, bestowing on her the bitterness of the Mother of Sorrows, whose heart will be pierced by the same lance that pierced the heart of her Son—and who will receive a glory second only to His when she sees him risen and, in due time, herself shares in his risen life in the Assumption and take her place above even Gabriel—who already sees and rejoices over it as he announces the Incarnation to her astonished ears.
That’s why the Tradition teaches us, in the Hail Mary to first look at her with the eyes of the angels and see the holy envy she ignites in them. For where she is, we too will one day be if we continue in faith in her Son as she did to the very end of ends.