Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
The exchanges that take place early in Luke are unusual, characterized by joy and poetry and extra-terrestrial interlocutors. And the extra-terrestrials apparently so appeared: nobody asks Gabriel, how did you get in here? His face was like the face of an angel, Luke says of Stephen when he is about to speak; or at least he appeared so to his adversaries. What was that like?
What is there in the visage of such a spiritual being and how did it appear in Stephen’s visage? How do they appear, what do they look like anyway? And then the even more interesting question, how do things appear to them?
That is what I begin to wonder about when I read Gabriel’s reply to Mary’s odd question (what was there in what Gabriel said that made her think what he foretold would not take place by the usual means when she eventually got married?). What Gabriel says can be interpreted to mean that there would be divine intervention. But he seems to be trying to do more than describe a miracle: it is as if he wants to explain. He even seems to borrow language from the 91st Psalm in an effort to clothe his understanding in terms that Mary can accept.
The question is, did Mary understand? I wonder. No doubt she was in a better position to understand than I am, and perhaps there was a longer conversation than Luke records (how does Luke know it was Gabriel?). But my interpretation—though I believe that meditation on the words of the angel will be fruitful and of value and should be undertaken—is that more than anything Gabriel is expressing something which shows us his sense of reality and not a human one. How does that “therefore,” for example, really follow from anything said before? It gives me the idea he really thinks he’s putting things in terms that are comprehensible, but it does not leave me understanding what exactly it is he describes.
Perhaps he is and I’m missing it. I wonder though, if it isn’t something that has more to do with angelic participation, and reality as a spirit apprehends it.